2021 Winner

The W Award Years


  • Sina Niemeyer
  • Snezhana von Buedingen





The Eyes of Earth tells a deeply personal story about the environmental disaster at Lake Urmia as seen through the eyes of Solmaz Daryani, a self-taught photographer, who grew up on the lake. Her grandfather ran a lakefront hotel in the tourist port of Sharafkhaneh and her uncles were sailors. She spent her childhood summers with her grandparents on the lake and, less than a decade ago, her grandfather hosted dozens of people every day. It was the disappearing lake and faded childhood memories that induce her to take the camera and start documenting what was left of the largest lake in the Middle East and the second largest salt lake on the planet.



Photo: Solmaz Daryani and family archive



A lake is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” Henry David Thoreau 

Iran is facing severe water scarcity. Drought, rising water demand, degradation put pressure on society and leads to wider injustice and a big social/political crisis not only inside Iran but also with neighbouring countries. I grow up beside Lake Urmia which was once the largest lake in the Middle East, and the second largest salt lake on the planet. The nearly six million people who live in the Urmia basin have deep social and economic ties with this shrinking body of water. The Turk-Azeri people, who live around the lake, treasure it as a symbol of their identity, calling it “the turquoise solitaire of Azerbaijan.” 

Once a thriving tourist destination, Lake Urmia provided a livelihood to countless people, including my mother’s family. My grandfather ran a lakefront motel in the touristy port city of Sharafkhaneh, where my grandparents still live today, and my uncles were sailors. Less than a decade ago, my grandfather hosted dozens of tourists a day in the summers. I spent all my childhood summers on the shore of the salt lake in my grandparents’ house. When the lake was still a popular destination, bathers would immerse themselves in the saline water and smear their bodies with its legendary black mud. I cherish those memories and still remember the sound of the waves, the chatter of beachside vacationers, the sulphur smell of the dark mud, and the salty breeze in the mid-afternoon heat. 

Salt lake Urmia a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, during the past three decades, has lost about 88 per cent of its surface area due to increasing temperatures, changing climate, excessive damming and overuse of underground water by locals and booming agriculture in the region. This precious body of water is a victim of humanmade drought. 

As Lake Urmia dried up, local tourism and agriculture suffered. Winds that whip across the lake blow salt dust to farm fields, slowly rendering the soil infertile. Like so many other people around the lake, my grandfather’s motel and gardens now lie in ruins. The port town is now a sparsely populated village that young people flee for nearby cities, and most of the residents who have stayed are elderly. Neither port town nor salt lake resembles the place of my childhood memories. 

In this long term and personal story that I started in 2014, I tried to demonstrate the impacts of drying of Urmia Lake on my own family, ecosystem and people living around it to reflect the interconnectedness of humans and the environment. 

The vanishing of Lake Urmia is much more than an environmental hazard; it is an emotional wound in the memory of people. For those of us who remember what this place once was, the lake is much more than a receding blue spot on the world map. It is a part of our identity, and we can only hope that it does not vanish forever. 

Solmaz Daryani


Photo: Solmaz Daryani


The Eyes of Earth is the fruit of the 2021 FotoEvidence W Award. It is designed by Portuguese designer Joao Linneu. The photography is edited by Manoocher Deghati who also spent his childhood summers on Lake Urmia some 40 years ago. A personal essay by the photographer and a short text of some of Deghati's memories provide personal narratives that reveal the intimate relationship between this human community and the ecosystem they depended on. Introduction by Masoud Tajrishi, director of the planning office of the Lake Urmia Restoration Program.

“The Eyes of Earth” is dedicated to Narges Qasempoor, Solmaz' grandmother. An illiterate woman who knew the importance of balance between humans and nature and managed to plant 800 trees during her lifetime. She died from Covid-19 during the process of creating the book.


Photo: Solmaz Daryani


The publication of the book The Eyes of Earth is made possible with the support of the FotoEvidence Foundation, the Grodzins Fund and the VII Academy


The publication of The Eyes of Earth seeks to raise awareness of the consequences of water mismanagement and the inescapable effect of climate change on human communities.

Individuals are invited to become members of the new association and become part of a network of activists working at the intersection of photography and human rights.