The climate crisis can seem too large to imagine, but German photographer Maximilian Mann prefers to focus on the human scale. Across documentary projects in Iran, Mongolia and Russia, his projects seek out those impacted by landscapes changing by the day.
The pandemic may have halted the world, but the climate emergency continues to loom large in the background. The recent IPCC 2021 Climate Report was a scathing assessment of our current situation, with fractional increases in global temperatures impacting every region on Earth.
German photographer Maximilian Mann has spent much of his career documenting the changing ecological landscape at home and abroad. His passion started from an early age when he took up the role of photographer on family vacations and birthdays. Later, Maximilian developed a fascination for travel and the lives of everyday people.
“Photography was a way to engage with [other cultures] even more, and maybe also an excuse to be on the road and not at my desk,” says Mann.
Through photography, Maximilian has set about capturing human-centred stories at the heart of these environmental shifts. This includes Fading Flamingos, his 2018-19 project that explored the multifaceted repercussions echoing from the collapse of Lake Urmia in Iran.
“Ecological stories have always been very important to me. I think it is the most critical topic of our generation,” says Mann, who spent eight weeks documenting what was once recognised as the world’s second-largest saltwater lake.
Lake Urmia’s rejuvenating waters used to be home to flamingos, pelicans and a thriving tourism economy. However, the last two decades have seen the lake become increasingly barren due to poorly considered agriculture, dams and irrigation projects, alongside rising temperatures and low rainfall.
“You can see the disaster with your own eyes. When your garden becomes more and more saline or you have lung problems, you unfortunately also notice it in your own body.”
These environmental conditions have seen salt winds cause widespread desertification, turning much of the soil infertile and making it almost impossible for locals to grow fresh produce. Many of the five million people surrounding Lake Urmia were once reliant on it for their livelihoods, but the degrading landscape has seen the vibrant community fade away.
Maximilian’s project reflected the breakdown of the local economy in the lake’s stranded ships and deserted motels. Today, the population has abandoned the region for distant towns and villages where they hope to start again.
Thanks in part to projects like Fading Flamingos, the high-profile plight of Lake Urmia across Iran has caused a groundswell of attention on the nation’s fragile ecological balance, which threatens to capsize if climate change continues to negatively impact the biosphere. This has kept Lake Urmia at the forefront of social and political discussions, while recent flooding has also helped improve the lake’s condition for the first time in 20 years.
“Many locals are very aware of the crisis,” says Maximilian. “After all, you can see the disaster with your own eyes. When your garden becomes more and more saline or you have lung problems, you unfortunately also notice it in your own body.”
Outside of Iran, Maximilian has documented how the climate crisis is taking shape across several other countries. In Mongolia, he visited the ger districts on the outskirts of the capital, Ulaanbaatar. These informal settlements of urbanised yurts operate as a kind of halfway city for people caught between the metropolis and the rapidly changing rural steppes.
As volatile weather patterns result in poor grass growth, traditionally nomadic cattle farmers struggle to raise animals that support their centuries-old way of life. Meanwhile, Ulaanbaatar has tripled in size since the 1990s, with around 60 percent of the city’s population living in ad-hoc communities. Ger districts largely suffer from poor infrastructure and limited access to fresh drinking water – an issue that becomes more serious as 40,000 new people arrive every year.
“We are all visual beings and a good photo can definitely make people think.”
“We are all visual beings and a good photo can definitely make people think and make an emotional difference,” explains Maximilian. “However, photos are of course not enough, we also have to take action. And action is precisely the main problem of the climate crisis.”
Photography might not be enough to reverse climate change alone, but drawing attention to these issues is a good place to start. This is the goal behind DOCKS – a photography collective founded in 2018. The group consists of Maximilian and four other photographers, including Fabian Ritter, Arne Piepke, Ingmar Björn Nolting and Aliona Kardash, who met during their studies at Dortmund University of Applied Sciences and Arts.
“We strongly believe that we can achieve more together than alone. We support each other when we have problems, motivate each other and do photo or publication projects together,” describes Maximilian.
Although the photographers in DOCKS continue to publish projects under their own names, they took a different approach to their unified coverage of the recent floods in West Germany. As they captured the rapidly evolving story from multiple angles simultaneously – with their work eventually published in Time Magazine – the group agreed to drop their individual authorship for the first time.
“In such an emergency situation, many things happen in parallel and the whole situation is confusing. A single photographer can’t be in several places at the same time,” describes Maximilian. “And so, for the first time, we decided to have authorship of a series not as an individual, but as a whole group. I think that’s a beautiful approach.”
Maximilian admires documentary photographers such as Alec Soth, Bieke Depoorter, Rafal Milach and Rob Hornstra. Yet he also tries to instil everything from conversations with friends to visits to the theatre into his imagery. Meanwhile, he also prefers to shoot with limited equipment – mostly using a Nikon Z6 with 35mm or 50mm lenses. “The smaller and simpler the equipment, the better for me,” he says.
While the pandemic has restricted Maximilian’s ability to shoot documentary projects overseas, he has turned his focus to his home country. Here, he is investigating how the climate crisis is manifesting both on the earth’s surface and within the human experience.
“I am working on a long-term project about climate change in Germany because the effects are slowly becoming visible here… The heavy rain that cost over 180 lives is just a current example,” explains Maximilian. “On top of that, I’m currently on the road for a year as a staff photographer for Stern magazine. So I won’t be bored.”