As everything has to come to an end eventually, I am currently counting down the last few days of my ten-month trip in the United States. I was invited a couple of times to speak on what’s like for a Palestinian from Gaza to live in the U.S. for the first time. My response to such a broad question tends to sound more political than anything, and it’s no wonder when my personal life is nothing but political. I always find myself talking about my experience in terms of how people in America react when they know I am a Palestinian, of how much they know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and of what image they hold of us in their minds, and the like, politically speaking. It did not dawn on me that they were looking for a completely different answer. What they meant was that whether I experienced any culture shock. I got it –or I thought I did. I attempted a new answer.
Yes, indeed. Moving to a new place can be challenging for anyone and culture shock is a normal part of such an experience as everything looks, sounds and tastes unfamiliar: from food and weather to values and customs. Speaking of food, I was “culturally” shocked to say the least. I have so many hilarious food stories to share that I could be a good raconteur, I think. I was really impressed by the sheer size of everything. And here I don’t refer to the exquisitely stunning skyline of the city of Chicago nor the massive shopping malls at which I cannot help but stare in awe each time I am there. I was talking about food, remember? I don’t think there is a place elsewhere in the world can beat the U.S. when it comes to food size. Seriously, the enormous size of one slice of pizza in Chicago is insane; it’s pretty much like ordering an entire pizza, not to mention the gigantic soda cups that they are so huge one can wear them as a hat.
During our trip to Niagara Falls, my friends and I stopped to buy some ice-cream. I ordered the small size. The guy handed me one whose size was too big to fit my hand comfortably. I turned around and asked my friend whether she ordered that one. When the guy told me I did, I said “I am sorry, but I ordered the small size.” Much to my chagrin, I was told that was the small size. When I told him “your small size is as twice as bigger than our largest one back home”, he smiled and said “welcome to America.” Food size in America has always left me dumbfounded with amazement. Couldn’t this be counted as a culture shock for me? After that, it shouldn’t be too shocking to learn that the U.S. broke most of Guinness World Records when it comes to sizes. I don’t know about that; I am just assuming.
Besides food, I may need now to move on to another type of culture shock. Well, in the U.S., people seem to have an obsession with asking for meticulous, albeit unnecessary, details. To get this straightened out, I will tell what happened with me the first time I went to buy some salad. (Food again?) Terribly sorry, but I really cannot help it. Seemingly, food is my biggest culture shock in America. Please bear with me for a moment. My last ranting for the day, I promise.
“what kind of salad?” he asked.
“what kind of salad do you have?” I wondered.
“Caesar salad, green salad, chicken salad,…”
“Caesar, please.” I thought that was it until he showered me with a series of other questions such as: “What vegetables do you like on your salad?” “What kind of cheese do you want?”, “what about the dressing?”, “the chicken, grilled or roasted?”, “the side?”
“Listen, I really don’t know what type of cheese, dressing or side. I don’t mind, either, “ I answered shyly, “I just want some Salad. Any Salad. I don’t care.” I must have looked pathetic that day, or so hungry.
Let’s now move on to another topic, what about Americans? Notice, I have mentioned this time “Americans” not the people of America since the United States of America is the place of immigration and cultural diversity, where one can meet people from all over the world. Americans are known for their friendliness and kindness. True. However, one need to walk down the street to easily realize that they seem to live a individualistic lifestyle. I can see individuals walking, running, reading, shopping, travelling, etc., whether alone or with friends rather than with their families.
Also, based on my humble experience, I could say that some Americans, not internationals, seemed to me that they aren’t quite open to conversation unless you have a dog. Yes, a dog. When I first got here, I felt homesick and just wanted to talk to people. To start a conversation with a complete stranger wasn’t an easy task however. Yes, they smile to you. They look really friendly but give you the impression that they aren’t willing to talk. I once wondered how I was supposed to have them talk to me so I can, at least, practice my English. I sincerely thought of getting a dog. But why a dog?
Well, here’s my story. At the beginning of the first semester, I used to boringly walk up and down the hill, to campus and back home respectively. When their eyes meet mine, they smile. Fine. But that’s it. Just smiles, no words, no further action, no nothing! One day, a friend of mine from NYC decided to visit me after she learnt how depressed and homesick I was. She brought her dog with her. While we both walked together to campus, I remained speechless as I saw how all of a sudden those smiling, soundless faces, the very faces I was complaining about to that friend in front of whom I flushed red with embarrassment as though I was lying to her about those faces who turned out to be so friendly, finally decided to talk to us. Wrong, to the dog.
Would it be shocking to say that I got jealous of all the attention people paid to that dog? I am not even exaggerating when I say that every single person walked past us in the street would stop to pat the dog on the head, say how cute she was, ask for her name and breed, smile again and finally wave to the dog as they walk away. Really? Isn’t this culturally shocking! I asked my friend what the hell that was. She laughed. I didn’t. This made me wonder whether Americans love dogs more than people. I still have no answer to this question, but seriously what was that? I kept thinking that day long that I might want to consider having a dog. 10 months elapsed and I still haven’t had one. It should be no wonder, however, most of my friends are internationals (from Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Turkey, Egypt, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Columbia, Mexico, Pakistan, Taiwan, China, and so forth. And, of course, I have many wonderful American friends, yet it was way easier for me to make friends with internationals in the U.S. than with Americans themselves.)
Would the aforementioned stories be good examples of my culture shock? I am not sure of this, but some are still not satisfied with this. This wasn’t what they wanted to know. They didn’t care about my salad story or the gigantic soda cup not even that cute story about the dog. They wanted to know what is like for Palestinians, perceived as needy, destitute, uneducated, unenlightened, to be in the United States of America, living a civilized life! Only then did I realize that this is the culture shock they were talking about. I came to this conclusion based on questions such as: “Are there universities in Gaza?”, “is internet available there?”, “are there stores, restaurants, parks,..etc.?”, “do people in Gaza listen to music?”, “do they play sport?” “what?! You have a beach over there?! I thought you came from a place mostly desert!”, or “today is unbearably hot, but –lucky you –you are used to this, how did you survive the winter?”, and here’s the killer; during one of the events I spoke at, a woman asked me if we are willing to build playgrounds for children instead of teaching them violence and asked me whether they go to school.
Well, if I were asked what’s the biggest culture shock for in the U.S., I would say these questions. I sometimes take offense, and I probably shouldn’t, but this is really shocking. Dude, yes we have a tough life, but we do have a L I F E. An American friend of mine wrote “I feel angry at our education system that don’t teach us about other countries. We teach as though USA is at the center of the universe.” As a cultural ambassador in the U.S., I know it is my job to break these stereotypes. This is why I wanted the photo for this article to be “Gaza beach”. This picture shows thousands of children on the beach trying to break the World Record for kite flying. (Do you think only the U.S. can break records? Yes, we too can. Obviously we’ve got the American spirit, or better yet the Palestinian one.) Anyway, I am glad that this picture shows the sand along with the beach, so no one would think it’s a “desert” after all.
Yes, we might have long normalized the life of injustice, yet we have tried our best to transcend this inhumane life and live our humanity. In spite of the pain, we live. We laugh. We love. We sing. We dance. We play. We swim. We read. We study. We learn. We work. We dream. We hope. And there is no way I can defend or prove my humanity to anyone, and whoever thinks we are less than this is anything but a human. And as that gentleman welcomed me to America, I too welcome you to Gaza to see how we “teach life.”
Peace brother Ridwan tell us how you been recently?
I’m real good, been real good, working on a lot of different things for Ridzdesign as well as Islamic Relief, Rizzy is always good though.
How long have you been doing photography and what got you into it in the first place?
At this point, over 10 -12 years. It was kind of funny cause I trace it all the way back to playing with lego’s when I was little kid, because my favorite thing to play with was lego’s, I was always creating stuff, always building things, always making things, as I got older I was creative and wanted to be part of the creative realm but I mean I didn’t think I had the talent, I couldn’t paint, I couldn’t stroke but I knew I wanted to do something that had to do with the arts so I went into computer animation and I got my fine art degree but for the first two years it was all drawing classes, all paint classes, all stroke classes, everybody else was fine artist, what you would consider fine artist and I always struggled with all that stuff because it wasn’t me but what I found my thing was, I was a really good story teller, so then I borrowed my father’s camera at the time and started taking pictures and using that as my tool and I found that that was one way that I could do it, I could talk through the camera you know what I mean, I can use that as my medium, I didn’t have to draw, I didn’t have to paint, I can use my camera to tell the stories, then I got into film and stuff because with one frame you can tell a story with a bunch of frames you can tell a scene, with a bunch of scenes you can make a movie and that’s what really got me into it.
Do you remember what your fathers camera was?
It was a canon 8E1, 35 mm film camera, all manual everything, manual focus, manual exposure, manual everything, I used to take that to hip hop shows and in the dark like manual focus, if anybody who knows what that means knows how hard that is to manually focus and manual exposure in like a dark hip hop show in film, that’s how I learned how to use it.
We land in Mogadishu and you are in the airport and they open the gates and you get in a car and from the first moment you are like wow, this is really serious, and you see the destruction on all the buildings, bullet holes riddled everywhere, there wasn’t a single building that wasn’t shot up, that didn’t have bullet holes, and you are driving through and you are like this is serious.
Would you say that was your first camera or did you have another one that you would call your own?
My first camera, I was probably like 8, it was one of those 110 film camera, that had the wide film, I remember having one of those, I don’t know if any of those photos exist but I do remember having one of those but it was my father’s camera and my brothers camera that I took the 35 mm film work and I basically took them, they are mine now.
Do you still have them today?
I do, they are sitting in my office.
Is that like a memory for you, do you look at them as like your first, kind of like your first experimenting with photography?
I mean I have them on shelves, I like them, they are classic and a lot of kids today they didn’t learn on film, they are leaning on digital, so it’ a completely different mind set to do that and I think learning the old style traditional way using film and having to look at your, you know you have 36 shots in a row, you didn’t have an 8GB card that you could put 200 or 300 photos on, I used to do full photo shoots on the 36 roll , each shot counted, it cost money to develop these rolls so you took care of your 36, it was like bullets in a chamber, you don’t waste them, you had to use them wisely or you had to put a whole other roll in, you didn’t just click click click finish the roll and then your done.
Do you look back nostalgic towards those days or are you happy with the digitalization of the camera and media, what’s your opinion on the advance of technology in that respect?
I mean technology is amazing and the things we can do today are completely amazing, it’s really like light years ahead of what the camera and the stuff back in the day was but just being able to learn that way I think benefited me in the way I approach the way I shoot and I think even anybody starting up now and any young photographer coming up should do that, just to learn it, just to know what it takes to do it the way it was done, you will get a greater appreciation for the technology that you do have.
Do you feel that there will be a shift back to using the old cameras since everybody is using all the modern canons and digitals and everything, do you think people will start like a throwback type of thing, you know people go back to using the older ways, it become the new or cool thing to do? Do you feel that people will go back or do you feel like it’s lost?
You can’t really go back anymore, they are phasing out film, they are shutting down film factories , it’s kind of going by the wayside, you can still shoot on film and some people still shoot on film and there is nothing like large format film, there is nothing like that digital these days, the way that looks and the way that feels, some portrait photographers shoot exclusively on that, I don’t think in my lifetime I will see anything that rivals that on the digital end.
I wanted to focus on photography but you are a filmmaker as well, you do videos, do you remember what your first video was, one that sticks out, that you remember, that you would consider your first video?
My first music video was C-Rayz Walz, I did two videos for C-Rayz Walz in one weekend, we did two songs in one weekend, we shot all saturday, we shot “buck 80″ and “3 card molly” in the bronx, we shot one during the daytime and we took like an hour nap and shot the other one at night, saturday night into sunday, all night in the bronx which was real interesting to say the least but that was my first real music video that got played on TV and I got paid for, I mean before that it was experiment and student film.
Tell us about the school project, the independent type of experimental videos that you did before?
Yeah, there was tons of stuff before, in school obviously we did short film, my first short film that I shot in school, everybody was shooting in digital video cameras at the time, I said no I want to learn to do it the right way, if you want to call yourself a filmmaker then you gotta shoot on film so I shot my first film on 16mm film, I cut it, literally, the reason they say editing is cutting is because you literally cut the film and you had a reel that you had to cut the strips into little bits and tape them back together to make your edits and my first film was that and again it goes back to the same thing, it gives you such a great appreciation for the process, for the craft of actual film making.
Do you want to speak briefly about what your first short film was about?
Oh wow, my first short film was called “Searching”, it was one actor, throughout the whole film he was looking for something and we didn’t know what he was looking for, and he is searching all over the place and he finds a mirror in the garbage, takes out a sharpie and in the mirror he draws a happier face on the mirror over his own, he was searching for happiness, he was searching for himself but through that he found a way to trick himself into believing the reality he created.
Would you say it was a natural transition for you from photography to filmmaking or did you think you were going to stick to photography first and then you stumbled upon film, how would you describe that connection?
For me it’s all about story telling, so no matter what the medium was, like I started out in computer graphics and I did animated shorts and what not and it was all about story telling , even with the photography, it was about telling a story in a single frame, you frame it up, you position things in a certain way, and you light it in a certain way, and you’re telling a story, you are telling an expression, a feeling, an emotion and that’s what film is, film is basically that replicated over and over again in where you are taking your shots and editing them together and making longer pieces of basically the same element, you are making multiple stories to make a larger story within one thing which is that one image, that’s what photography is, it’s just a natural progression to move from still photography to film and back and forth, for me at least.
Tell us about last year, I know you started a project, the photo a day project, did you start it on January 1st of last year?
Yes on January 1st, I said to myself, I’ve seen other people attempt it and i’ve seen other people do it, I said I want to try this, I want to try to basically create everyday, working at the non-profit organization Islamic Relief, we deal with a lot of heavy material, a lot of really serious subjects, things that can really get to you, so I wanted to create something a little bit more light-hearted, for me it was just an outlet to create everyday so the goal was to take a photo everyday and post it online and add a story, originally it wasn’t even about the stories, it was just about taking a photo and it grew into something bigger, it grew into more about the story and the journey and I started realizing that even though it was about the photography it becomes about more of the process and more about what I was going through, and more emotionally and psychologically and that whole journey because I knew it was a smaller piece to something much larger, it was every single day, there are 30 days in a month, there are 7 days in a week, there are 365 days in a year and last year was a leap year so it was 366 days, each photo, each moment was part of a larger tapestry of the year.
Was there any challenges in this project, was there any moments where you couldn’t take a photo of something, anything like that happened?
With a full time job and especially with the position I’m in where you are working 14, 15, 16 hour days and then you are exhausted, you leave work, you just want to go home, you want to eat, you want to go to sleep at that point, but part of the challenge was having the dedication and having discipline to say no, I need to get a shot, I remember there would be times I’m laying in bed, i’m laying next to my wife , it is midnight and i’m tired, I would go I didn’t take a shot today, she would be like shut up don’t get up and I’m like I got to do it, I get up, I get dressed, I get in the car, I drive off and I go look for something, sometimes I’ll take a self-portrait, or I start taking my daughters toys and use them as props to try to tell stories with that.
It was like a roller coaster, there would be really good weeks where it was really creative and I found ways to go out like during lunch take a little extra twenty minutes and do something or plan something with somebody, I’ll be like hey I want you to show up on Thursday wearing all green or whatever if I had this idea or i’ll drive out, I would keep like a mental registry of locations and things I saw that if I didn’t use for today I know I had a long way to go, I’ll save that one for a rainy day, I’m going to save that one for a day when i’m tired and I need something so I just gathered all of this up in my head and there would be days where I had some amazing amazing stuff and there would be times where it was slower or I was busier and I didn’t have enough time to concentrate on it but that’s what made it interesting, it mirrored life, that’s what life is, no one is on point 365 days of the year, nobody is at their top of their game all the time, it’s impossible, there were days were I got sick or my daughter got sick and I couldn’t do certain things, you have to just go through it, there was a day I remember where I did a really long photo shoot and I didn’t want to use any of my work photos, it had to be something separate and I fell asleep, I forgot I didn’t’ take the shot I fell asleep, and I remember waking up and my bag was right next to me, I woke up and all I did was I pointed the camera towards the ceiling and I took the shot and went back to sleep.
So that was your photo of the day?
That was the photo, I needed to get it in.
I wanted to ask you, since you said sometimes you would look at a place and would be like this is a good spot for a future shot so some of it was somewhat planned but at the same time I saw there was a lot of spontaneous shots especially in December you were posting on your Facebook page who is down to take a photograph right now, meet me in wherever, Queens, Manhattan, whatever it was so it also had the spontaneity to it as well?
I’d say about 90% of it was more spontaneous than planned and if it was planned, it literally was like I have this like sliver of an idea that I want to see it through, maybe doing it, there would be times I would go to a location, where I know there is this forest that’s close to where I live, I’m just going to go and check it out, I know it’s there, I have no idea what I’m going to do there, I have no idea what the shot is but I know this might have potential for something and that was the other part of it there is potential in everything, there is creativity, there is potential for everything if you think about it that way, everything is an option, everything has potential, everything has an opportunity for you to capitalize off of it.
I mean in the interview process if we can call it an interview process, it’s kind of like passive aggressive, when we went, it’s was 8am in the morning, we are on the Palestinians side, they interrogated us until 4 in the afternoon.
How did people respond to that project?
It’s strange, in the beginning it was kind of slow, people were like oh it’s cool you are trying this and it would build steam and as the stories got more elaborate and more personal people started reacting more, at first I was like I don’t want to make this personal, I wanted it to be an art project but people reacted better the more personal it got, people started making more comments, more sharing the more personal it got, the more in depth it got, the more about me it got and that’s why I found it really interesting that oh wow people do want to see this, the human side to it, its not just this cold callous thing I’m creating, that I’m just some dude with some camera in some place, no i’m a human being and I go through stuff and that resonated with a lot of people.
From my understanding you are doing the same thing this year but this time with cellphone photos?
Yes, so this year, I initially carried my stuff everywhere I went, I carried my camera bag and all my gear literally everywhere I went, when I was in the car, my wife would be like let’s go to the grocery, I would be like hold on let me get the camera she would be like oh my god can you just put it down, I was like no I didn’t take a shot today I need to take a shot and people would be like hey did you take your shot today cause they wanted to be the shot of the day and i’d be like yes I did or no you are not the right person for it, I’m not feeling you today but this year it’s a little bit easier on myself, not easier creatively but with a cellphone, it’s in my pocket, it’s also to prove it’s not the tool, it’s what you are doing with it that really makes a difference, to one up myself almost, to say hey i’m going to do it all with cellphone this year and see where we go with that.
You said it was easier because you don’t have to have your equipment which is heavy but is it challenging because of the quality of the image, I know your pictures are usually crisp, they are beautiful, you feel like you are in the picture so has that been challenge with the cellphone photos, do you mind that there is a difference?
The interesting thing is that up until this point cellphone cameras I didn’t think were good enough and then in the last maybe year or two, maybe three the new iPhone cameras and instagram, and the way their concentration on it in the industry, in at least the phone industry they want to make quality cameras in these phones that the quality is actually pretty good on these cameras and that was part of the reasoning that okay I tested it out and it was good enough for me to use and it offers a challenge in another way, theres no lenses, no different focal length, it’s basically learning your tool, learning the pros and cons of the tool and making those work for you so it’s different, it is different and a different challenge, now i’m using a phone, which isn’t a camera, which doesn’t have a remote or button to press, it’s a different tool but at the end of the day it’s the same thing, it’s a camera, its an image capturing mechanism, you are still telling the story, you are still capturing it, you are still framing it, lighting it, you are still doing the same things, it’s just a different tool, a different medium.
It’s about creating good quality work that represent me and my people and my voice and something for my daughter to be proud of, something for my community to be proud of, something for everybody around us can be proud of, hold our head up and say hey this guy is one of ours and he speaks for us, it’s not the other side, it’s not mass media or somebody that doesn’t represent us, no it’s this brother that represents us and understands us and can do it in a way that can be the top level quality and the top level of integrity and that’s what I aim to do everyday.
Since you spoke about the different medium, would you say the art of photography has somewhat been diminished with all this technology, with everybody having a camera, every minute of their life, every moment, taking a million photos, would you say that’s a bad thing for photography?
You know what’s funny, I get asked this a lot, people would expect me to say I hate it, I hate instagram, I hate that everybody has the ability to do this but it’s the complete opposite and the same thing when SLR’s came out and everybody was using them to make music videos and everybody was like I got an SLR and it’s pretty good right and everything looks kind of crispy and everybody’s got these music videos they shot for like a thousand dollars and they look amazing so you are going to be out of a job. What I say is that now that the playing field is level what’s going to stand out is all the important things, there is no excuse, we all have the same stuff, right we all have the same cameras, everybody owns a 7D a 5D, a 60D a P3I, whatever, everybody has an iPhone, so what would separate me from anybody else is what I do with it, it’s the story I tell with it, my quote is, it’s not the camera, but the eye and the mind behind it, and it’s even more so now because everybody has the same thing, the playing fields is leveled, we are all on the same playing field, so who is going to stand out, those who do something special with it, those who do something extraordinary with it, those who can use that tool and stretch it beyond what the confines are.
Do you edit these photos you are taking with your camera phone?
I do, I use a few apps on the phone, which was another reason why I went that route, the ability to do what I do, and post production on the computer, it’s in my phone, I didn’t have to wait to go back home and be on the internet, get on the computer and download the stuff, that was part of the reason is that I could do it all from my phone, I can take the photo, edit the photo, write the caption and post it all from my phone without having to do anything.
Is that how it’s going to be are all the photos going to go straight from your phone or are you going to do some editing on the computer as well?
No, straight from the phone, 100% phone.
You work for Islamic Relief USA and you guys do a lot of non-profit work, volunteer work in the United States as well as around the world, you traveled with the organization to Somalia in November of 2011, how was that experience, going to Somalia, did you fly straight there, did you have a couple of stops before hand, and what were your thoughts before you reached Somalia?
I’m the creative director at Islamic Relief USA, which is a non-profit NGO, they do humanitarian work in the US and abroad, I do all their photo work, their video work also, lead the design team and all of that, my first trip to the field was actually Egypt and Palestine in 2011 right after the revolution in Egypt, that was my first in the field experience, it was really interesting, good breaking in to try to get me into that and the different mind set of work, it was completely different than anything I had done before, and then when the famine broke out in East Africa later in the year we actually made a trip there but we stopped off in Kenya first, in NairobI which is a lot farther than I thought it would be, you just look at the map, and Africa is like condensed, but like from London to NairobI it was a ten hour flight, I was like wow, that is far, we were going near the equator, south of the equator, and we stopped in NairobI and we were there for a day or two and we were waiting, there was a UN private jet that would take us into Mogadishu, Somalia, these are just non-profits organizations airplanes, basically humanitarian airplanes that get you into Mogadishu.
We land in Mogadishu and you are in the airport and they open the gates and you get in a car and from the first moment you are like wow, this is really serious, and you see the destruction on all the buildings, bullet holes riddled everywhere, there wasn’t a single building that wasn’t shot up, that didn’t have bullet holes, and you are driving through and you are like this is serious, and then they took us to the first refugee camp where we were meeting tons and tons of families who fled from wherever they came from, they came from all over the place, in Somaliland and in Southern Somalia, they come to Mogadishu so they can find food or water or medicine, it’s just massive amounts of people in refugee camps and you start meeting with people, hearing their stories, hearing what they went through, and it’s really really humbling, and kind of overwhelming but while doing it, documenting all this stuff, you have to block all of it out, and kind of just zone in, let me do my work, and capture all of this, and you meet people, and then when you get back, is when it all hits you, when you start going through the photos, going through the videos, watching everything, is really when it hits you, wow, this is what you just witnessed firsthand.
The organization was delivering medical supplies or food relief?
Yeah, there is food packets, the necessities like rice, flour, sugar, salt, and stuff so you can make rice, stuff that you can make bread with so they can bake their own bread, and then there is like lentils, beans, things that you can sustain on, non-perishable, that you can survive off of.
You role was to document what was going on, to get the story of the people on the ground?
Basically the voice of the voiceless or the face of the voiceless, they can’t tell their stories here, they can’t come over and tell you what their experiencing, it’s to document this, to show that this is what the people are going through, this is a need that is out there, we need to help these people, this is what the reality of it is, and kind of to tell their stories, and to bring that over here and transmit the information visually.
How long were you out there for?
That whole trip I think was a week, a week and change, but the actual time in Mogadishu was I think 3 days, 3 or 4 days, really tight curfew, like you had to be in by 4pm before the sunset for security issues and to make sure everything is safe.
What inspires me is the ability to inspire others, if somebody else sees a photo or sees a piece of work that I have done and is like I didn’t think I can do this but now I can, I want to try this, I want to go out and I want to create something or I want to tell this story, or say you meet somebody from a culture that you are not a part of and you don’t know anything about and hey I didn’t know that I can use this to tell my peoples story then go ahead and If I’ve inspired you to do that then that’s inspirational for me that tells me that what I’m doing is right.
How did the refugees respond to you approaching them with a camera, were there certain moments that were like, I don’t know, maybe you felt you shouldn’t be documenting it, people not happy, it’s an awkward situation to be in sometimes?
Well for me personally, the way that I shoot and the style that I shoot, it’s very personal, it’s very up close, I’m not hunting these people, i’m not a hundred yards away with a really long lens, they are not tigers in the safari, these are human beings, they are people, so I’m about a foot away with a wide lens, when I first got there I went to the field office and asked how do you say what your name is and how do you say look here, and how do you say what my name is, SofeerI was look here, Mahga’ay Ridwan, so I’d be like Magha’ay Ridwan, my name is Ridwan and Magha’aa was what is your name, so when I first meet somebody I would say Salam Magh’aa, and they would be like wow okay and they would say their name and then I would say Magha’ay Ridwan, shake their hand, once you do that, you kind of broken the ice, you kind of broken down that barrier, obviously I’m light skin, I’m arab, I don’t look Somali, I’m obviously not from there so once I did that it kind of broke it down and then you have a human being and you are talking one to one and then I’ll do that little symbol, i’ll have the camera in my hand and I’ll hold it up basically saying can I take a picture, non-verbal communication, and if they nod i’ll take a picture, if they say no or put their hand up or wave me off then I don’t take the picture, if they don’t want it then I’m not going to disrespect that. You realized that when you break that barrier and you ask people they are more susceptible to say sure go ahead or if they don’t want to they will tell you no not at all.
You said you had to kind of distance yourself in order to do your work, I remember one of your photos, of the SomalI woman, she had the blue scarves, I believed they had chicken pox, was it hard taking her picture at that time or did you look back later on and was like damn, these people are going through a lot of suffering?
It was looking back, at the time, she is there, she looks at me, I remember her being weaker, like physically weak so I’m asking her can I take her picture she is kind of like sure go ahead and she is physically weakened and I take her shot, I take a few and again with my style remember I was saying, i’m not machine gunning, i’m not taking 30, 40 shots, I’m taking of each person or each set up or each thing maybe 4 shots, maybe 5 shots like max so I’m not dwelling on something for a really long time, I’m doing it kind of quickly, respecting her time, respecting her privacy, to not have someone just sitting there in her face liked 5, 10 minutes, you are sitting there like 30 seconds, I take a few snaps, if I don’t like I adjust, take a few more, you are in and you’re out and you remove yourself from that situation.
I know a lot of the photos were people going through the famine, the drought, traveling long distances but how was the spirit overall, I saw some of your photos with the kids, you know how kids are, even in a bad situation, they are in a better mood at least, they lighten up the mood a bit, they were smiling, looked like they were playing soccer or sports, would you say it was all depressing?
What’s funny is, I named the whole series scars and smiles because when I first got there you see all the buildings, you see the destruction, and you see diseases and the sickness and the death and you are like wow, that’s what first hits you and then you start talking to the people, you start hearing their stories and you start breaking it down and then they start smiling, not just the kids, the kids are amazing in the fact that they can get over these things and kind of channel it out and live their lives as children but even the adults feel kind of like subhanallah, this is what our situation is, this is what we’ve been putting through and it could be worse, I mean they are saying that, it could be worse and thank god I have my life, thank god I have my children, that they didn’t die, thank god, for example some people they had six children and four of them survived, thank god that only 2 of my children died not all six.
Its kind of insane to think about it from our perspective here in the west in America, how much we take for granted and somebody in that situation is saying thank god or being grateful and humble for that it isn’t worse and that this is what we’ve been given and we’re dealing with it and we’ll be ok and we have faith and it’ll be fine and that’s kind of crazy and there is this one story, we are in the medical clinic, a little boy who has a really really high fever and the doctor was giving him medicine and he is checking him out and he is checking out his little brother, I think the doctor figures out they have a strong case of pneumonia, so he’s giving them antibiotics and he’s giving him the medicine to make him feel better and then the mother is sitting there smiling and we are talking through an interpreter, she’s telling us what the deal is and what is going on, she tells us that she is pregnant and then she asks me what my name is, I say Ridwan and she says oh I really like that name, I’m pregnant and if I have a little boy I’m going to name him Ridwan , and then I walked out of the tent started tearing up, i’m like oh my god, in that moment right there you are like it wasn’t about the death and destruction and the famine, it was about hope, she has a child growing inside of her and she wants her child to have a good future as any parent would and that’s all she was thinking about.
I think right now there are security issues, we can’t go right now, I think the aid agencies are dealing with some difficulties right now, it’s a little bit more difficult, and obviously we are not the ones providing, we are not the ones that are doing the delivery so we are deemed like, if you guys don’t need to go and risk your lives taking photos and stuff, I would love to go back and it would be amazing to try and go back and try to find some of the people to get an update and to see was that sick little girl healed, is she better, did that family ever find the father who was missing and they lost and those kind of things, it would be really interesting for me to try and go back and see it a year later, see it three years later, see what’s changed and what’s progressed or if nothing’s progressed at all, it would be interesting.
You have been to Palestine as well, was it also with Islamic Relief?
I’ve been to Palestine twice with Islamic Relief, once in 2011 in May and then again in 2012 in august. Both times it was very very interesting just to go to the occupied territories, just to go to Palestine, to a place where a lot of people aren’t allowed to go in and a lot of people aren’t allowed to leave.
It’s a blessing to be able to have seen Jerusalem, and seen the dome of the rock, and going to Masjid al-Aqsa. To experience that,to see the people there and kind of transfer some of their stories and their experiences to the outside world as well, it was a really really big blessing to be able to do that. and interestingly enough in one of those cases, Islamic relief does orphan sponsorships. There was a group of three orphans that we saw the first time we went that when we went back the next year we saw them again they remembered me, they were like oh how are you doing, you came back so that was really really nice to see that.
We went through Jordan both times. Islamic relief has a really good office in the West Bank, the Islamic relief Palestine office in the WB which is really strong and they do a lot of programs, some of them there like there is a kidney dialysis center, they have opened I think like 3 or 4 kidney dialysis centers at this point, they have a school rehabilitation, they build schools, they rehabilitate schools, they give new computer classrooms, its not only in the refugee camp, it’s to help the livelihoods of the Palestinian people, so it’s helping them re-plan their farmland, water irrigation system. Help them get on their feet and support themselves and help with the infrastructure.
Did you have any encounters with IsraelI soldiers or settlers?
On the way in its always interesting, I mean being with Islamic Relief it raises red flags,I mean in the interview process if we can call it an interview process, it’s kind of like passive aggressive, when we went, it’s was 8am in the morning, we are on the Palestinians side, they interrogated us until 4 in the afternoon.
What was funny is that it was the same officers that interviewed me the first time I went to Palestine, she remembered me, we had a conversation, trying to be cordial, like hey I’m back a year later and you are asking the same question. She was asking personal questions and I was asking personal questions like oh you still aren’t married yet. That second time when we were there till 4 pm, my phone battery died, everyones phone battery died, I couldn’t get in contact with the field officer, I was exhausted told the driver to take us to the hotel which was supposed to be in Ramallah, it was ramadan and almost time for iftar.
I mean you’ve been to Palestine so you know what it’s like, so the hotel was supposed to be in Ramallah, me and my colleague fell asleep on the bus, we wake up and I can see the golden dome, this isn’t right, basically it’s like my hotel is supposed to be in Queens why am I in Times Square. We ended going to downtown Jerusalem, I’m like this is all wrong, the driver is like no its the next stop,and we stop by Al-Aqsa and I’m like this is definitely not our hotel, I go into the hotel and use the payphone to call the field officer, he’s like where are you, I told him the golden grand hotel or something like that, he says FANTASTIC, i’ll be there shortly, he drives by, picks us up and he says you know what we are going to do, we are going to do a food drive right now at al aqsa, and then basically we went from being interrogated for 8 hours to being at al-aqsa distributing food during Iftar. The driver took us to the wrong hotel.
It was the night of the 27 of Ramadan, so it was Lailat al Kadr and we fed thousands of people. That was amazing just the fact to where we started out to where we ended up, how that whole day was, that whole process and what we went through and how the day started and what happened and basically I gave up and was like we’ll just pick up tomorrow, wake up and start over and the way we ended up and how that experience was, it’s a blessing in itself how sometimes you can see that you are not in control and all this, you don’t really have much control of anything.
t was all worth it for Iftar and Taraweeh at Aksa… #30days #holyland #adventurecontinues
Egypt has been all over the news again, how long after the revolution did you go?
I think it was June, the revolution ended in February, a few months after the revolution and everybody was being positive and everybody was really hopeful and everybody had a great outlook on life , everybody was talking politics, every cab we went into, every cabbie, basically he’s the one who started the revolution and every person you spoke to was an expert on foreign policy, everybody was an expert, everybody always spoke out about everything and was never scared so it was really funny and they had a really great outlook on the future, they all knew it was going to be a long road but they were very impatient with making things happen, with making changes, I talked to a lot of the youth and they were really excited to be part of it and have a chance to have their voice heard, know that they have the power to do everything, while we were there, one night at Pizza Hut and we come out to Tahrir Square and there is a clash between the people and the police right in front of our eyes and I’m like wait, what is going on right now. Basically they were upset that the police wasn’t releasing names of martyrs who had died during the revolution and they were withholding information and people wanted that information out so they started protesting, it was kind of crazy to experience that first hand.
Did you get some photos then or were you caught off guard?
I got a little bit of video, I didn’t have my camera, I had a phone, I basically ended up using my phone with video to record just a little bit of Tahrir in that moment right there which I think is youtube as well but we weren’t there for that, we were there for Islamic relief as well, after Mubarak left, basically the aid agencies were able to go back in and be able to provide aid and to support some of the people that really need it, so we were going to some really really rural areas that were really really impoverished and didn’t have very much anything at all, Mubarak basically said oh these people don’t need help, we all have money, Egypt is fine but some of the worst poverty I’ve seen in my life was some of the stuff I saw in Egypt.
This is a question that I try to ask people whether it comes to photography or hip hop or any art form that people use. Can photography be used as a tool of resistance?
Of course, there is a photographer that I met when were in Palestine the first time, his name is FadI Arouri, he’s a journalist out there in Ramallah and in the West Bank who was shot, who was actually shot and was in the hospital in intensive care for like 5 or 6 months and then came out and went right back in the field documenting everything, documenting life under the occupation, so he and all the other photographers to there are using their tools to tell the stories of people, I mean for me, I use it in journalistic ways with Islamic Relief and in my own creative work is creating artwork that is representational, has other meaning or has pieces that can represent solidarity, pieces that can represent things that people can use to send messages, imagery is extremely strong like the Islamophobia photo that I have, if you google Islamophobia it’s the first thing that pops up so using things like that is extremely powerful to use art as a tool to send messages, people can use art as a propaganda tool and to say things and you can also use art as a tool to search for truth.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing photography? Any advice to up and coming cats, people interested in pursuing the field?
Just one thing, SHOOT, Shoot, shoot shoot, shoot, make mistakes, keep shooting, go back out, shoot, come back inside your house, look at what you did, figure out what you did wrong, go back outside and try it again and just rinse and repeat, through that process you are able to get better, and through that process you are going to learn how to see things, learn how to look at the world, you can expand on your vision and once you learn your tool you then can work on it in tangibles like storytelling, once you have control of that tool then you can use that tool to be creative and do other things.
What inspires you?
This silly thing that’s sitting on my lap right now inspires me, my daughter, she inspires me to make a better, leave this world a better place then when I showed up, if I can do that for at least her that would be a great great thing, inspiration for me is also from, what inspires me is the ability to inspire others, if somebody else sees a photo or sees a piece of work that I have done and is like I didn’t think I can do this but now I can, I want to try this, I want to go out and I want to create something or I want to tell this story, or say you meet somebody from a culture that you are not a part of and you don’t know anything about and hey I didn’t know that I can use this to tell my peoples story then go ahead and If I’ve inspired you to do that then that’s inspirational for me that tells me that what I’m doing is right, that yes If I can help one more person and if that person can help one more person and it’s a chain effect into making things better across the board.
Ridzdesign 366 – A Photo A Day Project – 2012 It is finally here… after completing 366 days of photography and philosophy… it is now time to print the book… HELP GET THE BOOK PRINTED AND GET YOUR COPY!!! www.kickstarter.com/projects/ridzdesign/ridzdesign-366-a-photo-a-day-2012-limited-edition
You started the kickstarter page, what is the goal of that project and what led you to do it?
After getting the response for the 366 project, the photo a day project, I wanted to put it together so everyday and every other day there would be somebody on there asking how did you do this, how did you do that, how did you take this photo, what were your settings, what was your camera and all these questions that people always ask and I don’t really like to answer because that’s not what it’s about, so I want to compile everything from that whole year, all the photos and all the stories and everything and putting together a coffee table book that one you can admire just the work of art as a piece of art and admire the images and the stories and you can read it and be entertained by it and then on another level you can look at it as tips and tricks in how to do these photos, some of the inspiration behind it, the techniques behind the photos, and if you are an aspiring photographer or image maker you can learn from it, so putting that together we are trying to self publish, we are not trying to go through a publisher and have somebody take large chunks of our money, we are trying to print this book out and send it out to everybody who orders one and wants one and wants to learn and then ship them to amazon and get those on all the different bookstores so we can get it out there to as many people as possible.
Where can people check out your work? What website, youtube page, etc.?
Any last words brother, any last words for those reading this?
Thank you, thank you for the interview, thank you for putting me on, thank you for your help and support, support the arts and let us try to make a difference and that’s all I’m really trying to do is make a difference, I aspire to inspire and anything or anybody that is helping me and others do that is on our side and we appreciate that, we all gotta stick together and support each other in creating quality work, good work, not just creating stuff, it’s about creating good quality work that represent me and my people and my voice and something for my daughter to be proud of, something for my community to be proud of, something for everybody around us can be proud of, hold our head up and say hey this guy is one of ours and he speaks for us, it’s not the other side, it’s not mass media or somebody that doesn’t represent us, no it’s this brother that represents us and understands us and can do it in a way that can be the top level quality and the top level of integrity and that’s what I aim to do everyday.