Beauty on death row

Lake Urmia, Iran

The moment I stepped out of the car, felt like entering a real-life fairy tale. The bright colours in front of me showed a panorama I never saw before. The salty air made breathing heavier and the crisping of the salt underneath my shoes made the situation even more surreal.  


What I saw in front of me was even better then I imagined it could be. Still, I realised I entered a horrible scene.


It’s a bright autumn day and I’m at Lake Urmia, in the North West of Iran, to make photos. Since the moment I read for the first time about this lake, the area hasn’t been out of my mind. The story was sad, even dramatic. Once the biggest salt lake of the Middle East is now shrinking fast. In 2014 the lake has only 12% left of its average size in 1970. Climate change has intensified droughts. Together with poor water management, the main causes of the disappearing of water in the lake.


The beginning


Although the story was sad, the photos were spectacular. The bright blue and red colours and the contrast with the people resulted in wonderful, minimalistic compositions.

The plan to go was rapidly made. Promising myself to make photos in this part of nature. Luck was on my side, and so I ended up with a promising, local photographer on an autumn day at the lake. [/vc_column_text]

The day started driving in the desolate landscape from Tabriz, with the air becoming heavier every minute. Without even seeing the Lake you can feel it’s there: salt is in the air. We pass mountains and the first glimpse of what Lake Urmia once was becomes visible.



Small, characteristic dressing rooms are standing in line in –what looks like- the middle of nowhere. Years ago right here, the waterline started. Today, only the zoom of my camera can spot the beginning of the water, for my eyes impossible to see. The dressing rooms are reminders of what the lake once was. The grandeur of old times.

This is the first spot that shows the beauty of the surroundings of the lake and at the same time the drama of the recent shrinking.

The driving continues and after a while, the lake becomes finally visible. We park the car and walk to the water of Lake Urmia.


Fairy tales


Standing at the waterline of the lake feels beyond imagination. Before us there’s only blue. Blue of the water and blue of the sky. They are one. Gradations of the colour give the décor dept.  

White dots break the blue surface. It is salt.


The salt looks from a distance like a hob of ice, standing in a sea. The view is surreal. See more here. 


Reality is less amazing. The shrinking of the water level leaves salt in the area. Resulting in more salthobs everywhere. The wind brings the salt to the land, damaging the local life. We take place in the plastic swan boat, our cameras with us. As a child, I would love these activities; peddling in the water. Now the swan has only one function, being able to be part of this impressive décor. We peddle slowly in the water. To my surprise, the lake is not deep at all.


While we are meters away from the waterline, the owner of the swans still marches joyfully next to us.


We are not the only ones. Families and friends are waiting in line to enter the swans. People picnic next to the parking and children play happily around them. The place feels relaxing. The rushing outside world is miles away. Only the grand, surreal décor of the lake sets the tone here.




The sound of nothing


We take a walk near the lake. I don’t hear anything. Like there are no sounds available on this piece of earth. Only the voices of the visitors become available from time to time. And a car that passes the long bridge connecting the land. Besides this, there’s nothing. Like life has already departed to better places. Living in a crowded European city, hearing nothing feels like a luxury. The feeling that only nature is in charge; equal to rest and peace.

While we walk down the waterline the ugly truth becomes visible. Death birds covered in the white salt mark the other side of nature. Changing conditions have taken part of the population of living animals along the lake. The environment is changing and so is the fauna among the lake.

These birds were not able to live with less water and more salt.


Death is the logical consequence in the current situation.


We make a stop for chai. The boat in front of us looks cosy. The bright colours match the surreal surroundings of the lake. The green and red chairs make the boat a welcoming place to take a seat. The view of the lake is beautiful at this place. Overlooking the water, seeing all the people enjoying nature and time with their friends and family. At the background, the mountains appear like friendly giants overlooking the scene.  

We sit in what was once the ferry to the other side of the lake. The ferry is out of charge and functions as a cafe. The boat is another reminder of what the lake once was.


ferry next to a cafe

True colours


It is in the afternoon, we are on our way back before one final stop at another part of the lake. A Kurdish family is in front of us. Their colourful clothing in the sunlight brings joy to the surroundings. The colours of their clothing are not the only colours popping up in this serene environment.

Gradations of red intermingle with the blue, making the lake even more magical. We both take a breath to absorb all this beauty. I love nature and to me, this is one of the best spots nature has created.


people walkin next to lake


Again, the beauty we see is in reality a consequence of the fast disappearing of water in the lake. The red colour entered the scene as a result of the changing circumstances for algae living in the lake. Years ago red was barely seen at the lake. On the way back to Tabriz the lake becomes smaller in the window of the car. Being able to make photos at this wonderful part of nature has made an everlasting impression.


Still, every moment of the lake felt double. The décor was magical, the reality dramatical.


The overwhelming beauty of nature is changing rapidly towards non-existence. Lake Urmia wouldn’t be the first salt lake to disappear; the Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan had the same destiny. This area became a desert.

The story of Lake Urmia is an environmental challenge. The rapidly changing situation of the area is a ‘beautiful’ example of the consequences of less water being available caused by climate change and poor water management.

Luckily, the destiny of Lake Urmia is slowly changing. Measures to overcome the nearby end of the lake are successful, as the water is gaining in surface. The lake can recover in its grandeur.

In the meantime, the beauty of Lake Urmia is still in my head. Dreams could become plans in the future. Right now, the memory and the photos remain. Click here for more. 

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