Majuli Island, India - A Mystical World Under Threat
Zishaan A. Latif’s series Withering reflects upon the consequences of climate change and displacement with a specific focus on the slow disappearance of the mystical and culturally rich river island of Majuli in Assam, India.
The island of Majuli, in the northeast of India, has lost more than half of its land surface in the past century, shrinking to about 350 km2 as of 2014. Set in the middle of the Brahmaputra river, which takes its source in Tibet, the island suffers violent floods from the Himalayan snow-melt and the monsoon rains. And with climate change and the construction of a dam, things have only got worse.
Measures have recently been implemented to protect the island – cement holders on the river bank meant to break the current; geo bags filled with sand and stacked at the edge of the bank to prevent erosion; and, more recently, large scale plantations to strengthen the island’s foundations. Yet, “these are not solutions. You need to accept that you can’t fight nature”, photographer Zishaan A. Latif, who has been documenting the island for several years, explains. “Indigenous people on the island are used to living with nature, not against it”, he goes on.
Majuli’s source of livelihood and income is the weather, which grants the island an extremely rich biodiversity, but it’s at the same time the source of its destruction. Organic agro-farming is the mainstay of the island’s economy and primary occupation of most of the islanders. With each flood, they lose their crops, if not their lands, and their culture – half of their ancestral monasteries has been swallowed by the river already. “Some people point at the river and say, ‘it’s where I used to live’’, Latif recalls. Some can rebuild patiently, others migrate. Be it towards the inner island or to the nearest city of Jorhat.
“The island is not going to stop eroding so is it our responsibility to use photography to tell its story”, he says. So he does, in a multitude of visual languages – a variety that somehow echoes the diversity of cultures being lost to climate change. For instance, he used Google Earth images of the island shot from 1984 to 2018, which he then merged with portraits of islanders today. “I realise that I had gone many times to the island but could not show the erosion at ground zero. The maps serve as stop motion of the place shrinking and show that the only constant is the river. This is a digital displacement of a physical displacement”, Latif says.
He also uses a variety of formats, from a 6x6 camera to a simple point and shoot. “I took a bunch of my cameras with me to Majuli and was trying to figure out which medium fits best. Because the island is very silent. It’s so peaceful that you can’t imagine the periphery going through so much violence and destruction”, Latif recalls. Thus, the pastel tones, or the pairing of frames of the same scene - slight variations that convey a sense of calm. “I slowed down my process because the island was very slow with me.” And by doing so, he invites us to a thoughtful contemplation.
Zishaan A. Latif is an independent photographer from India who works in many genres in the field, playing with different textures, formats and art form for both commercial and non- commercial projects. Follow him on PHmuseum, Twitter, and Instagram.
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.
Getting Closer presents photographic works, mainly in a documentary vein, that speak about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation.