A conversation about photography and social justice, the relationship between photographer and subject, and - of course - her brilliant work.
Myriam Abdelaziz is a French photographer born in Cairo who has been published in The British Journal of Photography, Le Monde, Newsweek and Time, among others. In a recent project, the heartbreaking ’Menya’s Kids’, she deals with the situation of child labor in the stone quarries of Egypt. “The children of Menya drop out of school to bring back home less than $15 a week; they work from 4pm to 3am in summer and from 7am to 4pm in winter,” Myriam writes on her website. “Ali, a kid working in the Menya’s quarries remember ‘a boy my age came to work here just as I did. He used to put bricks together. One day he just dropped dead.’”
All photos credited to Myriam Abdelaziz
‘Menya’s Kids’ exhibits a kind of surreal quality, with photos shrouded in a thick white layer of dust that settles on the reddish cheeks of the young men and boys. Just like the elusive memory of a dream, the reality of these children is often forgotten and the sounds of electric saws and pickaxes seldom escape the eerie whiteness of these forsaken quarries. The photo series problematizes the traditional image of child labor in Egypt using the power of visual communication.
Your Middle East had the chance to talk with Myriam about her philosophy as a photographer.
YME: What do you believe to be the communicative advantage of photography?
Myriam Abdelaziz: I think that photography has a subtler way to pass messages than other sorts of communicative mediums. A photograph can pass messages understood by millions of people even though their educational background or experiences diverge completely. These messages are very strong, almost intense, but at the same time subtle. Just like the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, I do believe that photography has its own ways to communicate as it can touch people’s emotions in a deeper way. For instance, if you were to explain a very dramatic situation for a person, they might never fully understand it. But if you were to show that same person a photograph, the severity of the situation might be more comprehensible due to the visual element of photography.
During your life you have lived in Switzerland, France, Egypt, and now in New York. Do you think that these transitions changed you, and if so what direction did your photography take as a result of it?
I don’t think of it in terms of change, movement is a part of who I am. In my life I feel a need of variety, a need to discover new places, it is like my soul is calling for it somehow. Already from an early age it made perfect sense to me that I would not stay in the same place all my life. But when I moved to New York I found it to be a good place to settle down for a longer period of time because of the extremely rich variety of cultures and people living in one place. I feel like I can travel within the city itself, which means that I don’t have the same urge to move again. But deep down I am still an explorer. I think this is one of the main reasons for why I am a photographer. I feel an inherent need to discover the world and share what I see. I need movement, and my movement fits my work, the movement is somehow my work. The fact that I have lived in so many places and traveled a lot has therefore not changed my work. It entails a curiosity that needs to be fed, and to be attracted by the unknown is not necessarily to reject what you already know. Instead I see life like a gigantic puzzle getting built piece by piece by the places you go to during your life. And you can’t take one piece out of the puzzle, because each one is equally important.
I have read that as an artist you don’t like to be labeled. Why do you feel so strongly about not putting a label on your work?
I think that once you have been labeled you are stuck under that label. For example, if you say that you are a photo journalist, people expect certain things from you and you are called for specific kind of jobs related to that field. And because you are identified with that specific field it becomes more difficult to try new things. Instead, I am trying to look within myself to figure out what I am attracted to or interested in. And when I have found out what I would like to do, I go and do it. Photography is a very wide concept, and you can do a lot of things with it. It is about freedom of creativity and thought, once you are labeled you loose a lot of that freedom.
There is a strong focus of social justice in your work, especially in Menya’s Kids. As an outsider looking in, how do you cultivate a relationship of trust with the subjects you take pictures of?
When something grabs my attention, or interest me, I try to get to know the people and be accepted by them before I start to take photographs. I believe it is all about the collaboration with the photo subjects. They are using me as a medium in order to get their voices heard, and I photograph them because I believe that their stories have to be told to the world. I don’t think that you can take a portrait of someone that doesn’t want to and still get it to look natural and true. Of course you can take a good photo even though the person in question is not participating in the strictest of senses, but that is not my vision. My vision is to find people who are proud to be photographed and want to tell a story and to be engaged in that particular project.
But I can also feel a kind of uncomfortable feeling sometimes. Because when you take a picture of somebody, you take away a little bit of who they are. You stop them in their natural movement, you stop a moment of life that belongs to somebody else. If the person is not engaged or does not believe in it, then I feel very guilty. I feel like I have stolen something that is not mine to take, like I didn’t have the authorization to do it but I did it anyway. I want people to be comfortable with me, and I want to be comfortable with them. In order to achieve this, it is important to be transparent and straightforward and face the fact that some people don’t want to be photographed, and you have to accept that.
From the photo series ‘Men dreaming’. Credit: Myriam Abdelaziz
A lot of your work is intimate portraits. Do you find it difficult to identify the threshold between invading someone’s privacy and respecting it?
It really depends on the situation. A while ago I did a photo series on the dying tradition of belly dancing in Cairo. Belly dancers are in their very nature performers and public figures, so in this specific situation intimacy was not a problem due to the fact that the dancers were very comfortable in my presence. In other series, like the one I did about the victims of genocide in Rwanda, the reality was very different. These people were broken in spirit, uncomfortable with their bodies and sometimes ashamed. I had to be very delicate in order to be able to portray them in their pain without making them feel disrespected.
When you are dealing with vulnerable people it is very difficult to draw the line. You will only get the authorization to photograph them if they trust you. It is just like all other aspects of life. Some people are comfortable with you straight away so that you can build a relationship of mutual trust, and some people will just not trust you. People are the same everywhere, they are shy, open or closed. It is up to me to navigate these feelings of trust in order to be true to the photographs and the people in them.
Visit her website for more collections: www.myriamabdelaziz.com