Growing up, Aria Shahrokhshahi was always ‘playing’. From pretending to be army men with his friends to ‘deep-sea diving’ in the pond in his mom’s garden, his imagination would run wild, coming up with something new or interesting to create and eventually become. When he became older, that imagination transposed to photography, where taking pictures turned into creating a narrative – this time, for others instead of himself.
And when he realized that documentary photography allowed him to explore and make sense of the world the same way that he could with his imagination as a child, he knew it was the path that he had to follow. Read more about Aria’s work in this interview, where we discuss one of his most significant and intimate projects, the political and social responsibility of photography, and what it really means to be a photographer or an artist in the age of social media.
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Could you tell us a little bit about your childhood and what it was like for you growing up? How did your childhood experiences influence your journey into photography?
When I think back to being a young child, a few main things come to mind. Firstly, growing up in an Iranian household, I was always surrounded by different kinds of people – a huge variety, and all from different socio-economic, political and religious backgrounds. I think this impacted massively the way I see the world now and where my love for people really started. As well as this, being dyslexic and for a variety of other reasons going to eleven different schools, I’ve always been constantly around and adapting to new people.
Secondly – and it sounds strange –, but even in my early teens, I was always ‘playing’. I would ‘play’ all the time. I would make up little stories with my friends, whether that be playing army men or dressing up, magicians and wizards, climbing up trees pretending we were on the run, or my mum’s favourite – going ‘deep-sea diving’ in our tiny pond in the garden. I played a lot and I still do try but in different ways.
I’ll give you a little anecdote. There is a canal near my home and you can rent a rowing boat for a few hours. Sometimes when I’m rowing along, I’ll imagine I’m in a novel or a movie, or I’m an explorer. I like that childish thing of getting carried away in your mind sometimes, and although my work can be quite direct at times, I do like to think when I’m taking pictures, it’s a kind of play, making a story up, crafting a narrative.
When you first started photography, did you know that you wanted to become a documentary photographer? What interested you more than other genres?
In the beginning, I was just enjoying taking pictures without any aim and I wasn’t really thinking about it. But by proxy of being interested in people, I would take an awful lot of portraits, which is still something I love to do. And as the cliché goes, the camera really is like an all-access pass into people’s lives. Then, like a lot of young photographers, I was obsessed and was sure I wanted to be a conflict photographer. I would look at the works of people like Don McCullin, Robert Capa and Newsha Tavakolian, but it wasn’t until I found Tim Hetherington’s work (who still to this day is one of my favourite photographers) that I changed my mind on the whole conflict photography thing.
I think it’s very easy to get carried away in the theatre, drama and fetishization of war, but the sensitivity and gentle pace of Tim’s work and the images that he made touched me very deeply. And then, after I learned about his story and his death, the realities of conflict photography became clear to me. Very rarely do people come out of war ok; if you manage to make it out alive, there is almost a zero per cent chance you won’t be severely traumatised. So in my late teens, I guess I just slowly moved away from that and my interest in long-form and slow storytelling became more important to me.
What did you do then?
I started to look at the works of photographers like Mitch Epstein, Robert Frank, Wolfgang Tillmans, Alec Soth, Carolyn Drake, Gregory Halpern, Larry Sultan or Ell Perez, and seeing how they crafted these long, deeply intricate narratives was really interesting for me. For me, the most beautiful thing about documentary photography is that, just like being a child rummaging around in the forest behind my grandma’s house, I still get to explore. But this time, with making pictures, and in the process, making sense of the world around me.
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Because documentary photography is centred around personal connection and trust, how do you personally cultivate a relationship with your subjects for them to appear authentic on camera?
For me, pretty much all of my work is based around the connections that I make with people or the subject. I mean, even without the camera, I love people, and I like to think I’m someone who’s generally very interested in the things and situations around me. It’s what I thrive off and it’s what brings me the most joy in life: connecting and interacting with people. Maybe you could even call it nosey, but nonetheless, sharing your life and experiences with one another, each interaction completely intricate and unique.
Then, in regards to making someone’s picture, I would like to think that they always trust me, and this doesn’t need to be over a three-year relationship; it could just be a moment, a moment where you have made them feel safe and comfortable in the presence of each other. Like any relationship, trust is the foundation, the basis, them understanding that you only have the best of intentions in mind. Because one of the most important things you have to understand as a photographer is that you are in a position of power just by pointing a camera at someone. The power dynamic shifts, so you have to act accordingly. I’m not referring to what words to say to make someone feel comfortable, but by being open and honest and genuine with the person that you are making a picture of, understanding that by taking their picture, you are in a way taking something from them. Or a better way to word it is that they are giving you a bit of themselves and you must be grateful and appreciative of that.
One of your most interesting photography projects for me is Kalidou. Would you mind telling us more about how this project came about and why it holds so much significance for you as well?
It’s actually quite an odd story. I am a part of this newsletter where you get cheap flights called Jack’s Flight Club, and I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was sitting in the kitchen of my father’s home when I got an email about a three-legged trip from Barcelona to Casablanca and then to a place called Banjul, a place that I had never heard of. I googled it and it came up with ‘Banjul, the capital of Gambia’. I’ve always loved travelling so I just booked the flights, and a few weeks later, I was on my way. I was using Couchsurfing to find local people for each city to meet up and get the lowdown about what’s what in whichever city I was in. And for Banjul, a young man named Kalidou reached out.
We spoke on the phone and he said he was going to come and show me around. From the moment we met, we instantly became friends. Sometimes, in life, you meet people you instantly connect with. We had the same sense of humour, the same taste in music and he was giving me the A-Z of Gambian food – notably, this bean mix in a sauce which unbeknownst to me was incredibly spicy and had me in tears at a roadside cafe for twenty minutes. After just hanging out for a few days, he invited me to his home, where he and his family live. There have been very few times in my life where I have been shown such love, affection, care, and generosity from anyone; they treated me like a member of the family.
That’s sweet. Did you start the series then?
While spending time with Kalidou, I learned that he had to stop school when he was 17 (he is now 24) because of a degenerative eye condition called keratoconus, which is the misshaping and clouding of the cornea and results in severe vision loss and acute pain. Kalidou would tell me about his dreams and aspirations to go to university to study, and after that, to go into politics to help the Gambian people. So almost innately, I decided I was going to make a series of pictures about Kalidou, his family and his life to go alongside a GoFundMe page to raise seven thousand pounds to get Kalidou the surgery he needs. For me, that was the sole function of those pictures, the sole purpose of them to get him on the right track to a better future. Using photography as a medium for that change was beautiful, and to be frank, an absolute privilege.
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Two more of your projects that are particularly revealing are Calais and Calais is Burning. Based on their titles, they both offer an honest portrayal of life in the so-called ‘Calais Jungle’, a refugee and migrant camp in France that was cleared in October 2016. What about this plight inspired you to document it? What were the reactions like when you initially released the images from these projects publicly?
I was driving through France in late 2015 with a friend of mine. It was my first time taking a ferry, so we landed in the port of Calais. The jungle was unmissable, a huge collection of MDF houses and campfires. I had heard about it before but never seen pictures. I remember driving past it, looking at the scale of it and thinking, what’s in there, what’s going on, who’s in there? So I did a bit of research and I found out that amongst Syrians, Afghanis, Eritreans, Sudanese and a host of other nationalities of people, there were lots of Iranians.
My Iranian heritage is maybe one of the most important parts of who I am to me and I wear it on my sleeve with pride. Hearing there were people not too dissimilar from my father when he came to the United Kingdom just before the war in Iran living in that camp, I felt an absolute urgency to go and I guess just witness and make sense of it. Well, that’s what it was at first.
How did this idea/project evolve to the series we see then?
My father has spoken Farsi with me all my life, so I am able to talk to Iranians and Afghanis with no problem. On our way out of France, we parked the car and I just wondered in. After an hour of chatting to people and snapping a few pictures, I knew I had to go back to catch my ferry. Then, from that initial curiosity, I felt other people had to see the things I had witnessed, so that’s when the journeys started to become more centred around picture-making.
Over the course of several trips, I made pictures about the general life in the camp – people shaking out rugs, cooking dinner, everyday kind of things –, and then on my final trip to the camp, the camp was on fire and destroyed, which is a whole story in itself! I think when I first released all the pictures from the final series Calais Burning, it seemed very dystopic because of the way I photographed it. I don’t know if the demolition had been shown in the mainstream media like this, so a lot of the responses were mostly just shock.
What social issue(s) do you think is being represented poorly in the media today? What would you do to work to change that?
I’m quite scared with the rise of infringe and generally right-wing politics, not only in Europe but globally. I think it’s very easy for us to lose sight of things when they are happening, and I just fear that a scary number of restrictive and authoritarian policies and laws will be passed before we all realise just how bad it’s got. And for some reason, I don’t see it being spoken about in the news. Not only this, but it also has a huge knock-on effect on the wider society and how we interact with each other, whether it be the rise of Islamophobia or transphobic-fuelled attacks. The more the general populace accepts fringe right-wing views as normality, the more common they become.
Does art, and let’s say photography specifically, have some sort of responsibility to be a champion for social change? Is it possible that art can become too political or socially-charged?
It’s an interesting question, and I could genuinely write for pages on the topic, but let me not bore you with that. I believe it should have some sort of responsibility, but whether that’s transposed well is a different thing. One of the main reasons I think it’s vital that it does is because although there are a lot of highbrows in the art world, I believe real art, in any form, whether that be photography, painting, religious murals or music, doesn’t discriminate – or I feel it shouldn't. I’m definitely not an art critic, but when I first saw Mark Gertler’s Merry-Go-Round, I was incredibly moved, and I’m sure there is an Oxford-educated art collector who felt the same way. We had both been affected by the same work but we are from completely different backgrounds.
Now, if we agree that a lot of art in its nature can transcend social, economic and cultural boundaries, then does it not make sense for it to have some sort of social responsibility? I’ll give you a very crude example. Whether I was in Gambia, Senegal, Nottingham, Iran, Myanmar, Wakefield, Sao Paulo or Kingston, most people know Bob Marley's One Love. Now think about this. Millions of people from completely different backgrounds all listening and singing along, being affected and connecting to the lyrics, “One love, one heart, let’s stay together and feel alright.” Maybe that sounds jovial, but I feel it’s a better way to illustrate the point of art transcending boundaries instead of talking about and analysing a 16th-century Dutch painting or avant-garde art school graduation projects.
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With the recent obsession over social media channels like Instagram and Pinterest, both very visual platforms, do you think that social media is making it easier for people to become a ‘photographer’? Or is there a distinction to you between being a photographer for social media and then being a photographer as an actual career?
It’s a hard question because, what do we mean when we say the word ‘photographer’? How is one to define what a photographer is? Is it anyone who makes an image? And by what medium? Does it have to be by using a camera? Could it be using found imagery? Wolfgang Tillman’s works of exposed photographic paper, are they photographs? Or is it the continual making of images to create an aesthetic look or to craft a narrative? To tell a story? Is it someone who makes a living from photography? I think the lines have become blurred.
What is the difference between my father taking a picture of me in an incubator when I was a very ill baby as a photographic document or me making pictures of young neo-conservatives in a university meeting room? Because they’re both photographic documents but with different intentions. Then, is it the intention of the person making the image that makes them a photographer? I don’t know if I’m even sure. Furthermore, if someone who we consider to be a photographer stops making pictures, are they still a photographer? If Rineke Dijkstra didn’t take another photograph for thirty years, would she still be a photographer? I would say so.
Indeed, these are all very interesting questions.
I’m sorry, let me answer the question! I don’t think anyone is in denial about the fact that social media has changed the landscape of photography and many other art forms dramatically. I can say for sure that we are now all constantly saturated by a continuing and never-ending stream of images, but I would argue that we have become more saturated in every aspect. Information, music – it’s all incredibly accessible and we are constantly flooding our brains with it.
The good side to it is that I think social media platforms can give a voice to people that may not have had a platform before, that may not have been accepted into the ‘art world’. There are so many sides to such a complex topic; this is even before we talk about the constant self-comparison and false sense of reality that social media creates. But all in all, I think it’s a positive thing for the photographic world.
Photography has already taken you around the world and opened the door for you to have many different experiences. Where do you hope it takes you next? And what do you plan on doing with it when you get there?
I’m interested in exploring more of my own cultural background and my heritage. I don’t want to talk too much on it before it’s begun, but I’m really excited about the coming years to be able to explore larger projects that I’ve had in mind and looking forward to developing.
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