• Musings:
  • April 17, 2014

Vanishing Act: The Disappearing Banks of the Padma River

Becky Harlan

“It’s called Ishurdi. It means ‘where God stays,’” Sarker Protick says as he tells me about the district in Bangladesh where he’s been photographing his latest project, Of River and Lost Lands.

Protick, a lover of rivers and an admirer of “good old American road trip–style photography,” began wandering the length of the Padma River, starting in the north and traveling from district to district toward his home in Dhaka. But when he arrived in the Ishurdi district, his plans changed. Something about its landscape haunted him. “In previous places that I had been, the land wasn’t that high from the river. [In Ishurdi] it was very high, and at the edge of the river the land ended suddenly. It felt like it wasn’t finished properly. That particular area was almost deserted. It all seemed strange, not quite right.”

Picture of an eroded coastline
Heavy monsoon rains throughout the Himalaya region often cause rivers flowing into the lowlands of Bangladesh to overflow, exacerbating riverbank erosion.
Arom Baria, near Ishurdi, Bangladesh, July 2012

Sarker Protick composed this song, which incorporates sounds from the Padma River, to accompany his photo essay.

He soon learned that the river was swallowing chunks of shore—a phenomenon known as riverbank erosion. It’s different from flooding, he says, because after flooding, things can return to normal. Riverbank erosion is permanent. “The water rises and hits the lands, and then those lands break into the river. So when that happens, the people will never get back their lands again.”

Picture of a man with a walking stick standing on the coast
Shom Nath Kumar, a 35-year-old farmer, left the village when he lost all of his farmland and his home to riverbank erosion.
Arom Baria, near Ishurdi, Bangladesh, November 2011

Why does this happen? In part, it’s a natural side effect of the river changing its course over time. There are other factors that intensify the erosion, however. Protick references dams in India as one of those factors. “They have floods in that country, and then they open those dams and the water comes straight to this country, and those waters become strong and violent. It has been happening for a long time, but in the last four or five years it has increased,” Protick explains.

Picture of people catching fish on a hazy day
Villagers stand on an uprooted tree as they fish.
Arom Baria, near Ishurdi, Bangladesh, December 2012

Seeing the jagged ground, watching the land fall into the sea, sparked something in Protick.

“I wanted to tell the story of these villages, which are actually going away day by day. The places you have been seeing in these photographs, they are gone already, they don’t exist anymore. Every time I go there the whole geography changes. I always walk from village to village, but walking is getting more difficult because the river is eating away all the land.”


Picture of white cattle in a field.
Cattle roam on a paddy field.
Arom Baria, near Ishurdi, Bangladesh, September 2013

Some might wonder why people stay when they’re engaged in what seems like a losing battle with the river. “This thing has been rooted in our culture, in our songs, our writings, for a long time. And every time it’s referenced, it talks about how people fight with it. It’s strange. They have lost their houses, but they still try to live by the river because it’s how they’ve been living for a long time, six or seven generations, because they are the people of the river. All of their daily activities come from the river—washing clothes, fishing—everything is helped by the river. But unfortunately at some point they have to sacrifice a lot for that.”

Picture of a school boy in a dilapidated building.
Tonmoy Das, eight, returns home from school. The local high school has already lost its playing field to the river and is itself at risk of being swallowed in days to come.
Arom Baria, near Ishurdi, Bangladesh, January 2014

His photographs are beautiful, but they also evoke mourning; it’s the same kind of duality that the river communities have grown accustomed to. Protick talks about his choice to create this monochrome, ethereal aesthetic, which he says was shaped by the place. “I was taking normal exposures in the beginning, but slowly when I was looking at my prints, I started noticing I had this tendency of photographing in high key. So then I decided this would be an interesting approach to tell this story. As an author, I have to know [not only] what I am telling but also how I am telling.”

Picture of a ruined structure on a rocky piece of coastline
An abandoned house by the riverbank. The house was owned by a man who recently left with his family because half of his property was destroyed by the Padma.
Arom Baria, near Ishurdi, Bangladesh, December 2012

Originally, Protick’s goal was to publish the project and raise awareness about riverbank erosion. His motivations have since changed. “There is a big discussion: Does photography change things? Yes, of course it can, but it’s not easy and it doesn’t happen that often. When I used to publish in the newspapers, nothing happened. So I was going through this, thinking, What’s the point of doing this? At some point I realized even if nothing happens I’ll still be doing it, because these things, these places, these villages, they are beautiful. They are all going away. Within three or five years nothing will be left. So I think, in some ways, I am keeping those places alive in my photographs. I am telling stories.”

Picture of people carrying a piece of material near the coast.
Villagers move the remains of a house in order to rebuild it.
Arom Baria, near Ishurdi, Bangladesh, October 2013

“I was talking with this woman and she was saying, ‘I love this place. I was born here. This is our home. Whatever happens, we are happy. God has given us a lot of things. He has blessed us.’ It is unique that after living in that kind of place, they can still say that. And maybe at some point I can show that in my images.”

Sarker Protick is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He teaches at the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, and he was recently selected as one of the Ones to Watch by the British Journal of Photography. To see more of Protick’s work, visit his website.

There are 68 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Sandip
    May 20, 2014

    I felt like I was already there. These photographs made me want to go to these places. I liked the boy’s photograph the most. Just brilliant.

  2. ds lui
    May 3, 2014

    Seldom see white cow. Beautiful.

  3. Marcia
    April 30, 2014

    I was struck by the photograph of the 8 year old boy returning from school. His expression and his clothing projected to me how seriously he and his family take the responsibility of learning–all the while living in a community that is eroding away.

  4. ashish
    April 30, 2014

    I was from Pabna,Ishurdi is my railway station.But i didn’t know the meaning of Ishurdi,nor i have seen places like this.Helped me to know my own land where i had spent a better part of my life.Thank you.

  5. kamrulmanir.
    April 29, 2014

    I know such things happened to my close relations.I admire Protik’s attempt to bring it to the notice of the people of the world and the fellow countryman as well.I don’t know,if my country could have done something of this problem,If can be done it has great prospect.I observed at Rajshahi in the river Padma That a huge quantity of land is garbed by the river,But the water of the river lasts for quite some three or four months.And for the rest of the year entire land of the river bed remains useless.I thought that if we could have changed the course of the river,May be we could have used the land which is equivalent to a city of Rajshahi.If Protik continue his searches and communicating it to the countrymen,I hope one day some solutions may come.

  6. Denise
    April 29, 2014

    Spiritual reading/viewing. Catching the essence of humanity.

  7. Angie
    April 29, 2014

    Everything is accurate! Continue to send love to mother nature by meditating and let things & events freely flow its own course.

  8. Md. Rafiqul Islam
    April 29, 2014

    Very nice pictures. We all should do something to prevent the land as well as the rivers too.

  9. Nazir Ahmed
    April 29, 2014

    It’s going on in Bangladesh from the time unknown.People living close to the rivers are never safe.We should put concerted efforts with honesty,sincerity & diligence to sustainably manage a mega river like the Padma so that the loss of lives & properties may be minimised to the level of ‘tolerable’.

  10. Rubaiya Nasreen Mily
    April 29, 2014

    Nice photography .I am Bangladeshi and my ancestors lived in Manikganj .They were also victim of river bank erosion .

  11. Shrlit
    April 28, 2014

    To the Atheist, I am a Christian I am wonder how someone can not believe in God sure there are things we don’t understand about God but who made the first seed and the first rock or the air we breath, If their is no God then what, but what if there is a God then what? We don’t have to understand were He came from or who or what made Him faith is believing without seeing. Your friend.

  12. Steve
    April 28, 2014

    Is God not suggesting to us people that change is part of life. If we won’t learn to change then God will force us to change!

  13. jenni ho-huan
    April 28, 2014

    Thank so much for this SP. I’ve had a dark sort of day and this just helped me. I hope you are alright that I linked a post to it: http://jennihh.blogspot.sg/2014/04/a-river-runs-through-it-all.html
    thank you. pl keep doing what you believe in!

  14. mikey
    April 28, 2014

    As an atheist – it has nothing to with God (especially a benevolent god) but just natural law; inevitable, really!

  15. Peter Steadman
    April 28, 2014

    Beautiful photos. I do see the sadness of this community being destroyed by the river. I find it difficult to blame mankind and the dam for this. It is my experience this is just life. Nothing remains the same as the world evolves. We may not be doing a good job of managing this river but go to India. The polute all their rivers with no care for what is down stream. We need to learn to care for this world so our childrens children will have a place to live and enjoy a life like we are blessed with. But in this we can not fool ourselves all of us will have the world around us change in ways we donot like. Bless these people and all of you who care. A special blessing for those who don’t.

  16. miguel enrique
    April 28, 2014


  17. Jack Oswald
    April 28, 2014

    Great motivation by you, Protick !!Do keep up your teaching about nature !!

  18. JV
    April 27, 2014

    Where God is, there man is. It shows man cant be defeated until he quits. That’s the power of life…

  19. Vikas pahwa
    April 27, 2014

    I am a Geography teacher and a traveler. This story and these images are a true reflection of the meaning, value and importance of nature in our lives. As a teacher this is a great tool for educating and sensitizing the students about the world they and others live in. Great work Protick, would love to work with you in future.

  20. martin sng
    April 27, 2014

    this is simple pleasure & free for all manbkind to enjoy we destroy It

  21. martin sng
    April 27, 2014

    God built so beautifully, Man destroy this creation, so sad

  22. waziuddin chowdhury
    April 27, 2014

    Beautiful images that also highlights the destructive power of nature when human intervenes.
    Damming rivers upstream is a big factor in the exacerbated destruction. River erosion and deposition of silt has followed the same pattern for thousands of years like any rivers at its appropriate course. The sudden deluge of a large volume of water or sudden contraction depending on the decision to open or close spillways are creating havoc downstream. At this rate, we will only wistfully look at these beautiful images. But I applaud Mr. Sarkar for at least highlighting this issue at NGM

    April 27, 2014

    We are accustomed to the damage caused by floods which result in the washing away of the roads etc and the inundation due to submersion.These are temporary. Here the we find the erosion is continuous.Really tragic.

  24. cristina
    April 27, 2014


  25. Eileen
    April 27, 2014

    I was so taken with the photo of the young boy, dressed so nicely and wearing a tie, with his school bag on his shoulder. In the midst of that poverty, he values his opportunity to be educated. I wish children in the U.S. felt that way about school.
    These photos are hauntingly beautiful and I am grateful that that they will live on when the villages are gone. I hope that they boy will be able to create a better life for himself while honoring his heritage.

  26. Rosella A Alm
    April 27, 2014

    Protick is right. If the village ultimately disappears, and the people who lived in it move elsewhere, his pictures will remain. Many places have come and gone with no trace left of them. “Ozmandias, King of Kings, look upon my works ye mighty and despair.”

    Thanks Protick!

  27. Lynn
    April 27, 2014

    Thank you

  28. Barin Das
    April 27, 2014

    Evocative and haunting images with a dream like effect, perhaps enhanced by over exposure

  29. Luke Warmwater
    April 27, 2014

    Beautiful Sentiments…. shows the strength of human spirit in face of god’s (Mother Nature’s) will. But he should really fix his camera.

  30. Margaret Fenton
    April 27, 2014

    When the course of a river is altered the energy of that river moves from the centre to the edges, this is what causes erosion of the riverbank. Ref: read “Living Water”: Viktor Schauberger and the Secrets of Natural Energy

  31. ann fox
    April 27, 2014

    Yikes & wow…all at the same time…I will have to remember not to name anything after that river…

  32. Karen
    April 27, 2014

    You have soul

  33. Sudeepto Salam
    April 27, 2014

    a rare & well narrated story

  34. Nahin
    April 27, 2014

    I appreciate the idea of working with lost rivers. Truly inspiring for me and would be for others who wants to work for something.

  35. Billie
    April 27, 2014

    When we are young, our minds take and keep pictures of our surroundings .When we are a little older, those places are still with us—in our memories and in our hearts. Especially your photograply carries me to a far away place I have never seen, but would love to see and I understand your attachment to its beauty.

  36. Martha Masters
    April 27, 2014

    Such wonderful pix & song. A few rivers begin near my town in the Ouachita Mountains in Western Arkansas,USA. I love all Rivers.

  37. Bret
    April 27, 2014

    I was struck, in reading the essay, by the similarity of the experiences of people who live where tornadoes occur frequently in the United States, and with significant harm, that I have also read about in National Geographic, and the experiences of the people who are living with the flooding that also occur frequently, and with significant harm, and the reasons both groups give for not moving to a safer place to live. Also, I wonder, generally, if there is a parallel that can be drawn, in some way, between these groups of people and those who are subject to repetitive abuse and who choose to do nothing.

  38. Susann
    April 27, 2014

    “Whatever happens, we are happy.”
    That is beautiful, as are the evocative photographs.

  39. cheryl jenkins
    April 27, 2014

    Ken sounds like a real drag. The photos are inspirational.

  40. Sarah
    April 27, 2014

    Your pictures and story are sad and haunting but at the same time capture the beauty of the human spirit. There is strength and pride in a community that does not give up and helps one another through hardship. Beautifully captured, Protick. Thank you.

  41. cheryl breitung
    April 27, 2014

    Thank you, Protick for taking me away from things I believe problematic. If nothing else after seeing this through your photos and words it makes one appreciate the life one has.

    April 27, 2014

    Bangladesh que pena y esas es preocupación,”el problema de la superpoblación” que dilema, es un gran paradigma.Muy bueno el tema, muy bien planteado.

  43. Cate
    April 27, 2014

    Thank you for voicing all of this. Sometimes we have no idea where or who the work will reach, but it is imprinted on us to do it anyway. Beautiful.

  44. Aziz Islam
    April 27, 2014

    The lead photo looks over-exposed; may be a deliberate act by Protick to create a mystery. Other photos are also over-exposed or taken in a misty morning. These are, however, all natural. Thank goodness that he did not blame climate change.

  45. eileen
    April 27, 2014

    These remind me of the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi, the intense beauty in what’s broken. Except these are peoples’ lives and while we often find our own depth and beauty while broken, it hurts to see the entirety of a way of life swallowed into the river. The music was the perfect accompaniment; it felt like a longing for something that will never be.

  46. Tadeu Fessel
    April 27, 2014

    In my country we have to reforest all riverbanks to avoid erosion. Could that work for your people ? I can send photos if wanted.

  47. fernando marwuez
    April 27, 2014

    superfantabuloso thanckyou

  48. neil maclean
    April 27, 2014

    Beautiful photos, haunting.

  49. Christine
    April 27, 2014

    your song adds a poignant and beautiful element to the essay. Beautiful.

  50. Cathy Wilmers
    April 27, 2014

    These images are hauntingly beautiful and your music amplified my emotions as I read. Thank you for your work and increasing awareness of this damage across the world.

  51. Lori
    April 27, 2014

    Life continues to be transient and tenuous.

  52. Sadhu
    April 27, 2014

    like Ulysias who was a lover of travel at the age of 85 ge started .He said to his son”To Strive.To seek, Yo Find And to Yield Life must be odfadventure.This river Lover is a correct match to ulysis. Sadhu Ramasamy.

  53. Margo
    April 27, 2014

    Thank you for the beauty and education.

  54. Diane
    April 27, 2014

    Indeed your photos telle a compelling story.Nice work

  55. Jenn Russell
    April 23, 2014

    This photo essay is beautifully composed and really shows the emotion of it all.

  56. Ken
    April 21, 2014

    The lead photo looks like a snowy area – except on closer inspection it’s not. I’m sorry to say, countries like Bengladesh are indicative of overpopulation. I reside nearby, in Thailand. People have to start seeing the bigger perspective, in terms of the holding capacity of the planet, for other species. Until then, it’s same ol’ same ol’ – make babies, 1,2,3,….15, and then constantly worry about how to keep them alive.

  57. Adrita
    April 19, 2014

    Great work protik, loved the way you presented the beauty of destruction, and the music really amplified the feeling….great job, wish all the very best.

  58. Reza Shahriar Rahman
    April 19, 2014

    It’s not like this any more, or at least not in winter n summer. I’m travelling through the Ganges (or Padma, what it’s here) with a Photographer, Giulio Di Sturco for his Ganga project. We found only a sing of river there … No water. It’s complitely dry.

  59. Asif Arman
    April 18, 2014

    Amazing Protick bhai….keep up the good work

  60. Sagar
    April 18, 2014

    Protick, it is a beautiful work. When I see your work, it almost feels like rearing poetry…kudos to you.

  61. ayon
    April 18, 2014

    one of my fav work from Bangladesh

  62. littledarling
    April 18, 2014

    I’m so worry about my country’s future. It’s occuring as the same way in Mekon delta.

  63. tariqaziz
    April 18, 2014

    Lovely photography! Thank you for sharing very nice and interesting photographs.

  64. Kehkasha
    April 18, 2014

    Nice work Protick bhaia. And the song is mesmerizing also… Love it. 🙂

  65. Sarker
    April 18, 2014

    Thanks Donna and Gyanendra! and love you too Reetu apu

  66. gyanendra
    April 17, 2014


  67. REETU
    April 17, 2014

    the photographs not only telling the river erosion in here fromyear after year but also projecting the kind f romanticism which can raise awareness to be more negotiating with our big neighboring country. The music is perfect. Love you Protick.

  68. Donna
    April 17, 2014

    The photographs are hauntingly beautiful. I love his approach of story telling. Change can be best but it’s constant, so oftentimes acceptance and beautiful memories serve us well and last til time ends.

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