Read our dozens of interviews with creative entrepreneurs and artists from around the globe - about their exciting, fun, sometimes arduous, and even challenging processes - creating work that impact their communities.
If you live in the West, you'll probably find it difficult to believe that one of Yemen's first women photographers first picked up a camera in the 1990s. Boushra Almutawakel is celebrated for not only breaking the gender barrier in regards to Yemeni photography, but her provocative and engaging works have yielded interest internationally, landing her in The New Yorker, Rachel Maddow's blog, The Economist, and in prestigious galleries in embassies and museums around the world.
The globetrotting mother of four spent some of her childhood and early adulthood living in the U.S. Her homebase is currently in Yemen, where she lives with her daughters and her husband. It is through the lens of her camera that Boushra most boldly negotiates her Western sensibility with her life in the Middle East, where an interesting narrative unfolds.
What do you find compelling about images through photography? Why not painting, or some other medium?
I was always intruiged by the arts, including photography.
I got into photography by chance, and it's something that happened over time. I wanted to learn about photography as part of a bucket list. I did not expect to fall in love with it as I did. It was like magic! Also, it started it out as just a hobby that became a bit of an obsession. Eventually, I was invited to exhibit, my work started selling, and I was hired to do some photo projects. In the 1990s I was honored along with several other Yemeni women pioneers, as the first woman photographer in Yemen. Photography is a very powerful medium in the arts, journalism, the internet, and in the media. It is instant, real (although it can also be deceiving at times), communicates in a way everyone understands, and freezes moments in time allowing the viewer to leisurely study an image over and over again. I love creating and observing photographic images. There are images that are forever burned into our psyche. Although I am a photographer, I am also interested in other art forms and multimedia. If it were up to me, I think I would have been a painter.
How long have you been a photographer?
I have been doing photography since 1992, but professionally since 1998.
What do you shoot with?
Currently I shoot with a Canon 5d, and hope to get back to shooting medium and large format film.
Your work obviously comes from your subjectivity as a woman, but why is it that you photograph so many women subjects, including self portraits?
I have photographed many other topics, but I do love photography related to women. I am a woman, I have four girls, and so it comes most natural for me to photograph women or issues related to women. It is what is closest to my heart and what I know most about. I hope my work regarding women will generate curiosity, conversation, and debate, especially in the areas of social norms and stereotypes, and women’s rights. As women, we have sooo many issues to contend with, so many wrongs that need to be corrected, not just for women in the Middle East, but women everywhere. There is a lot of repression, oppression and misogyny--some of the things I would like to address in my work.
What type of socio-cultural-political commentary have you covered in your works so far? Especially relating to Yemen, and Islam?
I have photographed women and children in very remote areas throughout Yemen, photographing things related to education, health and development. I did a series under the title of "My Father’s House," a British Council project, where I photographed interiors of homes of different socio-economic backgrounds. Before that I photographed a series on contemporary Moslem life in Yemen, looking at the integration between religion and tradition, where one begins and the other one ends. My latest series is on the veil. It is an ongoing series that I started in 2001.
Tell me a bit about the Barbie series, where you have an Islamicized Barbie positioned in various day-to-day settings.
Growing up, I played with the Barbie doll along with other dolls. As an adult, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Fulla a few years ago, the Middle Eastern Islamic version of Barbie. She comes with a headscarf, and abaya (a long black light coat), and permanent long underwear. You can purchase one that comes with prayer clothes and a prayer mat, and when you press her back, she chants a prayer in Arabic. I fell in love with Fulla, and bought my girls the doll. It was just nice to have another option to the blue-eyed, blonde, well-endowed Barbie. Especially a doll that was representative of my culture and religion (although I am not that religious). So I decided to photograph her. At the suggestion of a mentor/friend, I lost myself in play, taking me back to my days when I was a little girl playing with dolls. I created different scenarios, and photographed them. Slowly I started seeing snippets of my life or the life of other Yemeni women play out in these scenarios. I had such a blast. I still have a long way to go with Fulla and her adventures.
You went to school in the U.S. How was that experience being in a country that at the time (and still is today to a degree) anti-Muslim?
I first went to the U.S. when I was 6 years of age, living there till I was eleven. My family and I traveled to the U.S. for our summer vacations. I later went to the U.S. to pursue my Bachelor’s degree, and later with my husband to study photography. Overall, my experience in the U.S. was very positive, and memorable. I think since I went to the U.S. at such an early age, the U.S. felt like my second home. Although I was aware of prejudice against Arabs and Moslems, mostly through the media or other’s experiences, I don’t recall being treated badly because of my race or religion. Even during a period when in college I wore the hijab, I felt others embraced my difference, and were curious. Then again I spent most of my time in the U.S. in Washington DC, which is quite international, with people from all over the world.
Was there any particular experience growing up that you now realize had a significant role in defining how you see yourself today?
I had many (both good and bad) defining moments that make me who I am today. Some of these experiences are very personal, but all I can say I learned to break out of some of the limiting customs and beliefs that I was brought up with, to break through some very real fears that were just in my mind, I learned to be more independent, about the importance of working hard and doing your best, not matter what it was.
What are some prevailing themes in your life right now that you would like to translate to your photography?
I have so many projects I would like to continue or start some of which are photographing key Yemeni women, women who have made it or brought about positive change, etc, as a way of honoring them, and highlighting these women and their stories to other women and girls, to possibly inspiring them in fulfilling their dreams; continuing my series on intercultural couples, which I find fascinating, and motherhood--the magic and the madness.
Where are you showing/what are you working on now?
Currently some of my work is being exhibited as part of a group exhibit titled Contemporary Middle Eastern Art and Paris at the National Museum in Sana’a, Yemen. The British Museum in London acquired my work, and I will be part of an upcoming exhibit on Photographers from the Middle East at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston.
George DuBose got his big break with a studio photo of the then largely unknown New Wave band The B-52’s in the late 1970s. The shot, taken in 1978 and originally in black and white, would end up being used as the cover—with hand-drawn color added to the image after-the-fact—for the band’s breakout debut the next year. Shortly after, DuBose was offered an assignment for Rolling Stone to photograph the same band. In the following years, he developed a portfolio of images that includes shots of a pre-fame Madonna—while still shopping her solo demo as part of the band The Breakfast Club—Tom Waits, album covers for The Ramones, and more.
Before becoming the first photo editor at Spin magazine in the mid 1980s, DuBose began photographing Hip Hop artists like Run-DMC and Soul Sonic Force. Tony Wright, the ubiquitous creative director at Island Records who added color to DuBose’s image of The B-52’s, offered the young photographer a position at Island Records’ art department in New York City. It was in that position that DuBose photographed Biz Markie for the rapper’s first single. Throughout the ‘80s DuBose would photograph some of Hip Hop’s earliest stars for album covers and promotional material.
Recently, DuBose, who now lives in Cologne, Germany, consolidated a career’s worth of his Hip Hop images into The Great Big Book of Hip Hop Photography. The collection traces the photographer’s work from Afrika Bambaata to Masta Ace to The Notorious B.I.G. The book is also the first time that DuBose’s previous Hip Hop themed I Speak Music series is available in one place. Given the occasion of the release—the book came out in December—Project Inkblot spoke with DuBose about his early days shooting Cold Chillin’ artists, his perspective on the budding Hip Hop scene of the 1980s, and a funny story behind photographing I.U.’s single “Who Got Da Gat.” The Great Big Book of Hip Hop Photography is a look at Hip Hop’s development as much as it is a glimpse behind DuBose’s lens. The book is available on Amazon now, but if you hit George up, he’ll sign a copy to you personally with your purchase (mine is on the way).
You’ve just released The Big Book of Hip Hop Photography, which consolidates work you did throughout your career. Can you talk about how you first began photographing Hip Hop artists after working within new wave and punk initially?
I was photographing bands at various night clubs around Manhattan. Max's Kansas City, The Mudd Club, Hurrah's, Danceteria, Studio 54 and of course CBGB's. In the beginning, the bands that interested me were New Wave, which was a very wide and open genre. Because of my work with the B52s, I became connected with Tony Wright, the creative director for Island Records, NY. Island had signed the B52s for a recording contract and the band wanted to use one of my photos that I had taken on my own to make street posters that advertised their gigs. I paid for the posters and put them up myself.
Tony offered me the chance to start an art department for Island in NYC, previously the only art department was in London. As Senior Art Director, I also was allowed to photograph and design covers for Island and for my clients that I freelanced for. One of my first black music covers was for Alphonso Ribiero aka The Tap Dance Kid. Alphonso was signed to an independent label called Prism Records and Prism was distributed by Island.
A few weeks after I shot Alphonso's cover, I got a call from Lenny Fichtelberg, the president of Prism. He told me he had another artist to shoot and was I available. I went to the Prism offices and met a young guy named Biz Markie. Biz was known as The Human Beatbox and I was impressed by the beats and scratches that he could make just with his voice and throat.
Biz's concept for his first single titled "Make the Music with Your Mouth, Biz" was that he would have his mouth full of little gold musical instruments. The kind you might hang on a Hannukah bush or a Christmas tree. I got the little instruments together and told Biz to meet me at my studio where we would do a shoot. I shot Biz with the instruments, I shot Biz without the instruments, I shot Biz alone, I shot Biz with his pal, TJ Swann and another cat, whose name I can't recall.
When I delivered the massive amount of film and slides to Prism, I asked Dee Garner the product manager for Biz, who was going to do the design for Biz's single. Deetold me that she had no idea. I told her I could do the design as well.
Biz had worn a hat during his first single shoot and I asked Biz where he got the lettering that spelled out "Biz Markie" on his ball cap. Biz told me that there were several shops in Times Square where one could buy hats and t-shirts and have iron-on lettering pressed on to the clothing.
I went to Times Square, found a shop that had this Gothic style of lettering, something similar to Fraktur. I bought all the letters to spell out "BIZ MARKIE, MAKE THE MUSIC WITH YOUR MOUTH, " I used this font for Biz's first single and that Gothic style of fonts became the most popular and recognizable Hip Hop font ever.
In an old interview that appeared in the magazine Chapter 14, you described the process of gaining traction within Hip Hop as first starting with a commission from Cold Chillin’ to shoot album covers for MC Shan and Biz Markie. You tell a great story there about the oddity of being White while photographing in some tough neighborhoods of color throughout New York. Did you ever photograph the emerging street culture of Hip Hop while in those communities, or did your work focus primarily on rappers and artists as subjects?
The late 70s and early 80s were wild times in Manhattan. It was pre-AIDS and some of the scenes at some of the night clubs were pretty wild. People were doing everything else in the bathrooms but going to the bathroom. I documented club scenes as I mentioned earlier, I photographed bands in performance, but I wasn't going around Brooklyn or the Bronx. I wasn't a native New Yorker and didn't have any contacts in those boroughs.
I was a musician's photographer. I did publicity shots for bands and pictures for their demo tapes, 7" single sleeves and 12" vinyl covers.
I heard "White Lines" by Grandmaster Flash, "Rhapsody" by Blondie, Man Parrish was mixing Hip Hop with techno, Soul Sonic Force was copying music from Kraftwerk, the B52s stole the music from Peter Gunn Theme and called it Planet Claire. I thought Hip Hop was just another part of New Wave. It was all mixed up.
I shot Roxanne Shanté in front of a broken down brownstone crack house in Harlem and she was more nervous than I was, I shot Biggie in his 'hood on the corner of Utica and Bedford, but I wasn't there to photograph graffiti or local break dancers and as I told Mr. Cee, Biggie's producer, I wasn't going to go there alone with my cameras. Mr. Cee had to come along...
I’m not sure if there are many examples of photographers that worked so significantly within both Punk and Hip Hop simultaneously in the way you did. Given that some of your most popular early images are of bands like the B52’s and The Ramones, did you see overlap between Punk and Hip Hop in the early ‘80s? The first Ramones cover you did also has obviously staged graffiti all over the place.
As I mentioned, Soul Sonic Force was biting on Kraftwerk, Man Parrish was mixing Hip Hop and techno. I was part of the "downtown" crowd and we would listen to anything new...once at least. My crowd seemed to have eclectic tastes and we didn't feel that we were "locked in" to one style of music.
My favorite club, The Mudd Club, had Frank Zappa and David Bowie as guest DJs. We would hear everything from old Michael Jackson to Plastic Bertrand. If it had a groove, we would groove to it.
I think a lot of young people today are "compartmentalized". They listen to a very narrow range of musical styles and dress in specific brands that mean various things to themselves and their peers.
I am pathologically curious and always want to hear new, new, new. At least once.
Two of your most popular images of Hip Hop artists are portraits of the Soul Sonic Force and Run DMC separately. In an exhibition of your work about a decade ago, the flyer shows both of those photos side-by-side. It’s such a wild juxtaposition, because, even though DMC’s style was very current and aggressive at the time, it seems so conformed in hindsight next to whatever SSF are wearing in the opposing photo. What was your sense of the fashion within Hip Hop throughout the 80’s?
When Hip Hop started, there was no "Hip Hop" fashion. The getups that Soul Sonic Force wore for their first publicity photo shoot clearly illustrate that. Biz Markie wore a referee's shirt and black shorts for his first single and then went to Dapper Dan, Harlem's most famous custom tailor and had a shirt, short pants and a ball cap made from brown leather with Louis Vuitton logos all over.
MTV was still over the horizon, the music and fashion we had was our own. Our lifestyles were still unattractive commercially and that made it ours alone. In those days, no one could sell us “a look” or a sound, ‘cause we were still working on creating them ourselves.
MC Shan was the first artist that I worked with who had an endorsement from a clothing label. I remember one single I worked with him on where he was "pimpin'" Karl Kani. I had never heard of KK and Shan told me that he got the clothes for free if he wore them on a cover...
Generations of teenagers have continually searched for fashion and music that differentiates their generation from that of their parents. The more the fashion and music styles appall and upset their parents, the more the kids know they are on the right track.
I wonder if you’d be willing to share a short extract from your recent book. Is there any particular story behind a cover that is your favorite or the least well-known that you could share here?
The last shoot I did for Cold Chillin’ and I.U. was a cover for a single titled, “We Got Da Gat”. To explain a little.
I.U. meant by “Gat”, a Gatling gun. These are handcranked machine guns with six or more barrels that spin as they shoot their bullets. The Gatling gun was invented by Richard Gatling in 1861. In contemporary times, the Gatling gun has morphed into the minigun that one sees on today’s Apache helicopters. What I.U. was trying to say with the title “We God Da Gat!” is that my gun is bigger than your gun.
I called Centre Firearms in Manhattan, the source for real and replica guns of all eras. I had rented guns for the Ramones “Adios Amigos”, where the Ramones were being executed by the Springfield rifles of a Mexican firing squad. I asked Centre Firearms how much would it cost to rent a Gatling gun. I was told that they didn’t have any Gatling guns available, those were all in museums. A Gatling gun in perfect working order with a 105 shot magazine and a carriage is worth more than $300,000 dollars today. They did offer to rent me a minigun for $10,000 a day.
Well, I wasn’t making a movie and the budget for this single sleeve wasn’t going to cover that kind of expense. Not to mention that this was around the time that Walmart and several large record distributors were refusing to sell any rap album covers where the guys had guns on the covers. Roxanne Shanté got away with a little lady Derringer, but that was about it. So I suggested to I.U. that we scale down the scene. I suggested that we create a “drive-by” scene. For those that don’t know, a “drive-by” is where a gang of drug dealers drives by the street corner where a rival gang is selling drugs. I.U. would be standing in the backseat of a convertible, with his hand inside his coat, as if he was reaching for a pistol in his shoulder holster.
On the sidewalk would be the “rival” gang holding baseball bats and crowbars. The idea was that I.U. had a pistol and the rivals only had bats and crowbars, giving the idea that I.U.’s gun was bigger...
I organized a dozen baseball bats and crowbars, loaded my equipment into my trusty old Volvo station wagon and drove to Hempstead, Long Island to meet I.U. and his crew. I.U. had promised to organize a convertible. When I arrived at the location, I set up a studio light, got electricity from the nearby 7-11 convenience store. I put the studio flash up about 30 feet in the air to simulate a street light.
I.U. arrived with about 20 guys. He had three nice new cars, a Saab convertible, a Corvette and a Firebird. I put my camera on a tripod on the top of my old Volvo for a high point of view.
My idea was that the cover image would look as if it was viewed through a night vision telescope. Like I.U. and the drug gang were under police surveillance. I carefully explained the concept to all the guys, I distributed the baseball bats and crowbars and then climbed up a ladder and got on the roof of my car. I told the gang that I would count 1-2-3 and I.U. would stand up and reach inside his jacket. The guys on the sidewalk would look terrified and run away.
“Does everybody understand the plan?” No smiling or laughing...This is supposed to be serious. Got it.
“Yeah we got it.”
“1-2-3!” I.U. jumped up, the driver and two guys in the back seat jumped up and they all were holding guns! I didn’t even take a shot.
I slowly climbed down from the top of my car. I walked over to the car that I.U. was in.
“Grand Daddy, you know that Dee at Cold Chillin’ had said NO GUNS!”
“Aw, come on, George. Just take a couple of shots for me and then we will do it without the guns.”
I said to I.U., “I.U., I was in the Navy, I know guns. There are two things in life that I don’t do. One, I don’t ride on the backseat of motorcycles and I don’t take pictures of guns unless I know that they are not loaded. Show me that your AK47 isn’t loaded.”
I.U. pulled back the bolt and there was a bullet in the chamber ready to fire. There was a banana clip fixed to the AK47 that was fully loaded with 50 cartridges. I looked at the four guys in the Saab, one was holding a four shot Derringer, one was holding a Glock 9mm, one was holding a “street sweeper” or an automatic shotgun with twelve shells.
Unload all these weapons and I will shoot a roll of y’all with your pieces.
I.U. clearly didn’t know his gun was loaded, he didn’t even know how to unload it. A friend had to do that for him. If I.U. had flipped off the safety and pulled the trigger, that gun would have taken out the whole crew and me along with them.
Interview by Jay Balfour
Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia based writer and editor. In addition to Project Inkblot he's written for HipHopDX, Applause Africa, OkayAfrica Bonafide,and more. Get in contact with Jay on Twitter @jbal4_ or email at email@example.com.
Documenting human rights violations around the world sounds like a pretty sobering job. While most of us in the "first "world become irate at the mention of a Monday morning conference call, Colombian photographer Andy Vanegas Canosa (Andy VC) has spent the last ten years traveling to places where the working and living conditions are inhumane, at best. Andy VC's images, particularly his close-ups, suck you in - making you feel instantly connected to the people he photographs on an intensely human level. The experience is both unsettling and beautiful. Through his subjects' eyes, he manages to exhibit both human dignity and suffering, often simultaneously.
A recent second place winner of the 2013 Sony World Photography Awards, Andy VC continues to capture images that speak to the joy, sufferings, and resilience of human beings. Yes, I am a little obsessed. Yes, I could go on and on about his work but it basically means nothing until you actually see his photos. The former lawyer and self-taught photographer spoke with us about the psychological effects of his work, his love for Afghanistan, and the importance of illuminating societal ills.
When did you discover your love for photography?
My family are lawyers and so I studied law and went to Spain. I was very disappointed with the legal environment. I was working for the private and public sector and I found it to be a really corrupt system. I was deeply sad by that. I always liked photography, since I was a child, but we didn’t have the money to buy a camera. I was always surrounded by social issues because I grew up in Colombia. Twenty years ago it was a very difficult country, similar to how Mexico is now. I grew up in this kind of environment and this had an impact on me. When I discovered photography, it gave me a really strong tool to raise awareness. I always wanted to be a photographer. I found photography to be a great way to escape this world and to really give something to people.
How does photography brings awareness in a way that writing about something or creating a video doesn’t?
There are many ways to raise awareness. Photography is very fast. You can see a photo and it can raise so many emotions. I think that’s the power of photography.
I try to give some presence to the people who have been forgotten. The impact of this well, I cannot measure this. The main goal is to raise awareness so that people can open their eyes. These problems are there and they need solutions.
You said in another interview that, 'I love what I do and I would not be able to picture myself doing something different. However, everything in life has a price. It is a profession that affects your life in ways nobody could expect.' Can you talk a bit about what you meant by this?
I receive many messages where people say things like, ‘wow what a wonderful life. You travel the world and take photos.’ It is amazing and it’s why I love my job. But the price is that every time you cover these social issues, it leaves scars. It’s a psychological effort. After I finish these projects I cannot believe that this is happening. We are used to living in another type of world. It’s like you go to another planet and you see humans living in extremely bad conditions and no one is doing anything. Psychologically, it’s very hard. Also, your family is worried about you and sometimes I’m sad that my mother is sad or my brother is sad. They understand, but it’s not easy seeing your family worried about these things. It has a big price emotionally and psychologically that you may not have in another job.
Traveling is also good and amazing but it’s very difficult. At least, this is my point of view. You have to learn how to be with yourself and know yourself and know loneliness. It is a process and it takes time. It’s amazing and beautiful but some people are afraid of freedom.
Your photos are so deeply intimate, how do you create a relationship of trust so that people are comfortable with you taking their photo?
This is a process as well, in terms of how to approach people. I find when I go to these conflict areas; people are very nice and friendly. They always invite you to sit and talk with them. I always talk to people if I can; sometimes I can’t so I just interact with my body. Sure. I believe in body language. If you show you are nervous or afraid, people can feel that. Sometimes people say no and you have to respect that even if you know it will be an amazing picture. If people say no, it’s no. I have found that Colombia is the most difficult place I have worked. Some people will kill for nothing. I was working in a poor area of Bogota and it was scary. Even in Afghanistan, the media talks so poorly about how the country is and I think Afghanistan is amazing. I walked and traveled around the country and never felt threatened by anybody. I had a wonderful time in Afghanistan. I love the people. They are beautiful. So friendly, so inviting. They like to ask a lot of questions. Where do you come from? Where have you been? What are you doing here? Most of them have never seen a camera in their life.
Some people are like, how is it possible that I am inside this box? [laughs]. Most people become more relaxed and enjoy the process. I never force people to take pictures or direct them on how to pose. I just take the photos naturally. There is a moment for everything. I like my work to be natural.
Your photos are so authentic and feel so natural. Do you have a process?
I wouldn’t be able to answer this question 100%. I never studied photography and never took classes. If you want to be a photographer you can just start taking pictures. It’s a process you learn day by day.
For these photos, it’s a mix of risk. Sometimes you have to take risks. And you have to be social. To be social is very important. I know photographers who take very good pictures but they are not social and then maybe your pictures won’t be as good. It’s like, if you are with a girl or a man and you give the first kiss [laughs]. After the first kiss, things go much better. At first you are nervous, but after the first kiss you are more relaxed. So, you have to talk to people and get to know them before they take the photo. I think this is more important than knowing how a camera works. You can take pictures with any camera.
Can you talk some more about taking risks in your work?
If you are working with gangsters, many of them don’t like to take pictures so these people are very difficult to work with. There is a risk in going to them and a risk in asking if you can take a photo. Sometimes you don’t ask because of the situation. I was in Afghanistan and covering drug users. I was under a bridge and 800 people were using drugs, mostly heroin. People got very angry and were yelling and throwing stones so we had to leave.
What made you interested in covering drug use in Afghanistan? That’s not something highly covered in the American media.
I used to work for the United Nations in the office on drugs and crimes and I got to know a lot about drugs there and I got very interested in the topic. There are many drugs that people don’t know about and many ways to take them - it’s crazy, it’s a different world. It’s interesting how it can run a country. Corruption exists a lot of time because of drugs. In Afghanistan there are more than a million people consuming drugs, it’s a social problem. It requires social mechanisms to solve it. Many NGO's try to work with drug users. The UN is involved. There’s a huge debate about whether drugs should be legalized.
The photo you have of the man on heroin is whoa – it’s so powerful. How did you take that photo?
Well, the man was extremely high. We have the responsibility to cover these problems that people are facing. I can write you a paper on what it is like for people to do heroin but if you don’t see it, it’s not the same. I try to allow people to feel some of these emotions. He’s not only high, he’s suffering. Being addicted to heroin is one of the saddest things you can see. This guy was in a center for rehabilitation. He had come that day and he was really high and in a special room waiting for the effects to go away. It is a very powerful image. Every time I see this image, I am like, wow.
Can you talk a bit more about some countries you’ve been to? Is there a place you've traveled to you found particularly eye-opening?
The dumps in Mae Sot. It’s a border town in Thailand, there is a Burmese refugee camp but then there are other people who are illegal immigrants who have crossed the border illegally. So they live in Thailand but they are not refugees so they live in a dump and it’s a community of almost 100 people. They live under some inhumane conditions, you cannot even imagine. They live amongst poisonous snakes, dead animals and they live in mountains of garbage, literally. Imagine when it rains, the smell is absolutely impossible. There are many children playing all around and eating food from the garbage. It’s very sad. You face realities you can’t even imagine. Then you come home and your brother is asking for an iPhone and you’re like, c’mon.
When you return home or to “first world” countries how do you deal with that mentality after you’ve witnessed some of these sufferings?
It’s very difficult. Some people don’t understand. First, because people don’t understand the situation and they don’t understand what I do. After those experiences you just don’t care too much about materialistic things. You lose friends also because people don’t understand you and you don’t understand them or you do - but you don’t want to be a part of those things.
You open your eyes. You see things that people don’t see. You come home and your friends are frustrated about small things and you think, you are so lucky that you have the life you have. You shouldn’t complain. You start to see things in a different way. You’re growing up and everyone grows up. Everyone changes friends…it can be difficult.
What do you love about why you do what you do?
I’m very lucky. I love traveling but I’m lucky because I have a passport that allows me to do that. I have a Spanish and a Colombian passport. If I didn’t have the Spanish passport, I might not be so lucky to travel like I do. Traveling can be very cheap. You can travel in a very cheap way. Many people don’t even know you can spend less money than being at home. Everyday is a new adventure. If you want to move, you move. It makes you more tolerable. When you travel, there is a community that doesn’t exist anywhere. Sometimes you might meet up again with some people you met in Latin America who are now in India and it’s unplanned.
I have a friend I met traveling who once told me “traveling restores your faith in humanity.”
Yes, of course. The thing I really love is meeting people. All around the world you meet great people with great projects and interesting ideas and different ways to see life. I really enjoy hearing these different points of views about life. This is the thing I love most.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Photo credits: Andy VC
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Singer-songwriter and cultural ambassador, Maya Azucena, and photographer/multi-media artist RaeMaxwellare like those two gals you meet at a friend of friend's around-the-way get-together and immediately feel in the midst of good company. They're sharp, powerful, beautiful and funny; the kind of women you can chat animatedly with about world affairs and then effortlessly switch to deep ponderance over why so many urban menfolk choose to shout out, "God Bless you ma" in lieu of proper come-ons. In short, they're my kind of women.It's easy to see why the duo are a good match; Maya's talkative and open nature is perfectly symbiotic to Rae's subdued and introspective vibe. CultureFphiles spoke with the uber talented ladies about their work on Lines In My Skin (LIMS), an online photo essay, shot by Maxwell, detailing a day in the life of a woman in an abusive relationship. Azucena plays the starring role, pulling from her real-life experience in a former abusive relationship of seven years. I was drawn to LIMS via the juxtaposition of images; Azucena’s initial joyful disposition contrasted sharply with images of her and her abuser in their home. I was also intrigued by Maxwell’s use of color, saturation, and tone.
LIMS premiered as an installation and panel discussion at the Brooklyn arts and event space, Free Candy, in March of 2012 drawing roughly 100 attendees. CultureFphiles spoke with May and Rae to chat about their experience creating LIMS, how they navigate their own process of creation, and the far-reaching effects of the project.
How did Lines in My Skin come to fruition?
Maya: I was introduced to Rae through a common friend and I thought she had an incredible eye. In the course of us meeting, we also had this mutual artistic respect and so we just put it out there, like, let’s do something together. I had this vision of dealing with my domestic violence experience. I was in a very abusive relationship [for seven years] and I thought that she would be able to handle something edgy and dark. I knew it was going to be a very vulnerable experience for me and Rae’s work inspired me to have the courage to approach the idea.
Rae: I didn’t know that.
Maya: Yeah…I was brainstorming and I could see this visual image of me in a fetal position on the floor. I sent the idea to Rae and she responded that she had had a vision of that the night before. I was blown away that she had somehow come up with the same idea without us even consulting one another. The synergy somehow felt divine. I had a specific visual to photograph the interaction between me and a man. Rae had the idea to start with me being very composed, beautiful, free…and then gradually show the descent to me being balled up on the floor.
You’ve mentioned in the written piece of the photo exhibit that you believed you were strong, and that’s why you stayed in the relationship. That alters the image we have of women in abusive relationships as weak or passive.
Maya: And the thing is, is that at the time I had the same persona. My nickname was happy-go-lucky. I’m motivational and inspirational and identifiable and very sunny… people had no idea this guy kept me up all night punching me in the arms or pulling out a knife on me. I didn’t tell anyone. A couple of my best friends knew he was abusive but they didn’t have a clue of the extent.
Did you view the abuse as your own personal battle?
Maya: I didn’t view it as a battle. I viewed it as me trying to help him become the potential I saw in him…he would often say to me, ‘well, you know what I’ve been through.’ But what occurred to me was that your reasons do not constitute an excuse. You have reasons - but you are not excused from your actions and that’s what I got confused in my own reality. The other thing was that I didn’t think I was being abused. I knew I was with an abuser but…it’s just a weird perspective. I was like ‘I’m strong, I’m not one of these girls, I’m not afraid of him’ so I didn’t realize I was suffering the same circumstances of a person who is afraid to leave. It was like an addiction. I stayed because I was obsessed with succeeding. We were going to succeed at this thing. I thought I could believe in love for the both of us, and those were my errors.
Rae, how did that affect the way you came up with the storyline and shot everything?
Rae: I feel like the first time we really spoke about it [the abuse] was when we were about to shoot. We spoke briefly about the visual goal but I didn’t know her actual situation until she was in my home. I’m glad it happened that way because we wouldn’t have the product we had now. We must have about 150 photos from that shoot but we selected 50 to tell the story.
Maya: I wanted it to be really daring. I love Rae’s instincts. She pushes boundaries – she has contrasts in the images…unexpected combinations. I am, personally, wanting to push my fans expectations of me…I wanted them to be able to really get how severe an abusive relationship is.
How did that feel?
Maya: It felt very vulnerable because this is one of the first times I’ve dealt with it in art. I write about it [and] I sing about it in my songs but it’s sort of peripheral…but this was very literal.
Were there moments where you thought, I don’t want to do this anymore?
Maya: No. Never. I feel that having the courage to tell your story is the very thing that can change peoples lives and that’s more important than your privacy on the issue…as vulnerable as it makes me feel to share it, the courage to share it is a power that I think can change young women’s lives so the risk is worth it.
Rae, you mentioned you had experience with domestic abuse; was that hard for you when shooting?
Rae: I think I’m really good at locking emotions, sometimes to a fault. I tend to be very visual but feel like there is a madness going on up in my head…I tend to shoot in the dark a lot with no lights - so when I was shooting, I had to ignore my own fantasy of what I think she [Maya] experienced and try to focus on what she experienced at that time. I also was thinking of what others close to me have experienced with domestic violence so I wasn’t even thinking of me, I was thinking of what other people had told me, and trying to focus on the task at hand.
Maya: It was actually very practical and technical. I didn’t feel super emotional during the shoot. It was seeing how the photos manifested once I saw how she captured these moments. I was like, wow - you do get it.
How did you feel when you were choosing the photos?
Rae: The first person who saw the photos were my mother. When my mother saw them, she started bawling…and I thought, maybe we have something here. When I’m looking at my work I just feel like I fucked it up. It takes some time. When you’re looking at an image or video over and over again, I lose perspective. So, sometimes I have this terrible fear.
Maya: When I saw the photos I was like, she nailed it. I felt so good about the decision to do this project with you. I had no idea until we were at the panel for the installation that you had any personal experience with domestic violence until then.
Rae: Because this was about you.
Maya: I know but I had no idea that this was relatable to you. When I saw the images I was blown away.
Can you elaborate a bit more on the fear you were feeling? Do you often question if the work is good or not good?
Maya: I was entering new ground on this project because my forte is singing. It was very vulnerable for me to write my story [the written element to the photography installation]. I wanted to make sure the writing had literary integrity so that people wouldn’t get distracted by some inadequacy there and lose the actual story. So, there was a bit of a fear and an anxiety in exposing myself in that way.
Rae: I never look at the photos as I’m shooting because I feel that that is a luxury. We used quite a bit of film that day.
What do you mean when you say it’s a luxury to look at images when you shoot?
Rae: I have this weird thing with technology which sort of makes me a hypocrite since most of my career relies on technology these days, but I feel like the images I just lit and planned out…I feel like it’s almost not fair to see it after I take it…not until I get home and put on my Thelonious Monk or have a glass of wine and I can edit and then I get to see everything that I’ve created. Aside from lighting yes – you have to look at the picture to make sure you’ve got the lighting right more or less but once I start, I don’t look- I can’t look. So of course I’m sort of doing it to myself because I don’t really know exactly what I have just created. I just feel like it’s not fair to be able to see that…because it was never like that. No great art was created like that a hundred years ago and I have a bit of a grudge about that.
How did it feel to be at the actual exhibit/installation?
Rae: I never imagined I would end up at an event like that where there was so much support and unity. It was kind of hard to be in a room where we were the center of the attention and that was kind of strange for me but I felt so happy that I got to do this with you and that I got to help you do this.
Maya: It was groundbreaking for me. This is the furthest I have revealed this particular element of my life. I guess I had to be ready but I was super glad it was with you. It’s also the kind of thing that if it is handled improperly, it wouldn’t be effective. It was very important to me that a person who doesn’t relate to the story at all can pull any image out and it has artistic value. This purely on a photographic level is a dope ass fucking project…if you pull any image out, it has integrity as a piece of artwork.
What did you take away from this experience?
Maya: I went to Tanzania after the exhibit. I was doing a performance as part of a community event to discuss domestic violence in the community of Arusha and the surrounding area. A male choreographer from Madagascar, who lives in Arusha, saw Lines In My Skin online and was so moved by it that he performed a modern dance piece to it in Tanzania with 8-foot high images from the photo shoot behind him and quotes from my story in rotation. He actually dressed up as a woman in a relationship and danced with a male counterpart and did this intense dance. By having the courage to tell this story… seeing how it can impact people globally and the power of art to do that and how profound it is. It was groundbreaking in their community. One, a man talking about domestic violence in Tanzania is incredibly unusual and the fact that he was so moved he dared to do something that was never before done, dressing up as a woman and performing a modern dance…this is stuff we can imagine in New York. It is unimaginable in their community. That allowed me to see the potential of this project.
Rae: The fact that I even got up on a discussion panel was unimaginable for me. I realized that if I didn’t, I would be the thing that gets women into trouble in the first place. Where they hold themselves back from doing what they really should do. I felt like I would be such a hypocrite if I didn’t just get over myself and get up there and talk. Personally, that was fantastic but the thing about me is that I’m shooting a lot for other people and so I felt so happy that I was able to give something to Maya in a way that made her feel like ‘ok, I acknowledged and I dealt with it in the best way possible.’ I felt an overwhelming sense of relief that I was able to give her something out of such a shitty experience. That to me is what keeps me going. I want people to look at my work and keep something that I created with and for them.
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