German photographer Maximilian Mann describes his style as “poetic and calm”, aiming to show the beauty and fragility of nature, which is exactly what he portrays in his ongoing project called Fading Flamingos. Documenting the environmental changes happening in Lake Urmia in Iran, the series is a reminder of the ongoing impact our environmental misunderstandings have in every corner of the world.
“Lake Urmia was once the second largest salt lake in the world,” says Mann. “However, within a few years, the surface area of the lake has shrunk by 80%. Both climate change and the agriculture sector’s enormously high water consumption rates are responsible for this. If this disaster is not stopped, up to five million residents could be forced to leave the area in the future.”
It was when Mann was doing research that he first came across this particular area of Iran, nestled between the provinces of East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan. “When I first read about Lake Urmia, I was very surprised as I had never heard anything about it before,” he explains. “A few weeks later I went there for the first time and was shocked by the extent of the catastrophe.” The turquoise lake was once a tourist trap for visitors who believed the lake had therapeutic properties. Today, what’s left is a vast, salty expanse of land with diminishing pools of water, beached boats and dusty salt clouds littering the landscape.
The lake’s shrinkage is thought to be mainly due to water overuse in an area where water is already scarce, where agricultural systems are inefficient, and new building projects such as bridges across the lake and dams disturb the ecosystem. A decline in rainfall and rises in temperature, as in many places, are also thought to have contributed to the now desert-like lake.
While Mann was interested in the aesthetic impact these changes have had on Lake Urmia, the photographer was also keen to convey the lives of the people who still depend upon the lake to live off and make a living from.
“I made good friends, learned a lot about the lake, the consequences for the people living there, and also about their culture and hospitality,” says Mann. “I had never experienced this level of hospitality in any other country before and it’s something we can probably learn a lot from. People were so interested in talking to me, I always got into conversation very quickly.”
The bonds he formed with the people he met gave him greater access to the community of Lake Urmia, resulting in a set of portraits of the residents in their homes or at work that feel thoughtful and considered. This connection between subject and photographer is one of the reasons why Mann studied photography in the first place. “You meet people you wouldn’t otherwise meet,” he says. “The camera works for me a little like a key to a lock. Without the camera I would not be able to connect with people so intensely and be a part of their everyday lives.”
Mann visited Lake Urmia three times, once in summer, once in autumn and once in winter, and each time he captured something new. By mixing portraits with landscapes and more documentary-style images, the photographer has built a richer picture of Lake Urmia than the aerial shots that are most typically shared when talking about the area. “I think you get a better feeling for the place through the different layers,” says Mann.
Fading Flamingos is a reminder that as much as we talk and read about the stark and sudden environmental changes happening across the world, there are always real people navigating them in real time, unsure of what the future might hold.
This fragility and uncertainty can be felt in Mann’s desaturated colour palette, where the salt-scorched lake feels almost blindingly bright against the pale blue sky. However, pops of orange, pink and yellow through flowers and clothing serve as signs of life in this barren land.
In the spring and summer of 2019, shortly after Mann had last visited the lake, massive flooding in Iran helped the lake regain some of its water level, offering some hope. But the way resources are extracted still remains an unsolved problem in the area and it’s up to the powers that be to make a difference. The photographer hopes Fading Flamingos doesn’t just capture this ever-changing landscape but also acts as a call to action.
“Climate change is a very relevant topic and of course it’s important to explore it in a complex way. Photography can draw attention to its issues and evoke emotions, but I am still frustrated,” says Mann. “In my opinion we have less of a problem with knowledge now, we have a global problem of inaction. In industrialised nations such as Germany we are doing far too little. It’s simply unfair that people who are least responsible for climate change and environmental shifts are faced with the biggest problems.”