Six years ago, Mustafah Abdulaziz left the relative comfort of his life as a Wall Street Journal contract photographer in New York to embark on a world-encompassing project covering the international water crisis. He has since travelled to all continents to photograph local interactions with the increasingly precious resource, spending months embedding with communities in China, Pakistan, Somalia, India, Sierra Leone, walking, biking, talking, assembling the pieces to this vast story. The result is the on-going Water Project, a stunning and impactful body of work, and an artist thoroughly changed. Here he discusses with Slate’s Lisa Larson Walker how this undertaking humbled him and changed his approach to photography.
I’ve always known you as a nomadic guy. When you were a photojournalist based in New York, you were constantly traveling across the country on assignment, returning with rolls of splendid photos from every climate and time zone. Your move to Berlin seems to have only expanded the scope of your nomadism. Since moving there, you have covered much of the world for your water project, and this marked quite a change in your practice. How did the move affect you as an artist?
Berlin has always been a neutral place to me. I’m interested in the city and the people, but it doesn’t define me the way my hometown New York does. The advantages of that took me a while to figure out. I wouldn’t have been able to make this project in New York, which burns me because I love the city. In Berlin, I didn’t feel as defined by my identity, by my associations. This comes with Berlin’s transient character. My time here has been marked by intense short-lived interactions, where I meet someone who has lived in Berlin for a month, become really close with them, and then they leave. That’s the nature of the place and I like it. There’s not as much emphasis on material success. In New York, I didn’t value patience or creative nuance quite as much. I was a person who wanted to experience extraordinary things. I felt like “If I can’t sell this idea, it’s not a valuable idea. If I can’t compete and keep up with other people, this is not going to be worthwhile.” Looking back at that, I see those things as insecurities. In Berlin, I could focus on what was really important because I didn’t have the same pressures. For good and for ill, there’s not a lot of money in Berlin when it comes to photography. That lack of money allows you to innovate and to hustle in unexpected ways. My old approach was, if I can make this happen, this one thing happen, this one magazine, then maybe I can make this other thing happen. This wasn’t possible or desirable in Berlin, and I found space to do this project. This was not something I could rush. It’s been a humbling experience.
Berlin was a springboard to long stays across all continents, months in China, India, Somalia, Pakistan, and Sierra Leone. How did your work and your attitude to it evolve along the way?
Every place changed me. Spending months in China, or one month in Ethiopia, back to back to back to back, I felt like my sense of identity and self were in perpetual motion: the interplay of my thoughts and my eye, what things I find interesting and valuable, what I listen to, the people stories I am attracted to, and how I’m supposed to translate them photographically. I used to think about photography as a sum of its components: you had an eye, you had an aesthetic sensibility, and you went out and you made pictures, and kept on making pictures ad nauseam. The first trip destroyed that for me. I came to realize that the evolution of self is closely tied to the photographic practice. Any photographic work that does not require an individual to evolve, meaning to be challenged, and to become different themselves, is not worthwhile to me. It helped me to have a clear theme, one that was at once specific and universal — to photograph something as expansive, as penetrating to human existence as water. I had a unifying theme, and this forced me to look at my craft and my identity as unifying themes. I needed to practice my work in a way that reflected the qualities of the topic I was photographing.
You photographed some of the poorest places and people in the world in the course of your project. And yet, your photos don’t seem exploitative. There’s a matter-of-factness and a tenderness there, a distance and an intimacy. How did you integrate yourself into the places you photographed?
I spend months beforehand doing research, trying to get a good idea of what is happening in the country day in and day out. I want to talk to people who have been there, get the tempo, find out how it felt for them. My process is content-oriented, but beyond that, above that, around that, there’s an atmosphere, which is an instrumental part of my photography. Conveying that atmosphere depends on capturing minor details, a sense of nuance and sensation that makes you feel that this place is alive and this exists. That requires a lot of patience. I meet someone and I end up spending three or four days with them. It takes that long time to move beyond the initial context we are interacting in, where they see me as a photographer, as a foreigner, as a man. These symbols produce a disconnect between us; we are interacting on a social level that prevents me from tapping into the deeper story, the undercurrent. I’m trying to remove those barriers. What do they really feel about what is happening in their community? How does a government ban on fishing certain waters or certain fish impact them? It takes me a long time to understand the nuances, the environmental concerns juxtaposed with people’s vital needs, in such a way that I can translate it into an actual photograph. If I don’t go through that process, I won’t be able to capture what’s happening with all its undercurrents in a way that doesn’t seem gratuitous or dramatic.
How do you decide when’s the right time to start shooting? And how do you approach your subjects and get to know them?
It really comes to listening. I’m a very talkative person with people who know me, but when I’m working I spend most of my time observing. I’ve been like that being since I was a kid. Always disappearing. Being on my own. Vanishing from groups and just watching. And I translate that into my work. When I’m standing with someone, I watch them, I watch their hands. I can’t turn it off. It’s my way of interpreting people. So I pay attention to every detail, and it’s overwhelming, but I try to say, OK, this person’s disposition is interesting, and I try to find the interesting part for me. What makes me feel sympathetic towards them? What’s the part that I can actually say, hey I need to step back and photograph you in this context, in this environment.
A woman in Nigeria was recounting her difficulty with her pregnancy. We went on a walk, she showed me around, and we just talked. And that’s it. I’m not going to come up with a pretext of “I’m going to put you right here, I am this photographer, suddenly we’re going to have a powerful connection” – no. I am just going to have to go along for the ride and be present and say “What will this be?” and if that person in that moment, when we’re on that walk, when we’re on the boat, starts feeling fully comfortable with me, fully themselves, I feel it. In the same way you feel when someone’s interest is taken in you. I see, “Oh, this person wants to show me their world, this person wants to be in front of the camera even though they are nervous about it.” That’s why I’m interested in portraits.
And I try to be able to discern that. That distance. To me, it’s all about getting close then stepping back. How do I avoid placing them in a context that’s not untrue to them in some way? How do I not reduce you to a caricature? I don’t think I’m an excellent portrait photographer, but sometimes, like the woman coming down the side of the mountain — that to me is a portrait. I was climbing down with her, morning after morning after morning. Almost to the point that I was a part of her daily existence. In moments like that the portrait kind of takes hold, and kind of rises above you, you feel it, it’s more than you, more than anything you could have intended to do.
Do you have to step out of your role as a photographer to create honest photography?
You generally have to step out of your role as a photographer. A dear friend of mine, a German commercial photographer, once wrote something on my studio wall in Berlin on a piece of paper, put it up there one day while I was working away. “It’s only a job.” I needed that reminder. He went on to remind me that work is just a fraction of what we put out into the world. This also speaks to the role of humility in photography that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.
Biking actually helps me a lot in this. Biking gives me a sense of my own scale and a sense of anonymity. The whole process of trying to be a photographer, and make this work, and think about yourself and other people, is very much in your head, and biking to me is like my catharsis. It’s my way of reminding myself that I am not those ideas that are ricocheting in my head.
At my own exhibitions, I’ve developed the habit of not telling the people looking at the pictures that I’m the photographer. They give me raw information that I would never get if they knew it was my work. I do this when I’m on assignment sometimes too. I walk up to these guys protesting in Hamburg, and they ask me what I do. If I tell them I‘m a photographer, it changes the context of my experience so instead I’m like, “Nothing. I do nothing. Tell me about what this is all about.” I try to figure out ways to strip the creative process of its narcissism. Another way of saying this is that I am constantly trying to reduce the impact of my ego. Any time my ego rises, it degrades my creative process. As a friend once told me, “The more vulnerable you are, and the more sensitive you are, and the less ego you have, the more beautiful person you are, and that is what makes your work beautiful.”