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The biennale
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Where identity is born

The story of a lake that is turning into a salt desert, and the story of a family and of a feeling of emptiness. For the young Iranian photographer Solmaz Daryani, the evolution of a landscape can be read through the eyes of those who live there

A territory dotted with shipwrecks, moored on a stretch of land and salt; closed businesses that recall the golden years of tourism; small groups of children playing pirates aboard abandoned boats. Something is missing in Solmaz Daryani's shots, there is a void in her images, something that has been there and whose presence is now felt, something that belonged to everyone and seems to have been omitted. In those photos there is no water, which used to define the landscape and marked the life of the inhabitants of a suspended place in the north-west of Iran, Lake Urmia, once the second largest salt basin in the world, a hidden corner of the planet that used to give a living to thousands of people, thanks to tourism.
Daryani's The Eyes of Earth project tells the void created by the disappearance of water in the landscape and in the lives of local people through the story of her family, originally from Sharafkhaneh, a village on the Iranian shores of Urmia. She started documenting its evolution in 2014, when the level had reached an all-time low, then continued to follow the phases to raise awareness on the water crisis in Iran and the devastating effects of mismanagement of resources and the expansion of the agricultural sector, which since 1972 have caused the lake to lose 88% of its spread and 80% of its volume.
In Daryani's eyes there is a void, between the memories of her childhood spent in Sharafkhaneh -the small village that shaped her identity- and the desert today. The same void that is felt in front of the pictures of the project, in which the artist has combined old photographs, full of life, with the interrupted landscapes taken in recent years, in which nothing is as it once was. Daryani speaks of that emptiness with all the love she’s capable of, the love that often, only places know how to leave us with. 

The Eyes of Earth. Why did you choose this title for your project? It's strange to tell, but two years after starting the project I still hadn't found a name, I wanted to choose one that was really relevant to my story, that was related to the people who live and have lived on the lake, but also with the environment. I found it in a quote from Henry David Thoreau that couldn’t fit me more, he says that "a lake […] is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature". That sentence spoke precisely to me because that lake holds the most beautiful moments of my life, of my family, of my grandparents.

The landscape speaks to us, it holds our identity. It is not just a body of water, it contains the memories of generations and generations. I remember the lake since I remember myself, since I started breathing and walking

As young girls we didn't have much to do in Iran, especially in my generation, we couldn't go out and play together. Even as a teenager it was not very "normal" to go alone in the forest, for example. In my class, where there were about forty students, I was the only one who had the freedom to wander around my grandmother's town, because everyone knew her. I could take my bike, a book and go read under a tree, swim in the lake alone. This gave me a lot of freedom, which shaped my identity.

Maybe that lake, for the rest of the planet, is just a small dot on the world map, but for me it is all I am today

How is the situation today? A few days ago I returned to Sharafkhaneh, my grandmother's village, because I was in the south of the country shooting a reportage for the New York Times. I went for a walk on the beach and there was no lake, there was no water to wet my feet, one had to walk for miles to find it. This was one of the worst years in the last half century, so much so that protests over the water crisis have resumed in many areas of the country. The dry and very hot summer also dried up the little water that was there in recent years, despite the programs put in place by the government that had helped to stem the emergency. "We won't know what water to give people to drink this winter," this is what a friend who works in the administration told me. People are shocked, but they do not admit that this situation has also arisen because of them. If you need to modernize your garden irrigation system to avoid consuming too much water, you do. The point is that many do not take on their responsibilities and we know that about 90% of the water goes to agriculture. You can't just blame the government, which certainly is responsible as well. People could use a small part of their earnings to innovate irrigation methods and make their contribution to stem the crisis. Instead, people do nothing and when the lake dries up they complain. We are becoming more and more irresponsible and selfish, we always blame others, but each of us has a responsibility. We must take care of our environment and it must be a care that comes from the heart.

Each of us has childhood memories linked to a landscape. I hope this story can evoke in people the same kind of feelings it aroused in me, to understand how precious they are, because they are not just about a lake in Iran, but they belong to all of us

In the project you combine old family photos with those of the lake taken in recent years. How did you choose the kind of visual narrative you wanted to give to your story? It was a coincidence, I only recently added family images. A year ago I was staying at my mom’s and we were looking at old photo albums, like we often do, especially since my grandmother is gone. We have many albums because my dad was passionate about photography when he was young; there weren't many who had a camera at the time. He had a small Zenit and I remember that he always took it with him, to the park, to the lake, on a trip, to the city. And since we used to go to my grandmother's at the lake every weekend until I went to college, and my dad always went there even before I was born, we have a lot of photos. The funny thing is, I always thought they were so boring and I was wondering why he kept them. But suddenly, when I resumed the project to make a book, I started looking at those shots with another eye, I realized how precious they were and that I could have placed them close to mine. It was a surprise to see how places had changed over time. Among the vintage photos there are also some shots taken by my uncle, who took tourists around the lake with his boats. There are my relatives, the bathing tourists, grandfather's guests. He had a motel, which has been in ruins for the last fifteen years: my mother's family had built it with their bare hands. In the summer he used to live there for three months, he loved talking to his clients, strangers or foreigners. Sometimes, if there were no free rooms left in the guesthouse, he would take them home with him. Unfortunately, from year to year, when the season opened in April, fewer and fewer people came. One of the last summers there were only four, the next, none. 

In many shots it looks like the colors evaporated together with the water and were enlightened by the salt flats. The salt lake is very bright, I wanted to give the idea of the brushstrokes of a watercolor, that's why I chose those colors. Actually, a year earlier, I had started shooting black and white images because I liked it, more experienced photographers in town used it. I was on my first project, I trained on my own, so I needed to experiment, because at the time I was working full time for a telecommunications company, since I have a degree in computer science. Photo after photo, I realized that my childhood memories were not black and white at all, they were filled by the colors of that landscape, of my grandmother, and I wanted to convey those emotions. 

What role does salt play in the story?For me it is purification. There is nothing scientific, of course, but there are many beliefs and legends about the powers of the salt of Lake Urmia. Whenever we got sick, for whatever reason, my grandmother would send us swimming in the lake and it really worked. Water, for her, was always her cure, and it's the same for me too. Even when I go to the village, maybe I am in a very bad mood and have thoughts because in Iran we are going through a difficult period due to the economic crisis. When I go there and there is no one for me it is like therapy, it is a remote and special place. For me it is the place to escape to, the lake isn't there anymore but there is a salt desert; I love the creaking I feel under my feet as I walk. 

What is photography for you? It was freedom for me: I started traveling more, talking with people more, seeing their jobs, which for many women here was more difficult. It was not easy because my family, although it was my dad who gave me my camera and was not a conservative, and my parents still obeyed the social rules: they didn't want me to go alone to very distant places. I did it secretly, I got up at five. Nobody encouraged me, on the contrary they asked me why I wasted my time with photography, they said: "You already have a good job, you’re risking your life". Many times they realized that I hadn't gone to the lake because I came home late at night, there was traffic going back from the cities, they were angry at me, but none of this has ever discouraged me from following my passion. Now they have changed their minds, and they are also happy that I have revived my grandmother's memory. She was a special woman, the most courageous, the only one who always stood up to men. She was born in misery, she raised her younger brother by working as a house cook. I would like to be like her, which is why I have never obeyed anyone who would stop me from doing what I love.

Silvia Criara

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Silvia Criara - Journalist, born in Milan. At the age of 5 she asked for a pool for her dolls as a present but she didn't receive one. So she had an idea, she took a wooden drawer from her dresser and filled it with water to put her Barbies in it. From that moment she has never stopped following her ideas and resolves herself to talk about people who bring on the bravest ideas to promote social rights, through contemporary art, photography, culture, and design. Stories of creative resistance that she discovers all around the world. She dreams often, even during the day.