A child walks across a desert. Watched over by his great uncle, the boy runs his hand over the rusty hull of a boat stranded in the sand and crumbling with time. At the end of the journey, an expanse of blue. The old man hadn’t been here in thirty years, and now brought his thirteen-year-old nephew to show him what is left of the Aral Sea, erased by Soviet industrial madness. The two silhouettes advancing towards an infinite horizon live in Moynaq, a former fishing village that used to sit at the edge of water, but now faces a desert. The blue expanse has receded by over 200 km. What is now a desert used to be, sixty years ago, the fourth largest lake in the world.
In his book Ressac [The Undertow], the photographer Grégoire Eloy tells the story of this disappearance. Between 2008 and 2013, he made several trips to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to share the daily life of these inhabitants and fishermen on the shores of a marine mirage. While bearing witness to one of the greatest man-made ecological disasters, Eloy’s work speaks of erasure, oblivion, and illusion, of the absence of water and of the loss of bearings amid a sea turned into a desert.
“The absence of water toys with our senses”
In keeping with his first photographic reports on the legacy of the Soviet satellite states—Les oubliés sur pipeline [Pipeline Ghosts]—Eloy has focused on the environmental wounds inflicted by the Soviet Union.
In the race to grow cotton in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the early 1960s, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers were diverted to irrigate crops via canals. This led to a brutal draught. Starting in 1970, the Aral Sea had lost nine-tenths of its 67,000 square km surface area; the levels of salinity skyrocketed, causing the death of most of the lake species. Since then, the Aral Sea has lost 90% of its surface. “This ecological legacy is still with us, there is no way of going back. A statue can be removed; a sea cannot be replaced,” says the photographer.
Former assistant of Stanley Greene and member of the Tendance Floue Collective, Eloy has always thought of his work as auteur photography. Then he faced a dilemma: “I was struggling with the question of pure and hard documentary photography. I didn’t want to do yet another black-and-white reportage on the rusty boats of the Aral Sea. That didn’t do it for me.”
His desire to bear witness is reinforced by a feeling the photographer struggled to capture early on in his work. The long stretches of time and the successive trips to the region gave him the answer. There is something intangible in Ressac. As he writes in his book: “The absence of water toys with our senses. We think we can see it at dusk, like a mirage, while in truth there is only sand and brush as far as the eye can see. It’s as if our minds had a hard time catching up to the idea that a whole sea has been lost.”
Ressac thus evokes a deeper question of erasure and illusion, “the trouble with disappearance.” The rusty wrecks become relics when they are not taken apart for scrap metal. “You get this illusion of standing at the bottom of the sea, with seashells underfoot, this same boundless horizon around you, and no landmark in sight. I felt that it was a question of the erasure of the memory of the sea itself.”
Since 2005, however, there has been a glimmer of hope. The water is returning little by little thanks to the Kokaral Dam. This has allowed for the return of fish to the northern part of the sea, on the Kazakh side. At the same time, however, the southern part, in Uzbekistan, has been condemned for ever. Eloy traveled to meet these fishermen who camp near the water, far away from their villages. Others drive a car or ride a motorcycle every day across the sand to reach the sea. Their vehicles and their equipment make them look like explorers from another age, between desert and ice, when winter covers the water with thick ice.
Eloy has brought the notion of erasure to the very printed image. His photographs seem to have been washed out by the sea and salt. Invaded by blinding whiteness, the photos are scratched, distressed, rubbed out “in order to evoke disappearance.”
The black and white conjure up a bygone age of traditional fishermen in their tin houses and their frail skiffs. The images play with the illusion of time and space. Our mind wanders, perception gets blurred. Even in his color prints Eloy pursues this disturbance of vision. With the assistance of the printer Fred Jourda from Picto, in Paris, he has been working on the idea of a half-erased color print, as if “by fogging up the paper in advance.”
Thus “the aviator,” as he calls him, a man in a black chapka and blue pants who standing on an ice floe, seems lost in the middle of an immense desert of ice. “Taken in bright sunlight, the photo could have met the National Geographic standard, with very saturated blues and whites. But that’s not the effect I was looking for; I wanted to show that the sea is there without us seeing it,” explains Eloy.
The ice is no longer ice: it might be salt merging with the sky. The erasure of landmarks is absolute. “When we drive through Uzbekistan, we see nothing but a horizon. This is very disturbing.” What is ever-present is this eternal absence. The sea is as much the subject of yearning as an oasis in the desert.
“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince. Similarly, Eloy approaches the Aral Sea desert with all the senses: “It’s another way of bearing witness. This approach has completely resolved my dilemma. It is about what I feel; I am bringing a subjective vision to the subject.”
Ressac plays with our senses even as it evokes and records a tragic environmental reality. The Aral Sea will never regain its former surface, and little by little its memory fades, gets washed away, and vanishes like a mirage.
Grégoire Eloy, Ressac, éditions Images Plurielles, 96 pp., 60 color and B&W photographs, €25.