In 2002, decades into a long and distinguished career with the famed Magnum Photos agency, Ian Berry travelled to the Hubei province in central China. He’d heard that the 2,335 metre-long, imposingly engineered Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River was nearing completion and wanted to see its progress for himself. Upon arrival, though, he found that the path to the building site wouldn’t be so simple.
“I got onto [the Chinese authorities],” Berry recalls. “And they wanted $3,000 or $4,000 for a permit for me to go and photograph the dam. I thought ‘sod it’.’”
Via a complicated network of ferries, taxis and public transport, Berry made his own way to the source of the 3,915 mile (6,300km) long Yangtze, before travelling downstream towards the dam, where a local cab driver offered to drive him around for a day so he could see it up close. Repeatedly flicking the shutter of his Leica, Berry took several photographs of what was then the world’s largest dam, but quickly realised that its effects weren’t just limited to controlling flooding and generating hydroelectric power.
“I shot a lot of people being displaced – an awful lot had been flooded out,” he says. One photograph he took depicts a woman in Wanxian, Sichuan Province, sleeping on a chair next to piles of rubble, forced to leave her home as her village was being demolished to make space for the Yangtze’s new, post-dam path.
That heartbreaking shot is presented in his new photobook Water, which collates images from Berry's long-term project documenting the myriad ways people around the world interact with one of life’s most important elements.
“[After the Three Gorges Dam] I really got into it, then and I started to travel a lot – Bangladesh, India, refugee camps in Central America, West Africa, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Cambodia, Vietnam,” he says. “All over the world, basically.”
From the dozens of giant dams built in an attempt to control flooding, to Greenland's breaking ice sheet, to the horrifying effects of arsenic pollution in drinking supplies, Berry's black-and-white pictures are a stark and powerful portrait of humanity’s abuse of water. It’s a continuation of a long fascination for Berry that began in the 70s, when he began documenting the role of water in religious rituals. But his goals changed as the effects of climate change became apparent to him.
“My wife [Kathie Webber] is a journalist. She wrote [the introduction] for the book, and she started to press me to have a broader outlook on the whole thing,” Berry explains. “It occurred to me that times are changing, and I should really extend [the project] to water, rather than water and religion.”
That destruction applies not only to the valleys that it carves, or cliffs that it reclaims. Despite water’s abundance, fresh, drinkable water is scarce – and becoming ever scarcer as glaciers shrink and sea levels rise under the effects of climate change. Controlling its supply has become a geo-political imperative. Having been witness to several such attempts to gain control, Berry predicts a grim forecast for the future. “These dams being built in the northeast of Turkey are going to leave them controlling the water into Jordan and Israel,” Berry says. “They’ll be fighting wars in the Middle East over water, not oil." In recent years, dams in Turkey have already caused the displacement of communities and disruption of supply, both locally and in neighbouring countries like Syria.
While some photographs in the book hint at cultures and practices where water is treated with respect – Hindus bathing and praying in the Ganges at Varanasi, for example – these moments are outweighed by the scale of the world’s problems. “There’s not much positive to be honest,” he continues, with a heavy sigh. “You see people chucked out of their houses and it is hard to find anything to be positive about.”
Water by Ian Berry is published by GOST.
Follow Isaac on Twitter.