Photograph by Carolyn Drake
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A cotton farmer drives his Soviet-era Moskovich home from Shege village in the Karakalpakstan Autonomous republic of Uzbekistan. This region is the epicenter of the Aral Sea catastrophe. Part of the Two Rivers project, which follows Central Asia's two main rivers from the dried Aral Sea to their source.
Photograph by Carolyn Drake

Artifacts: Photographer Carolyn Drake

Artifacts is a series about physical items that have meaning to photographers in the field. The items are styled, shot, and described by the photographers themselves.

Between 2007 and 2012, Carolyn Drake lived in Istanbul, Turkey. From there, she traveled often to Central Asia to work on independent photography projects and to surrounding countries for editorial assignments.

Carolyn’s Artifacts

“In preparation for my return to the U.S. in 2013, I sorted through the possessions I had acquired on these numerous journeys, getting rid of as much as possible to streamline the move. Pictured here are some of the things I decided to keep. Most of them were acquired or created while working on two personal projects in Central Asia: one that’s a journey along the two rivers leading to the Aral Sea, and the other about Uyghurs living in the far west of China. Also pictured are items from commissions I completed in Iraq and Mongolia.”

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Photographer Carolyn Drake’s artifacts

Passport: I lived in Turkey for six years without a residence permit. I had to leave the country to renew my tourist visa every 90 days.

Business card: I have some with my pictures printed on them. This fish is preserved in a jar in a history museum in Kazakhstan, memorializing the life that used to thrive in and around the Aral Sea.

Black moleskin caption book: A Uyghur woman I befriended left this message in my hotel in Kashgar in 2009. I’ve stored it in this little black caption book ever since. I try to find her every time I return, without success.

Aral Sea shell: I collected a pile of these on my last trip to Karakalpakstan, the autonomous province in Uzbekistan that has endured severe environmental troubles since the Aral Sea began to dry in the 1960s. The sea, which was once the fourth largest in the world, is now a desert—the Aral Kum. The tiny seashells scattered in the sand of the former seabed are relics of the sea that created them.

Sim card devices: I have a collection of tiny things to help make my iphone work in any country. They’re really easy to lose.

Most used lens: A cheap Canon 35mm

Map: For my project Two Rivers I bought detailed maps of the provinces I spent a lot of time in. This one shows a piece of the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan. You can see the Syr Darya (one of the two rivers I followed) flowing across the top. The maze of blue lines below are canals diverting water to cotton and wheat fields. These extensive diversions are the main cause of the environmental crisis at the ends of the rivers.

Notebook: Sometimes I draw little calendars to try to schedule all the different things I want to shoot. This one was from an assignment about shamanism in Mongolia. It’s a pretty accurate representation of how scattered my brain gets.

Tampon: I bring some of these on every trip.

Colored pencils: For my project about Uyghurs in the far west of China, I’ve been searching for ways to involve the people I photographed in the project. On one trip, I traveled around with colored pencils and a stack of prints, and asked people in the pictures to draw their own pictures on top of them.

Foam brush: Used to spread glue onto the Uyghur collages

Hard drive: From an assignment I did in Iraq two years ago. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Iraq share some of the same environmental problems as the Central Asian rivers that lead to the Aral Sea. This assignment was an extension of my Two Rivers project.

Hair bands: To keep hair out of my face. They’re really easy to lose so I bring a whole packet.

Photo cutouts: For a collage experiment in the Uyghur project. I cut up my pictures and asked people in Xinjiang to make new pictures from them.

Turkish lira: For some reason pictures of men’s heads are used as symbols of national identity everywhere in the world. China has Mao, Turkey has Ataturk. It’s really nice to return to Turkey with one of these 100 lira bills already in your bag so you don’t have to go to the ATM machine at the airport. Just hop right in the taxi to drive home to rest.

Coffee: I grind it before traveling and brew it in a plastic French press every morning while on the road.

Fork: Special lightweight eating utensils, useful on long train rides in the former Soviet Union and in Mongolia.

Shoe: The government has torn down most of the old Uyghur homes in Kashgar. I’ve been collecting things from the rubble and carrying them home with me, photographing them later in the studio on a black cloth. There are lots of women’s shoes left behind in the rubble.

Secret sim card: I flew from Istanbul to Urumqi after riots broke out in the summer of 2009. The day after I arrived, three men waving metal batons marched out of the mosque next to the hotel I was in. The streets were packed with armored militia, and the protesters were quickly shot and killed. A Uyghur woman who photographed the scene through a hotel window with her phone slipped me the card in hope that I would publish the image to show that violence was being done against Uyghurs too, since the press had highlighted mainly Chinese casualties.

Angel figure: Nomadic reindeer herders in Mongolia carve reindeer horns into different animal shapes and sell them to tourists. I brought back a whole collection of them. I’m not sure if this one is an angel or a shaman or a spirit, but it’s my favorite.

Carolyn’s Work

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Jeenan and Samir (groom), both 22, at their wedding in El Shagambe village near the Glory Canal in southern Iraq. It was shot as part of an assignment about the Marsh Arabs and the environmental situation at the ends of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
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A street scene in the border town of Karasu (Black Water) in Uzbekistan. The town is split between the countries of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, with irrigation water running under the wooden bridge. Part of the Two Rivers project, which follows Central Asia’s two main rivers from the dried Aral Sea to their source.
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A shaman named Good Flower milks her reindeer in the east taiga in northern Mongolia. It was shot as part of an assignment about the revival of shamanism in Siberia and Mongolia.
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A Uyghur family leaves the weekly bazaar near Kashgar with a donkey cart full of hay. Uyghurs migrated to Xinjiang in the 9th century, settling in isolated oasis towns on the fringes of the Taklimakan desert to farm and trade. Part of the Uyghur project.
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An Uzbek woman in Karasu poses in the courtyard of her home in the covering her husband wishes her to wear in public. Banned in Soviet times, the paranja is the traditional robe worn by women in the Fergana Valley. Part of the Two Rivers project.
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Families celebrate Navrus, the Persian new year and first day of spring, in a restaurant in the ancient city of Kokand in Uzbekistan. Part of the Two Rivers project.

Carolyn Drake is currently featured in National Geographic’s ‘Women of Vision’ exhibit. View more of her work on her website.

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