Fascinated by the individual within a changing society, Ukrainian photographer Mila Teshaieva has focused her recent work mainly on ex-Soviet republics. This led her to the shores of the Caspian Sea, where in Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, rapid changes have been underway since the countries gained independence from the former USSR in the early 1990s. Here, in addition to the rush on oil, the search for national identities has had a major impact on the people. Having documented these shores for over four years, Teshaieva presents her exploration in the book Promising Waters.
Combining portraits of local people with images of the landscape, Teshaieva reveals how the rapid environmental change in the area is affecting the population. In this project, she explains, the photographs search the “range of human existence and awkward change" during a period of “social adolescence". This awkward change is already apparent from the first image: we see the Caspian Sea in the background, with an oil platform ready to use the area for its riches. In the foreground, a man stands alone, looking at something in his hands. Next to him, a lonely, possibly forgotten toy truck rests next to a small tree growing out of the cement ground. All three look lonely, or at least a little lost. The following spread is entirely empty, save for a short text in the top right corner. It tells the story of a man who can no longer read the road signs of his country since the alphabet of the country was changed. This brief introduction encapsulates Teshaieva's visual argument: the area around the Caspian Sea is changing so fast, uncertainty predominates while individuals struggle to catch up.
In certain images Teshaieva captures the poverty of the region's inhabitants, while others document the amount of money being pumped into this region, with images of golden-coloured buildings and other extravagant architectural projects. This stark contrast between images amplifies the feeling of uncertainty and ambiguity at the turn of every page.
The golden silkscreen print hard cover introduces the dreaminess and the wonder that features throughout the whole narrative. All the images in the book are shown in isolation, one per spread. Some are accompanied by a short text, either a quote or a story, though they do not necessarily correspond to the photograph. At the back of the book, a map of the region shows the locations around the Caspian Sea where Teshaieva took her photographs. The book also includes two essays, one of which was co-written by Teshaieva herself. In a poetic and creative way reminiscent of the photographs, the essays teach us about the problems of the region.
Yet, while Promising Waters manages to successfully explore the complex issues that the area surrounding the Caspian Sea is facing, Tashaieva's images keep the viewer at a distance, leaving behind still more questions.