Meet the 2022 Environmental Photographer of the Year: Mehdi Mohebi Pour

A Water and Nature Crisis in Iran

Mehdi Mohebi Pour is CIWEM’s 2022 Environmental Photographer of the Year. Chloe Goode reports

Photographer Mehdi Mohebi Pour has won the coveted Environmental Photographer of the Year prize for his image, The Bitter Death of Birds. It depicts just three of thousands of birds which died in the Miankaleh lagoon in Iran and the efforts of environmental workers to collect the bodies.

Competition judge and photojournalist Victor Moriyama says the photo hit home how important it to document the very real impacts of climate change. “It shows a very impactful and shocking situation. This photograph shows the power of images to amplify global discussions about climate change and the impacts of human activity on planet earth.”

Mohebi Pour, 39, lives in Sari, the provincial capital of Mazandaran and the former capital of Iran. The city is the largest in the province, located between the Alborz mountains and the Caspian Sea and is home to the Miankaleh lagoon, a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

For five years, he has photographed the Miankaleh lagoon. The reserve attracts tens of thousands of migratory birds each year. Migratory birds in the lagoon include flamingos, swans, pelicans, grey heron, pheasant and Eurasian teal. Many are escaping harsh winters in Siberia.

The migratory season in the lagoon starts in October and ends in March. “The lagoon is a bird-watching paradise, and we can photograph them for almost six months of the year,” Mohebi Pour says.

But in 2020 and 2021, tens of thousands of birds, including flamingos, died in the Miankaleh wetland. Why is not yet known.

'The Bitter Death of Birds' (above)

The government announced the cause of death to be dehydration and the presence of botulism toxin. Local environmentalists reject this theory. They say the deaths could be linked to the illegal dumping of industrial waste and wastewater from a nearby power plant.

“I will never forget the day when I went to the lagoon and faced many dead bodies of flamingos,” Mohebi Pour recalls. “As someone who loves nature, it was very painful for me. I cried a lot.”

That emotion comes through in his winning photograph. It shows volunteers from an Iranian environmental organisation collecting the dead flamingos, to bury them to stop disease. “The people of the world should know about this sad event: the death of birds.”

Competition judge and conservation photographer Daisy Gilardini found this image “particularly touching due to its stillness”. “This image is a meditation of darkness and silence,” she says. “One cannot help but feel both sad and angered. Sad that it happened in the first place, and angry enough to help prevent it from ever happening again.”

Mohebi Pour worries about the future of the lagoon. Mass bird deaths will happen in other countries “if we do not reconsider our lifestyle or take care of our environment”, he says.

And Iran’s other wetlands are under threat too. Climate change and lower rainfall are drying the country’s wetlands and lakes. But “unprincipled dam constructions and agriculture play the most important role in the destruction of the wetlands”, Mohebi Pour says. “My country is facing a water crisis.”

He will continue to photograph the environment and its damage for others to see. “It is a priority for me”, he concludes. “I myself do not know where my interest in nature and the environment started, but I know it will long continue. Photographing the environment is very important to me and attracts me more than any other subject.”

Photo essay: The Bitter Death of Birds by Mehdi Mohebi Pour

'The early days and the efforts of the rangers to collect the bodies' (above)

'The death of various species such as pelicans (|)' (above)

'The death of various species such as pelicans (||)' (above)

'Few of the birds managed to return and live' (above)

'After 2 years of death, life has returned to the lagoon' (above)

View this year's winning photographs:

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