The Maldives Like You've Never Seen Them Before

Italian photographer Chiara Goia takes us on her personal journey to the tropical islands of the Maldives. Come along!

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In 2009, when Italian photographer Chiara Goia was sent to the Maldives on assignment for The New York Times Magazine, she had no idea that she was embarking on what would turn into a passion project. Trailing the then-recently elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, for the Times profile as he traveled through the Maldives (the country is an archipelago of 1,190 islands), Goia found herself fascinated by the locals, their daily lives, and the environmental issues they face.

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"I had this moment of discovering a side of the Maldives I didn't know existed."

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"Up until that moment, I didn't know anything about the Maldives except for its resorts," says Goia, who was affected by the threat of rising sea levels. "Visiting the locals with Nasheed, I had this moment of discovering a side of the Maldives I didn't know existed."

A man walks up the steps of the steps of Malé's largest mosque, Grand Friday.

Goia spent a few extra days after her Times assignment shooting around the capital of Malé, and decided to return to continue her personal series over the next few years. She became interested in the locals' way of life, particularly in such details as the artificial island of Thilafushi, which serves as a landfill, and the fact that local fisherman, whose very livelihood depends on the environment, still discard their trash in the ocean. 

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"I loved having the chance to meet local people and see daily life," Goia says. This is a theme throughout her photography practice: She's also working on a series in Mongolia, which explores the nomadic culture and the effects of mining on the natives, as well as a more personal exploration in her hometown of Milan. Relating to locals and their hometowns is her particular talent—now, see for yourself in these beautiful works of the Maldives.

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This was one of the first images I took of Malé. I was surprised to find such a crowded and busy city on this relatively small island. The city is so dense that there is little space left for greenery—and there are cars everywhere. It only takes a half hour to walk across the island, but very few people use bikes or walk more than a few hundred meters.

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This is a photograph taken on the Times assignment. I shot these young girls with their mothers on a two-day trip to Bilehdhoo Island, following President Nasheed. This is one of the first moments in which I began discovering the culture and local dimension of the Maldives.

Almost all of the Maldives' garbage is collected on the island of Thilafushi. It was once a very small island, but today it's a landfill with Navy dockyards and gas and construction companies. It's a nightmare and really gives you a sense of the impact we have on our planet. Here I found hills of plastic and trash that's dumped in the water—the same water that tourists swim in on the shore of nearby resort islands.

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This is another photograph I took while wandering the city. I turned a corner and there was a man playing with his child.

Seaplane flights are probably the best way to grasp the configuration of this island nation, and to understand how vast the extension of the country is. I shot this photo of a coral reef on a flight to Soneva Fushi on Baa Atoll.

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Friday is a very interesting day to hang out in Malé, especially during Ramadan, when most people gather in the mosques for prayer. There is not always space for everybody inside, so a lot of people pray outside.

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This seawall is one of my favorite places to walk around after sunset, when it cools down and a lot of people come outdoors. This area is part of the island's reclaimed land; the waves come all the way up to the seawall. Not too far from here is Malé's only beach—it's small and artificial.

This is a shot from my second trip to the Maldives. I was there during the rainy season to see how the country looked in a different light.

I took this photo of a man standing on a seawall from President Nasheed's boat as we were about to approach Dhiggaru Island during my Times assignment.

I came to the relatively remote island of Kinolhas on a trip with my Maldivian friends for a wedding. The island was undergoing some major renovations to its port (these are some concrete blocks that would be used to build the harbor) and people were talking about opening up new guesthouses. Until 2008 it was forbidden for locals to open hotels on inhabited islands—only tourists could stay on resort islands where no locals lived. 

I took this photograph on a ferry to a resort island near Malé, traveling for the Climate Vulnerable Forum held by Nasheed in 2011.

For more information on Goia, see chiaragoia.com

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