Exclusive: 10 Q's for Mustafah Abdulaziz
Berlin-based Mustafah Abdulaziz got his big break in the field of photography as the first contract photographer for the Wall Street Journal. His work focuses on people, cultures, and humanitarian affairs around the world, but he has also dabbled in New York Fashion Week. Currently, he is documenting issues surrounding the global water crisis. We caught this jet setter in a moment of respite and asked him ten questions about his work.
1. Where did your interest in photography start?
My introduction to photography came through a book by Richard Avedon. The series was of large-format black and white portraits of oil workers, drifters, towns people and politicians from across the United States. I was intrigued by this idea of Henry Kissinger being photographed with the same amount of dignity and character study as a Midwest boy holding a snake. This motivated me to explore my own concepts in photography and how I felt about the world.
2. How did your water project begin? And with funding and commissions from organizations like WaterAid and United Nations, how has it evolved?
The project Water came about in two ways. I left New York City and moved to Berlin. This took me out of a comfort zone, out of assignment photography and into a new space where I had to reevaluate exactly what I wanted to apply photography towards. The issues of water are complex and presented a unique challenge. I wanted to be invested in a project at a deeper level, to work in ways I felt were important and create something that was larger than myself, that could endure. Berlin gave me the time and space to imagine and plan. Funding came about by approaching organizations whose short-term goals would provide me with the ability to pursue each trip on my terms. To craft something so expansive requires a support system of people who believe in your vision and in who you trust your vision with. Without support, without imagination, something like Water could never have begun.
3. How does water play a different role in each of the places you’ve visited?
In each country I visit, water reflects a value system. I try to present this idea within the context of each issue, whether that is water scarcity in Ethiopia or the conditions of poor sanitation and water in the Freetown slums and their repercussions on health. How we treat this resource required for our existence is a mirror for a greater theme of how we imagine our world to be and how it really is. This can be seen in the Middle East, in how desalination plants and the idea of technology as a solution needs to be addressed intelligently for a sustainable future. Or this can be seen in disappearance of cultures in the Pacific as sea levels rise, or in the way the Dutch manage their water issues in complex and responsible ways. This is the core of the project: how our interaction with water reflects who we are.
4. Portraiture is an integral part of your work. What is the relationship between a photographer and his subjects?
I can only speak for myself and the photography I’m attracted to. There are many fascinating things about portraiture, the human face and the potential for photographs to hint at something in between the subject and photographer. The portraits of mine that I think work are ones where the power of the image comes not from me, but from the subject or the space that’s created by the act.I’m inspired by portraits that connect with concepts I believe to be inherent in the medium. This is where subjectivity, an understanding of social environments and ideas of identity can blend with aesthetics to support a personal perspective.The portraits I make come from a personal need to see them exist. Trust and intimacy with my friends gives me a in-road into the space I share with them. With people I meet while documenting water, it’s trust and showing that you see them as a person and you respect them.
5. How is your approach different when shooting political portraits, like in The Purifying Ganges, vs. personal portraits, like in Memory Loss?
The work I did in America, in Memory Loss, was an exploration of my feelings about my own country. It was extremely personal and experimental without necessarily looking into my own personal life. That is what drove me from place to place so I could see and respond without a plan. With Water, I’m redirecting my personal desire to understand the world and focusing it on creating a modern typology of something very real and serious. It is a resource whose future will determine the lives of a great many people. I am putting my passion, severity and tools at the service of accomplishing this.
6. When you travel you stay in a given country for 3-4 weeks at a time. Can you talk about this kind of immersion?
Ideally, I would wish to spend more time in each place, to create smaller, more nuanced narratives. I believe in the value of this, but also in the idea of a project that weaves larger themes together, to paint the subject of water on a canvas as a global issue. In this way, it is not practical to spend months or a year on each trip.I try to immerse myself as much as possible in the places I go because the more time I can spend somewhere, the more connected I can become with people, places and my own feelings of it. There’s limitations to this. I come from New York City, where generally dirty water doesn’t decide life or death. Reconciling this reality is worthwhile. What is interesting, however, is that in my attempts to get closer and closer to difficulties in other peoples lives, when time comes to return to parts of Europe or the States I find the contrasts of society increasingly amplified. I try to use this to help me stay critical of myself, my process and the work I’m creating. I hope that accepting where I come from–and the circumstantial privilege it has provided me–is a pathway to remain humble in my pursuit of understanding the lives of others.
7. You lead a life of exploration and wanderlust. What items are your travel essentials?
My passport, grapefruit seed extract pills, mosquito bed net, dry-bags, ground coffee from Blue Bottle in New York City, when I can manage it. My project notebook. Second passport. Mamiya camera with two lens and a dry-bag of Kodak 120 film. An old flip phone and my main phone. Scandinavian sea salt. A deck of cards and tea tree toothpicks. Rain jacket and a good book.
8. You’ve also shot New York Fashion Week, which is a departure from your typical social and humanitarian work. What was that experience like for you?
It was a bit overwhelming because I work very slowly and carefully. The environment of fashion week backstage or front, is a lot of energy, color and light. It’s surreal to watch how much time and effort go into each aspect of a show, how many people it takes to bring someone’s vision into reality and how beautiful an idea realized can be. I found myself enjoying little parts: the set pieces of each show, street scenes in the summer rain before a show, one dress by Oscar de la Renta. These were things I had previously no reason to be around and suddenly I was able to see it up close. Some of my favorite photographers who have shot fashion week were once photojournalists, particularly Christopher Anderson at New York Magazine. I really enjoy seeing fashion week through his eyes.
9. Let’s get a little technical – your preferred format is 120 film. Why analog, and why 120?
Color medium-format is simply how I wish to show my ideas. It shows scenes and people in believable ways, which is important to me. I’m inclined towards realism and blending this with a very specific format is personally interesting. Analog keeps me present when I work, so that the images I create and the ones I desire are only in my head. Valuing what is in front of me is critical. Film is just a part of my process and the benefits and difficulties of using it provide me with a rhythm. I’m not particularly interested in cameras. It’s the desire to see something realized at the other end of the process, that feeling I get from powerful photographs, that I believe in.
10. What’s up next for you?
The focus of my next year is to look at how countries are solving their water problems through technology. For the next five or more years, each chapter of this project will build on the next. I will travel a river in China and look at water infrastructure in the Emirates, the Netherlands and western USA.
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