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Portraits from Rivers of Change Project

The Portraits from Rivers of Change project highlights river communities on the Blue Nile, Mara, Missouri, and Mekong Rivers with one thing in common - people are or have been displaced and impacted due to development projects that impact water. Nestled on remote stretches of these rivers, the rural communities in Ethiopia, Tanzania, the United States, and Laos PDR, are indigenous communities. This means that the people live traditional lifestyles handed down from one generation to the next connected directly to the river and the land along the river. The intimate connection with the river includes ceremony, livelihoods, storytelling, spirituality, transportation, communication, trade, and recreation. Ways of life are passed on in experiential learning and through oral histories passed onto younger generations in daily activities. Little to no written record exists to preserve the river stories of the Gumuz, Kurya, Khmu, and Missouri River Indigenous Tribes.

Dams altered the Nile, Missouri, and Mekong. Until the dam projects on the Blue Nile and Mekong, there was limited  contact between the people in these communities and the outside world. The communities are now irreparably altered and livelihoods are lost. On the Missouri, the US Government targeted Indian land for development in order to minimize compensation, stripping the Tribes of their prime farmland and whole communities. While the Tribes remain, the contemporary reservation boundaries do not reflect historic land and water use. For the Mara, the planned development projects have not yet begun.


The photographs of communities on the Blue Nile and the Mekong were taken in 2012 and 2013 respectively, when the dams in Ethiopia and Laos were one year into construction. New roads allow for movement of goods and people in and out of these areas in ways that had not been part of the local experience only one year prior. Some people acquired cell phones and electricity while still living off of the river. Others went to work in the dam sites. For the most part, traditional ways of life were still practiced and people were mostly still in place, with the exception of the communities moved immediately to accommodate the initial dam excavation, equipment, and dam crew quarters. The photographs of the indigenous communities on the Missouri River are of those that participated in water protection in the Standing Rock Camps in 2016. The photographs on the Mara River in 2015 and 2016 are of Kurya communities not yet impacted by any river development.


I spent time with these communities while conducting scientific research into implications of development projects for the rivers, surrounding environment, politics, economics, society, and culture. Part of my work brought me into contact with people in these images who I found to be open, wise, witty, generous, concerned, and kind. Many voiced their hopes and fears about the unknown future. Many also emphasized how crucial the river is for them, their children, and their grandchildren. Entire lives and identities center on the river. On the rivers in East Africa and Southeast Asia, all community life is based around the ebb and flow of the waters, locked into the cycle of rainy and dry seasons. The dams will change all of that. 


While my work conducted on the rivers in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Laos, PDR was through official permission of the respective country governments with the understanding that dams and development are part of a government's strategy toward alleviating national poverty, I am increasingly concerned that the voices of local communities are being drown out by a national priority of rapid development. This has played out all over the world for generations and is once again happening right now in these places. One only needs to look at what has happened to the Missouri River Indigenous Tribes. In my opinion, cultural diversity is vital to our global community. Due to displacement and relocation these cultures and their traditional knowledge may disappear in only one generation.


Portraits from Rivers of Change serves as a visual memory of people living in traditional communities, a tribute to identity as river people, and as an appeal to preserve the knowledge and culture of these  impacted communities.

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