This wasn't meant for the blog. So there aren’t many photographs here.  

It actually comes from an email that I wrote to a dear friend and mentor. Later, it also doubled as a project update to my editor at Getty Images. Both of them encouraged me to share it with everyone. But I was a bit reluctant. 

Because I always ask myself how many of us really have an inclination to read what a photographer writes. Or why would a world, which is already so busy confusing issues of aesthetics with ethics and employment with journalism, be interested in my problems? Or what if this honest acknowledgment of my weaknesses or disclosure of my struggle as an image-maker is misunderstood as some sort of professional incompetency?  

But I am sharing it while being reminded of what Elliot Gould keeps declaring in Robert Altman’s neo noir classic, The Long Goodbye -

“It’s Okay with Me”. 


01 Feb 2013, Marseille

I am keen to extend my stay in Marseille but my bank statements suggest something else. I think my time in Marseille might not last long. I’d return soon but I believe now is the time to assess what all have I been doing here. There aren’t many achievements that I can be proud of. Because Marseille isn’t a friendly place for a photographer. May be it was at some point of time, but now it definitely isn’t. My first time, as a photographer in a country whose language and culture I do not know, is making my work more difficult. And since a name like Getty Images is associated with this work, for the first time, I am also experiencing the anxiety that comes with the need to be focused and productive. 

Working in Marseille has been very demanding for a number of reasons. Crime, undoubtedly, is one of them. Another depressing barrier is the community’s furious reluctance to be photographed. You can pretend to be a tourist and comfortably photograph La Canebière, Vieux Port or the Stade Vélodrome. But be prepared to be kicked, punched or spat on if you intentionally, or unintentionally, aspire to be a photojournalist. Especially, if you are lugging a big ugly DSLR and happen to be anywhere near the social housing projects, or Cité, as they are called here. In London I had been hearing that I’ll face a lot of resistance from the Turkish community in Germany but I think the Maghrebis in Marseille are no different.  

I am spending time with young Muslims who live on the margins of the French society, who experience discrimination everyday. But with this chapter, I am not only trying to understand how they feel- to photograph emotions, behaviors and activities-but I am also trying to reveal the socio-economic and political factors that contribute to the feelings or disaffection of young Muslims. 

My good friends have criticized my earlier work in America and England. They want me to be fearlessly vocal instead of being soft with my words or photographs. They believe my photographs avoid socio-political arguments and say that my work follows the meek ‘we are the ‘good’ Muslims so love us’ approach. They question why am I always photographing a ‘singing’ or ‘painting’ Muslim. In my defense, I have always said that these are not the only photographs that I seek. Personally, I am more in love with silent, contemplative and less animated moments. And they are much more difficult to locate and photograph. But I don’t know why every one expects a photographer to come back with hyper and aggressive images, especially if she/he happens to be working on an issue. So I have also been pushing myself to create more hard-hitting gritty images. But the disappointing truth is that I never find such situations or people. Maybe it is my failure as a photographer because every one else does but I can’t. I just can’t find the right subject or never happen to be at the right place at the right time. 

Ever since I initiated this work three years ago, I have been struggling with problems of access. People who have experienced discrimination, been harassed, abused or beaten, they never agree to be photographed. Even ‘everyday’ ‘regular’ middle-class Muslim households despise my presence as a photographer. Fortunately or unfortunately, the only ones who do not mind, and sometimes enjoy, being photographed are painters, musicians, designers or Sufis. Their voice, undoubtedly, has added a unique perspective to the project and I am really grateful for their contribution. But I also accept that my work has somehow not been able to board the train that has been running all along on the track right next to me. Believe me, I have been trying to do a lot more but somehow things never seem to work out. For so long I have been trying to photograph the simple everyday living in the council housing projects in London. Two years of negotiations, and frustrations, and not even a single family has said yes. I have also spent months to persuade the self-appointed Muslim associations, organizations and ‘scholars’. But I always ended up sitting in the office of a greedy pseudo intellectual who prodigiously quotes the Quran but desires nothing more than power, payments and publicity…I am being confronted with an exactly similar situation here in France. And I feel further restricted because of the rampant crime and my inability to speak French. I am not trying to defend my shortcomings as a photographer; I am just sharing what I feel like right now. 

So what is it that I have photographed so far and what will I do next? Like always, I am trying to focus on individuals, their experiences, emotions and aspirations. I am taking photographs of their every day living; photographs that talk about their lives and also help us to connect with these individuals. To avoid placing Muslims in a ‘sacrosanct’ or an ‘evil’ cage but to present them as I see them; ‘normal’ as the rest of the society that they live in. Moments, emotions, light or just compositions that evoke an interest and establish a bond between the people in the photographs and the ones looking at them. To give a genuine emotional perspective to the everyday situations in their lives.  

But again, I am not taking these kinds of photographs to sugarize the bitter fact that they suffer due to discrimination, poverty, unemployment and racism. In fact, I have been trying to find situations that clearly speak of all these issues. But honestly, I just don’t know what kind of a situation or photograph can speak of discrimination/racism. This is another wall that I am unable to breach and I only get as far as sharing personal accounts and emotional or behavioral perspectives. I am guilty of looking for sensationalism when I go out hoping to find houses sprayed with ‘Arabs go back’ or when I hope to find someone pulling a girl’s hijab while I am walking on the opposite street. The crime ridden poor housing projects of Marseille are overflowing with ‘photo-opportunities’ but the very thought of being confronted and having my head cracked open or being shot at scares me to the bone. My being brown does not help me and the drug dealers manning these areas don’t give a damn about my intentions. They are ready to tolerate my presence if only I can pay hundreds of Euros in return. Every day I come across some very general photographs - like someone walking down the stairs of Saint Charles station or a woman with a hijab on the street standing next to a ‘liberated’ woman in a short skirt. Or everyone’s favorite – Muslims praying on the streets. But somehow I just don’t feel encouraged to take those pictures. Haven’t we seen enough of these photographs from every corner of the world? I mean, what purpose –aesthetic or journalistic- can be served by the recreation of such photographs? Everyday I am reminded of works like Dorchester Days and Down in Dixie but when I go out with my camera, the world looks so different. Or is it just me who is unable to find photographs that shout of racism, Islamophobia or hatred. My friend here said, “What were you expecting; to come here and photograph a Mississippi Burning?” Actually yes, I am guilty of hoping to find a burning Mississippi. 

But my problems do not end here. There is another major issue which I am finding very difficult to deal with. Some may not even call it an issue. But I think it is because it actively prevents me from taking or sharing photographs. It is my obsession with the aesthetic appeal of a photograph. I only seek photographs that combine a beautiful light, a clean flawless composition, with a strong yet calm emotion or expression. I am obsessed, to the power of infinity, with the visual appeal of my work and if a situation, light, moment, subject or ultimately the photograph, does not posses an amount of longevity or dare I say ‘immortality’, then I am just not encouraged to photograph or retain that moment. This unapologetic conviction, that has influenced the creation of some of my nicer images, is also responsible for my disregard for hundreds of images. Chaitali warns me that not every photograph can carry such a quality and by aiming to only create ‘immortal’ photographs I fail to recognize a lot of informative moments that can describe a story in a much better way. She accuses me of choosing the aesthetic ‘wow’ factor over information. She is right, but for me to create a photograph just for the sake of information is not possible. I did a lot of that as a student but I can’t do it any more. In fact, I won’t. So maybe I am just too stubborn with my idea of a ‘perfect’ photograph. Or maybe, it is finally being revealed that I am not a ‘good’ photographer. I have been working as a professional for two years and I only have 35-40 photographs in my portfolio. Quite a depressing fact, I think. Isn’t it?  

But I hope to photograph some more before I leave Marseille. I am hoping to say more about poverty and unemployment. I am also trying to gain access to a Cité. Another important change in this chapter would be the ample use of text. I wish to share full stories, perspectives, opinions and points for debates. I want to do away with the conventionally brief captions, which I often find demeaning to the people who open their hearts and homes to me with so much honesty and hope. It is such a selfish practice to ignore so much and then create an unintelligent two-line caption, which is often nothing more than a superficial passing comment on someone’s predicament. I am yet to write the full stories behind these and many other photographs but just to give you an idea of what I am doing and what I am trying to say in these pictures, I have included the usual captions.  

à bientôt! 

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