Carolyn Drake

Carolyn Drake

Fellow: Awarded 2010
Field of Study: Photography

Competition: US & Canada

Based in Istanbul, Turkey, American-born photographer Carolyn Drake is best known for her unique body of work that brings the history, topography, culture, and peoples of Turkey, China, and the former Soviet republics to the Western world.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in media culture and history at Brown University and spending several years in various multimedia positions, Ms. Drake began her photographic career in 2001, taking classes at the International Center of Photography, then earning a master’s degree in visual communications at Ohio University in 2004. While a graduate student she also served a photography internship at National Geographic, where she successfully pitched a story about New York City’s Lubavitchers, a community of Orthodox Jews. The resulting photos, which she produced with support from an Ohio University graduate research award, earned the Community Awareness Award in the 2004 Pictures of the Year International competition, and together with an essay she wrote, based on interviews she conducted with Lubavitchers, were published in National Geographic in 2006. Later that year Photo District News selected her as one of its “photographers to watch,” and she was granted a Fulbright Fellowship to work in the Ukraine.

Coal Town, a body of photos she took in a mining town in the Donetsk coal basin, earned second place in the 2007 World Press Photo contest as well as the 2008 Prize of Prague, awarded annually by the mayor of Prague; and Orphan Girls, which documented girlhood in a Soviet orphanage, won first place in the Feature Picture Story category of the 2007 Photo of the Year contest and honorable mention in the UNICEF Photo of the Year competition. Both projects were exhibited at the annual group show Revela, in Galacia, Spain (in 2008 and 2009, respectively) and she was also invited in 2009 to speak there about Orphan Girls.

In further travels in Central Asia, she began two continuing projects. For the first, she travelled along the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, which, in Islamic tradition, are believed to be two of the rivers of Paradise, starting at their sources in the mountains of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and following their courses. The rivers have been dammed and channeled to provide irrigation, drying out in the process the northern Aral Sea, and the rivers themselves, historically the pathways for trade and conquest in the region. Drowning out villages and displacing people in some areas and creating vast fields for cotton cultivation in others—Ms. Drake sought over her three years’ photographic journey to capture the changes in the culture, geopolitical borders, and topography along these waterways.

The first installment of Paradise Rivers was exhibited online by the Los Angeles County Museum at the Women in Photography website, and it was selected by Charlotte Cotton as a finalist for the Santa Fe Prize in 2009. During her Guggenheim Fellowship term, she will be continuing her photographic exploration of the Paradise Rivers.

For her second project focusing on Central Asia, Becoming Chinese: Uighurs in Cultural Transition, Carolyn Drake has been collaborating with the writer Ilan Greenberg. She describes their effort as “an investigation into ways of being Uighur in an increasingly Han Chinese environment.” Becoming Chinese received the Dorthea Lange – Paul Taylor Documentary Prize in 2008.

Photos from both of these projects were shown in the first exhibition in the newly renovated gallery space of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, in 2009.


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