A Moment with Madeeha Al-Hussayni
Empirical: How did you get started in photography?
Madeeha: Well, it was back in 2001. I used to paint with oils, but since the UK weather is very wet, I decided to buy a simple point-and-shoot camera to photograph landscapes, in order to print and view them any time. I’ve loved taking photographs from the very first time I took my camera out. It’s 2012 and I still haven’t used any of my cameras I’ve had for my original intention, to photograph something to paint from.
Empirical: What kind of camera are you using?
Madeeha: The camera I’m using for now is a Nikon D200 but I’m due for an upgrade soon. I’m definitely a Nikon girl.
Empirical: Do you notice a difference in the various cameras you’ve moved up with as the technologies have changed?
Madeeha: Yes, indeed. I’ve noticed the difference in flexibility, usability, and convenience in certain features. I am a little behind the times with the camera itself despite it serving me well. I’ve been concentrating more on the lenses themselves.
Empirical: Could you elaborate on that?
Madeeha: Well, nothing spectacular, but one thing I’ve learned is that the lens makes more of a difference in terms of the look of the photo than the camera itself. I have an 18- 200mm wide and telephoto lens which I bought because it was more cost effective to have almost an “all-in-one” range. However, the image quality suffered at the ‘wide’ end of it, there were more distortions, not as much depth, but it’s a great telephoto. Now I have a fixed 50mm f/1.2 lens, which is excellent for portraits as you have more control over the depth. I also have the macro filters in my kit which fit the telephoto. They allow the lens to focus on objects close up. I do have some technical knowledge of how it all works, but my mind is very visually oriented. I’m more interested in the imagery and trying to capture what I see from my perspective.
Empirical: What kinds of projects do you work on?
Madeeha: So far I’ve only done product shots for companies, a major one being a friend’s business of selling shisha pipes and other ornaments from the Middle East. In the future, I do hope to get more into travel and documentary photography as I did love my trips to Morocco and Turkey. At some point, I would love to travel around Europe and the Middle East.
Empirical: How much time do you spend setting up shots like the ones we’re featuring here?
Madeeha: The self-portraits are always tricky! One thing I love to do is play around with lighting. The shot in Morocco, “Koutoubia,” was pretty much instant. The others, however, would have taken me probably half an hour to a shot roughly. This was taken on my trip in 2006. The people here are comfortable enough to have an afternoon nap outside the Koutoubia Masjed (Mosque) in Marrakech.
Empirical: How does that differ compared to the time you spend on the product shots you’ve done?
Madeeha: A product shot is more about the backdrop, lighting, and camera. Once that is done (which takes about 15 minutes), the rest of the work is just shooting and replacing products. However post processing, the exposure and contrast settings, does take its time. All the things one would do in a darkroom in the days of film are now done digitally, but the process is the same.
Empirical: In what ways, if any, does your painting background help your photography?
Madeeha: I think it’s been more the other way around. Photography has given me more of an instant connection with a device that has let me capture things as I see them from my eye. I have space and ability to tweak and set up shots which I originally see in my mind’s eye. The photography has helped train me by strengthening the connection between the mind’s eye and physical eye. As a result of that I’m more in tune with perspective, color, and mood. And I am inspired to paint accordingly. “Disconnected” is one from a series of shots I photographed for a project on dementia and Alzheimer’s. The photographs depict the causes and the results of the condition in a visually metaphorical manner. This image represents the disconnection to part of one’s memory, represented by the filament. Confusion and absence are represented by static on the television in the background with no signal.
Empirical: What was your reaction when England, along with the US, went to war against Iraq?
Madeeha: I felt absolutely outraged and very upset. I even took part in one of the protests in the North of England. It just felt someone destroyed my roots and where I came from. I rarely talk politics because it frustrates me to the point of depressing me. Back then I had so many fellow college class “mates” strongly in favor of the Iraq war while at the same time constantly complaining about asylum seekers coming in from Iraq. I’m an introvert, but there were many times I was boiling inside and had to seriously bite my tongue!
Empirical: Do you have relatives in Iraq?
Madeeha: Our family is a little scattered around. There are some in the US, some in the UK, we lost touch with those in Iraq before the war. A few members of our family were planning to track them down and reconnect with them. Now I have absolutely no idea who or what is left! That country has been torn apart. But I strive to hold onto the good things of my culture—they are a part of me after all.
Empirical: Has it been difficult for you as someone of Arab descent growing up in England?
Madeeha: Indeed, it has been quite difficult being someone of not only Arab descent but also Muslim too. I’ve encountered racism from an early age. Because of this, despite being born and brought up here, it doesn’t feel like my homeland. I don’t feel a sense of belonging. The brunt of it was actually when I was at the university getting my photography degree. I had very bad luck with the two tutors who ran the course. They were uncomfortable with me—my beliefs, background, as they are alien to them. I’m dyslexic, too, and they saw it as an inconvenience rather than helping me. Even though I got my degree, I came out of it with my passion for photography doused. The racism in the UK is on a very subtle, cunning, and underhanded level, the sort where you know it’s there but are unable to speak out on it or do anything about it. But, saying that, I’ve also met some amazing White British friends. There are still people who smile at me in the street and on trains, etc., which does make me feel warm inside, so it really depends where you live and in what area. I continue to strive to be a good and positive example of a Muslim and an Arab. I do this by mixing with different people and at the same time holding on to my values. I’ve become proud of being different and an individual outside the box. You can see this in “Incense,” which is from a photography project during the month of Ramadan in 2011. I try my best to capture the essence and mysticism of Ramadan. This is a photograph of Bakhoor (Arabic incense) to sweeten the air after the evening feast.
Empirical: You’ve said elsewhere that you’ve become interested in Sufism. What drew you in that direction?
Madeeha: I’ve always been a Sufi at heart, and Sufism has nothing to do with the politics of Islam because it’s universal within Islam. If anyone asks, I’m simply Muslim. I’ve always had that Sufi way of thinking, as it’s my personal interpretation of Islam in accordance with my nature. Anything to do with the spiritual realm has always fascinated me, as I’m a deep romantic. The photograph “Forgotten” represents the deep part of us, which seems to be overlooked and forgotten as we dwell in this materialistic world. This deep inner core within us needs discovering and spiritual nourishment, but over time it tends to be slowly buried by the chaos that surrounds us. Since the beginning of 2011, I’ve delved more deeply into Sufism, and what sparked off this sudden dive were events in my life. Injustice—whether it is discrimination, poor health, or loss of family—seems to discourage faith in many I’ve met. In me it has done the opposite. Because I have experienced so much injustice, it has made me question life more. I’ve always been one who tries her best to learn from life no matter how much an event or situation distresses me. I believe everything happens for a reason, and has always happened for a reason. I’m quite a deep thinker and ponderer. The photograph “Moment” is about the feelings and emotions that the bright lights of life around us tend to drown out and cause us to suppress. However, tears still need to flow from the heart. It’s difficult to say this, but had I not gone through the things I have, my way of thinking and feeling would be very different. I would take so many things for granted. I would not be the person I am today.
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