Solmaz Daryani, The Eyes of Earth

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by FotoEvidence (here). Hardcover, 128 pages, with 50 color photographs and 12 images from the artist’s family archive. Includes texts by Amir AghaKouchak, Manoocher Deghati, and the artist (in Farsi, French, and English). Design by Fernanda Fajardo and Joao Linneu. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The Eyes of Earth is a very personal photobook about environmental disaster by the Iranian photographer Solmaz Daryani. Daryani shares a moving story about growing up on Lake Urmia, located in northwestern Iran; her family used to run a lakefront hotel in the tourist port of Sharafkhaneh. For years, tourists from around the country would drive long hours to the lake, which was then a thriving vacation destination. The lake also attracted a wide variety of migratory birds, such as pelicans, ducks, flamingos, and egrets. Lake Urmia used to be one of the largest natural saltwater lakes in the world, but in the past decades, the lake has dried out, shrinking in size and losing about 88 percent of its surface area. While climate change has definitely contributed to its decline, water mismanagement (in the form of illegal wells, water overuse, new dams, irrigation projects, etc) is the main cause of the desiccation. Today, Lake Urmia is barely a tenth of its original size.

The Eyes of Earth is a horizontally-oriented book, relatively small in size, and its presence creates an intimate photobook experience. The book immediately stands out with its bold cover – the contours of the lake are embossed in shiny red on the blue cover, the lines marking how the lake has shrunk over the years. A more detailed map of the lake is placed on the endpapers, and inside, the visual flow is closely interwoven with the hand written captions, guiding us through the narrative.

The book opens with an essay by Amir AghaKouchak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, who recalls an emotional moment when during a presentation showing slides of the shrinking lake, his childhood memories “of sailing on the lake and enjoying the magnificent nature of the area” took over and he broke into tears in front of a large audience. This essay is followed by another personal remembrance by Manoocher Deghati, who spent his childhood summers on Lake Urmia. “We, the children, would go for swims or donkey rides by ourselves, for the place was safe and the salty water prevented even the unskilled swimmer from drowning.” The writings set a very personal introduction to the images that follow.

An old black and white photo of a boat by a pier begins the visual narrative. The next spread shows a more recent picture, probably of the same pier, but the water is now gone, and a rusty boat rests on dry land. And then, a small photo from 1969 captures a sunny day on the lake with locals in the water, and the neighboring shot on the right captures the artist’s grandfather back in 1979, sitting on a rock by the lake as sun reflects off the water. Throughout the book, Daryani interweaves photographs from her family archives, mixing happy memories of the lake with more recent shots. In the layout of the book, fragments of images appear as thin lines and crops placed on the edges of the pages, reinforcing the linked connection between the past and present. 

In one spread further along in the book, Daryani pairs two photographs: one taken by her father back in 1992 showing a structure (it was used to repair ships in the water) in the background surrounded by water, and a more recent photo from 2018 showing the same structure, but now with a salt-crusted landscape. The water is entirely gone, and this powerful juxtaposition captures the dramatic changes over a relatively short period of time. Another large horizontal image shows us a person walking on the dried out area of the lake, the poles covered in solidified salt stand as a reminder of the lake’s glorious past. Daryani’s almost apocalyptic images document the degradation of the area: the decaying piers that today lead nowhere, the rusting bench buried in the mud, and the now deserted concrete flamingo statue that used to greet visitors. 

The Iranian government has established a national committee in an attempt to restore the lake, and while some signs of recovery seem promising, it is likely to take decades before the lake can potentially return to its healthy shape. But the photos of deceased people who used to live around the lake hung on the wall of the mosque in Sharafkhaneh port are more ominous. The lake shaped the lives and identities of many people, and as it disappears, it has left a deep emotional wound in the memory of people. Daryani dedicated the book to her grandmother, “an illiterate woman who knew the importance of balance between humans and nature and managed to plant more than 800 trees during her lifetime.” At the end of the book, a wide spread with foldouts shows all the photographs together, mapping how they were laid out and edited, and additional notes connect the entire narrative into one integrated visual story. 

The Eyes of Earth is a sensitive photobook that reminds us of the fragility of our environment. As the impact of human activities grows more apparent, artists gets more personal too, shifting from conceptual to more intimate and direct projects. Daryani’s work brings to mind other personal accounts of the effects of climate change and other environmental degradation, like the Polish artist Małgorzata Stankiewicz’s photobook Cry of an echo (reviewed here), where she takes a stand against the logging of the Białowieża Forest, an ancient forest located on the border between Poland and Belarus. Although different in their approaches, both books remind us of the unparalleled beauty of our planet as well as the very severe consequences of irresponsible human activities. Projects like these, which make broad changes feel starkly personal, will hopefully encourage readers to more deeply consider our impact on the planet.

Collector’s POV: Solmaz Daryani does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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