Photograph by Sarker Protick
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The wreckage of river dams. These blocks were made to protect the village, but for the last few years the river erosion has been so devastating it destroyed even the dams. Arom Baria, near Ishurdi, Bangladesh, June 2012
Photograph by Sarker Protick

Vanishing Act: The Disappearing Banks of the Padma River

“It’s called Ishurdi. It means ‘where God stays,’” Sarker Protick says as he tells me about the district in Bangladesh where he’s been photographing his latest project, Of River and Lost Lands.

Protick, a lover of rivers and an admirer of “good old American road trip–style photography,” began wandering the length of the Padma River, starting in the north and traveling from district to district toward his home in Dhaka. But when he arrived in the Ishurdi district, his plans changed. Something about its landscape haunted him. “In previous places that I had been, the land wasn’t that high from the river. [In Ishurdi] it was very high, and at the edge of the river the land ended suddenly. It felt like it wasn’t finished properly. That particular area was almost deserted. It all seemed strange, not quite right.”

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Heavy monsoon rains throughout the Himalaya region often cause rivers flowing into the lowlands of Bangladesh to overflow, exacerbating riverbank erosion. Arom Baria, near Ishurdi, Bangladesh, July 2012

Sarker Protick composed this song, which incorporates sounds from the Padma River, to accompany his photo essay.

He soon learned that the river was swallowing chunks of shore—a phenomenon known as riverbank erosion. It’s different from flooding, he says, because after flooding, things can return to normal. Riverbank erosion is permanent. “The water rises and hits the lands, and then those lands break into the river. So when that happens, the people will never get back their lands again.”

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Shom Nath Kumar, a 35-year-old farmer, left the village when he lost all of his farmland and his home to riverbank erosion. Arom Baria, near Ishurdi, Bangladesh, November 2011

Why does this happen? In part, it’s a natural side effect of the river changing its course over time. There are other factors that intensify the erosion, however. Protick references dams in India as one of those factors. “They have floods in that country, and then they open those dams and the water comes straight to this country, and those waters become strong and violent. It has been happening for a long time, but in the last four or five years it has increased,” Protick explains.

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Villagers stand on an uprooted tree as they fish. Arom Baria, near Ishurdi, Bangladesh, December 2012

Seeing the jagged ground, watching the land fall into the sea, sparked something in Protick.

“I wanted to tell the story of these villages, which are actually going away day by day. The places you have been seeing in these photographs, they are gone already, they don’t exist anymore. Every time I go there the whole geography changes. I always walk from village to village, but walking is getting more difficult because the river is eating away all the land.”

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Cattle roam on a paddy field. Arom Baria, near Ishurdi, Bangladesh, September 2013

Some might wonder why people stay when they’re engaged in what seems like a losing battle with the river. “This thing has been rooted in our culture, in our songs, our writings, for a long time. And every time it’s referenced, it talks about how people fight with it. It’s strange. They have lost their houses, but they still try to live by the river because it’s how they’ve been living for a long time, six or seven generations, because they are the people of the river. All of their daily activities come from the river—washing clothes, fishing—everything is helped by the river. But unfortunately at some point they have to sacrifice a lot for that.”

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Tonmoy Das, eight, returns home from school. The local high school has already lost its playing field to the river and is itself at risk of being swallowed in days to come. Arom Baria, near Ishurdi, Bangladesh, January 2014

His photographs are beautiful, but they also evoke mourning; it’s the same kind of duality that the river communities have grown accustomed to. Protick talks about his choice to create this monochrome, ethereal aesthetic, which he says was shaped by the place. “I was taking normal exposures in the beginning, but slowly when I was looking at my prints, I started noticing I had this tendency of photographing in high key. So then I decided this would be an interesting approach to tell this story. As an author, I have to know [not only] what I am telling but also how I am telling.”

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An abandoned house by the riverbank. The house was owned by a man who recently left with his family because half of his property was destroyed by the Padma. Arom Baria, near Ishurdi, Bangladesh, December 2012

Originally, Protick’s goal was to publish the project and raise awareness about riverbank erosion. His motivations have since changed. “There is a big discussion: Does photography change things? Yes, of course it can, but it’s not easy and it doesn’t happen that often. When I used to publish in the newspapers, nothing happened. So I was going through this, thinking, What’s the point of doing this? At some point I realized even if nothing happens I’ll still be doing it, because these things, these places, these villages, they are beautiful. They are all going away. Within three or five years nothing will be left. So I think, in some ways, I am keeping those places alive in my photographs. I am telling stories.”

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Villagers move the remains of a house in order to rebuild it. Arom Baria, near Ishurdi, Bangladesh, October 2013

“I was talking with this woman and she was saying, ‘I love this place. I was born here. This is our home. Whatever happens, we are happy. God has given us a lot of things. He has blessed us.’ It is unique that after living in that kind of place, they can still say that. And maybe at some point I can show that in my images.”

Sarker Protick is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He teaches at the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, and he was recently selected as one of the Ones to Watch by the British Journal of Photography. To see more of Protick’s work, visit his website.