CATCHING UP WITH MUSTAFAH ABDULAZIZ
Just got back to Berlin after a month back in my hometown New York City seeing friends, family and planning an upcoming exhibition.
Who were you before you picked up a camera? How’d that moment change the course of your life?
Before I began photography, I was pretty keen on a different life path. There were a few things I was into, but the main thing was becoming a pilot. When I came across a book by Richard Avedon called In The American West was really when something sparked inside me and my fate was sealed. Exploring the world, the lives of others and understanding myself all crystallized with photography.
How do you see your life today as opposed to what you envisioned for yourself as a kid?
Well, I’m 30 now and for most of my childhood I was certain I’d be a pilot by now. In all honesty both of these desires share an underlying determination to push the boundaries of what could be accomplished with my time on this earth, and so I don’t really see them as opposed.
We know you get around. What is the most sketch situation you've gotten yourself into for work?
Oddly enough, some of the most intense things I’ve experienced have been in the course of creating my project Water. I say odd because in many regards, and at first glance, the topic of water wouldn’t imply such extremity. But the places I needed to work in at the beginnings of the project were focused on the vivid and very real extremes of living without access to clean water and issues of water scarcity. These issues are, in their worst condition, found in places with histories of conflict, poor infrastructure, corruption and tribalism. Everything from nearly getting jailed in Sierra Leone to having some random mercenary fire his AK-47 next to my head and perforating my eardrum aren’t exactly the things I imagined happening on a regular basis when I set out to do this work on water. In Pakistan I was working outside of Karachi and got caught in traffic on my ride back into the city during a military police siege of an apartment block nearby, where they’d cut the power and brought in Blackhawk helicopters during their firefight. Wrong place, wrong time. Anyway, there are some other more direct scenarios that have happened, but those are better left unsaid.
Who is inspiring you right now?
I’m pretty temperamental about the photography I like, so I’ll just list off some names whose work holds my fascination for longer than the immediate moment: Geordie Wood, Thomas Prior, Peter van Agtmael, Luc Delahaye.
What is inspiring you right now?
I’m obsessed with Richard Misrach’s Petrochemical America book. It’s such a brilliant idea. I caught the Strange and Familiar show curated by Martin Parr at the Barbican in London recently, and had a really enjoyable experience reinterpreting some ideas I had about doing some of my project in Europe. Ponte City by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse was a gift from a photographer friend and pouring over both those books at the same time is triggering a lot of new thought process for the end goal of my own work. Another friend introduced In Flagrante Two by Chris Killip.
Where do you call home? does your location play a role in your work?
I’ve been living in Berlin the last five years. The city is known for a lot, but what works for me is I’m able to retreat from a lot of current trends and things in my industry and just focus on doing my work for my own aims. Geographically it’s quite central in Europe, and a lot of my work these last years has been in West Africa, East Africa and Asia and getting to these areas is pretty easy from here.
Anyone you’ve crossed paths with that made a major impact on your career?
All of my closest friends are in photography, in some way or another, and I think that’s because a certain approach to the world attracts a certain character. Perhaps. What I’m trying to say is that all the people I trust and care about share a passion towards understanding the world, and I believe being surrounded by such luminance is not only momentarily impactful but elevates anyone it touches.
Is it important to you to be a part of a photographic community or are you more of a lone wolf?
I think it’s important to spend some time in the photographic community because there’s a lot to be learned and life can lead you to coming across someone who you vibe with strongly and that’s a good thing. Personally I prefer to work on my own, to obsess on my own, and then bring back the product of these journeys to people close to me, rather than participate in the community at large at all times. I need a lot of alone time, as a person, and this relates directly to how I make my work.
What drives you to keep pushing forward?
The belief that what exists now is not the only way it can, or must, exist. I’m not sure if that’s the most eloquent way of putting it, but I truly believe in the capacity of photography to evoke some very powerful understandings and appreciations towards existence and our world. The ultimate goal of my work on water, the final piece, is a mixture between a dream and a goal. It’s not an idea I share with anyone, but there is definitely a specific way I wish to share this work on water and so I’ve committed myself to seeing it realized.
What is one of the biggest challenges you face as a photojournalist?
I’m a photographer. The biggest challenges I’ve faced, and will continue to face, is finding the right people with imagination, with belief and passion in what’s possible. Like many industries, change isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms in photography. That is to say that novel ways of thought, innovation and risk are hard things to find in people, but once you find someone who understands your vision and can bring something new to it, then you’ve found a like mind and a good soul.
Are you happy with your work?
Some of it. Ask me again in a year. I guarantee the answer will be the same.
There is no second option for me. Either I succeed or I don’t.
Aside from photography, do you have any other creative outlets?
Not at the same scale as photography, but a great appreciation for a lot of other peoples creativity. Whether music, cinematography, film, philosophy, history. Learning as much as I can, about anything, is probably the simpler answer to that question.
Favorite web resources?
I’m not much for looking at photography online. Not for any esoteric reason. It’s just hard for me to really invest in photographs or concepts that way. My favorite resource has always been libraries, book stores, magazine shops. Places I can go and must make an effort to immerse myself in, so I can come across new things by chance. The point isn’t to find what I know, but to see what chance brings, and then move on with life.
Water, water, water. I’ll be doing this project for another 11 years, maybe more. Lots to be done.