The Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers stretch from the western edge of China across Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, spanning a distance of 2,500km. They are the lifeblood of the vast, landlocked region between China, Russia, Iran and Afghanistan. The Greeks knew the two rivers as the Oxus and the Jaxartes. An islamic hadith holds that they are two of the four rivers that flow into Paradise. The Silk Route linking China to Europe followed the paths of the rivers.
After the Soviet government took control of the region in 1917, it began one of the most ambitious engineering projects in world history, diverting massive quantities of water from the rivers to bring cotton production to an area too arid to sustain such a thirsty crop. Such large quantities of water were diverted that the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake, began to disappear. When Moscow’s rule ended in 1991, five new Central Asian nations appeared, burdened with failing economies, incongruous borders, and a growing environmental crisis. The Aral Sea has nearly vanished, replaced by salt and dust storms.
Two Rivers follows the rivers from their endpoints to the source. It is a photographic record of a place where political allegiances, ethnic bonds, national borders, and physical geography are in constant flux; a vast ecosystem where nature, money, and history are intertwined.
Carolyn Drake studied Media/Culture and History in the 1990s at Brown University, where she became interested in the ways that history and reality are purposefully shaped and revised over time, and in the ways that artists can interrupt and shift these narratives. She worked for multimedia companies in New York after graduating from college, but eventually left her office job at the age of 30 to engage with the physical world through photography. In 2006, she moved to Ukraine, where she spent a year examining cultural partitions in a country pursuing a unified national identity - a cloistered Soviet era orphanage near the European border; private, state-owned and illegal coal mining groups vying for influence in the Donbass; Crimean muslims claiming land rights. She made images everywhere, not as much for historical documentation as to come to terms with presumptions stemming from her Cold War childhood in the USA. The experience made her question the journalistic impulse to define, and to look for ways photography can emphasize ambiguity.
Based in Istanbul between 2007 and 2013, Carolyn traveled frequently to Central Asia to work on two long term photography projects. The first, “Two Rivers,” is a poetic exploration of the shifting borders, histories, and life systems between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. The interconnectedness of ecology, culture and political power come to view in a territory on the edge of global attention.
The second Central Asia project is an amalgem of photographs, drawings, and embroideries made in collaboration with Uyghurs in western China. Framed between passages from Nurmuhemmet Yasin's contraband story "Wild Pigeon," the book puts forth a counter narrative about China's western frontier, Islam, and the freedoms associated with modernity. In the collaborative images, contrasting visual tools intersect, drawing attention to the awkward, difficult, sometimes beautiful cultural exchange that lies at the root of this series.
Carolyn returned to the US in 2014 and is now based in Vallejo, California. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the Lange Taylor Prize, a Fulbright fellowship, and the Anamorphosis prize, among other awards. She joined Magnum Photos as a nominee in 2015. She is currently making work in the US and Ukraine.