Critical Mass Top 50, 2011

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Carolyn Drake

The Syr Darya, Uzbekistan 2008

Water Treatment, Kazakhstan 2009

The City of Khujand, Tajikistan 2009

Irrigation Pond, Turkmenistan 2009

Lunch on Navrus, Uzbekistan 2007

Swimmer, Turkmenistan 2009

Preserved, Kazakhstan 2009

Shamanic Healing, Tajikistan 2008

Hotel Lobby, Uzbekistan 2010

Imprint of a Swimmer, Kazakhstan 2010
Carolyn Drake

Paradise Rivers is a book project that follows the Amu and Syr rivers through Central Asia, crossing into the lives of people and layers of history that they intersect along the way. The rivers and the pictures flow through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The project evolved from a traveler’s curosity and an interest in expanding my understanding of the former Soviet Union and Islam, two categories that have sequentially permeated and molded public thought during my lifetime. What I encountered along these rivers was a more complicated history than can be bundled into categories, and a visceral experience of the role that water plays in supporting life, civilization, and empire. The Amu and Syr rivers have sustained human life for 40,000 years. Once the center of the known world, their water enabled the development of herding and farming, religion and language, science, and a succession of conflicts over the centuries. Medieval writers who spread Islam along the rivers describe them as two of the four rivers of Paradise. When the Soviet Union took control, it transformed the rivers into a web of irrigation canals, a restructuring that weakened local communities, strengthened the central government, and produced a cotton industry to rival America’s. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, the five Central Asian nations that emerged faced plunging economies, convoluted borders, ideological upheaval, and a growing environmental crisis. I have found Central Asia to be a place where the connection between the earth, human life and history is at once plainly visible and complex, as are the consequences of environmental neglect. I am interested in the idea of the rivers as natural connectors in a region that has been divided and weakened by artificial borders. By following the rivers, Im trying to look past the divisions created by politics to glimpse what came first, what enabled life to emerge in the first place.