Water Stories: an interview with photographer Mustafah Abdulaziz

As his first UK solo exhibition launches, we talk to Mustafah Abdulaziz about his water-themed photography project and his experiences of visiting our work in Nigeria.

22 Mar 2016

From the poisoned marigold fields of Kanpur, India to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where just two polluted rivers provide water for 21 million people – since 2011, American photographer Mustafah Abdulaziz has travelled the world, highlighting the impact of the global water crisis.

This year, to mark World Water Day on 22 March, photos from his long-term water project come to London, as part of his first ever solo UK exhibition.

We caught up with Mustafah to find out more about his photography and his recent visit to see our work in Nigeria, and asked what makes him so passionate about documenting the global water crisis.

Tell us about your recent visit to Nigeria…

During the trip to Nigeria I revisited some themes I’d touched on in 2013, including access to clean water in rural areas, and explored a thread of conflict between nomadic herdsmen and settled farmers in Benue state.

The country is on track to become one of the most populous in the world and yet there remains a large segment of its population living without access to safe water.

This is in many ways a habit of countries across the world: economic growth without solving the most basic of human needs.

The Water Pump in Osukputu, Benue, Nigeria
The Water Pump in Osukputu, Nigeria. Women and children gather at the hand pump, which serves the entire community of around 800 people with clean, safe water.

What kind of solutions did you see?

It has been my experience that, when an area suffers from a lack of basic needs, the solutions must be thoughtful and reflect the realities of those areas, in ways that empower and offer ways for people to take responsibility for their future.

In Benue, the water and sanitation committees allow for this and the installation of new water pumps provides the practical solution.

They may sound modest, but they are the building blocks for creating sustainable, responsible water management at the ground level.

Did you face any challenges on the trip?

Logistically, the places I worked in were remote, where the roads used by those living there were little more than dirt paths, shattered bridges and walking paths.

The overall framework of the situation there left an indelible imprint on me. The harshness of recent, violent experiences, the vast tracts of land separating people from opportunity and the consistent desire for improvement. Those ideas remained with me long after I left.

What inspired you to create a project on water?

Water is, and will continue to be, a critical topic across all aspects of our existence. It spans the full gamut of human experience.

The motivation behind the project is tied closely to my early impressions of photography, where curiosity to understand compelled me to explore this medium as a way to build my own idea of what it means to be alive and what it means to truly be a part of something larger than oneself.

Benue Nigeria, 2015
Saleh Tombiah, a 45-year-old cattle herder and peace committee youth leader, photographed in Osukputu, Nigeria.

What do you think is the biggest single water issue the world faces today?

The global water situation is dynamic and complex. The geography of the topics is widespread and while this might seem an overwhelming challenge, it is also an opportunity for study and insight.

I believe the single biggest water issue is human beings. Our behaviour towards water reflects our greater attitudes towards our planet and each other. The photography that speaks to me always has a powerful human element.

What is the aim of the exhibition currently on display in London?

The exhibition in London is public and in large light-box structures. It spans six countries. This offers the opportunity for people who might not think of water as a critical issue, or even think too much about water at all, to enter into a space where they can journey across their world through the idea of water.

I hope people will walk away from the exhibition with compassion, curiosity and hope for their world.

Water Stories is being held in collaboration with the HSBC Water Programme, a partnership between Earthwatch, WaterAid and WWF. Find out how the programme is changing lives >