"Photography has the power to unite and create empathy," says Ali Mobasser, one the winners of the first edition of Portrait of Britain
Born in Maryland, USA, in 1976 Ali Mobasser grew up an Iranian Londoner with an American passport; his photography deals with identity and displacement, among other things. After taking a BA in Fine Arts at Kingston University, he started work as a photographic assistant and picture editor in 2000, and then found his way into photography via commercial still life commissions.
What makes a compelling portrait?
A sense of intimacy, vulnerability and most importantly, empathy – in the photographer, not the subject. I say this because I look at all my portraits as self-portraits. I project myself onto others to reflect my prejudices, fears, desires, or whatever else is coming out of me at that moment. The purest way to do this is to not plan the action but to carry a camera around with me on the streets while going about my day-to-day activities and allow fate to bring me to my subjects.
I have portraits of family and friends that have personal gravity due to my relationship with them, but it is the portraits of the unknowns that have the power to challenge and question me, and in turn do the same for viewers.
When did you fall in love with photography?
It wasn’t what you’d call love at first sight. Ever since my Fine Art days at college, I have snobbishly referred to photography as a tool. Our motto was to express our ideas with whatever medium suited the concept. After my BA I realised I didn’t have much to say as an artist, so to fill up the time it would take me to find something to say, I thought I’d learn more about photography. You could say we started going steady at that point and I had a good time assisting fashion and celebrity photographers during my 20s.
Then I saw the more serious side of image-making and did stints at Discovery Channel and BBC as a picture editor before starting work as a still life photographer and shooting ad campaigns. I can now say that as an artist, we have a marriage of convenience. I wouldn’t call it love because of her bad traits, amongst them commercialism, propaganda and the selfie, but I certainly have a lot of respect for the power photography possesses.
Could you tell us about an experience you’ve had while shooting portraits?
When I was 18 my grandfather passed away and his cherished Rolleiflex camera was handed down to me. There began a real love affair. It is a twin lens camera, so you have to look down into a box with a hooded mirror on top to see what is in front of you. The mirror reverses the world outside and, as you look down through it, it is almost as if you are in an alternate reality. It is a peculiar sight to see me walking around like this, and people often do not know what I am doing but inevitably become curious.
I use this to my advantage and am able to place myself in front of people I want to photograph. I will pan from side to side almost as though I am looking for something and in one of those brief pans, I will stop, focus and click the shutter, then continue to move the camera. Sometimes they do not register this moment, other times they do so I acknowledge it with a smile that is almost always returned. Other times a conversation starts, normally about the Rolleiflex or their father who used to own something similar.
Have you ever had any bad experiences while shooting?
“Did you just take my photo?” I wasn’t going to lie. “Yes, you look amazing”. She did. There started my routine of killing her with kindness, and nervous over-laughing and weird flirting – the only things I could muster up in that situation. It was shamelessly desperate and I really felt stupid to have put myself in that situation. She wanted me to delete the picture but I tried to explain that it was film, and that I was looking into a mirror not a digital screen. Luckily, at that moment, another traffic warden came along from across the road and pulled her away, and I continued with the nervous laugh and walked away feeling terrible.
What a horrible experience, and I was certain that I would not end up using the photo once I had developed the roll. Then many months later when making my edit, I decided to use it. It was no longer about how I had achieved the photograph or how the lady had reacted. It was now within the context of the rest of the body of work, and it almost seemed dishonest not to show this aggressive act or indeed talk about it now. Strangely though, it is that brief sense of infinite melancholy as she stares through me in the midst of the confrontation that gives the portrait its worth.
What do you think about the Portrait of Britain project?
Between 2014 and 2015 I embarked on a street photography project, including street portraits. Entering some of these street portraits into ‘Portrait of Britain’ felt like a natural thing to do. I wanted to add what I had observed into the pool of diversity from around the country. When done well, photography has the power to unite and create empathy, something that we, as photographers, should see as our obligation to the world. The theme connected with me personally, and if ever there was a time for photography to bring people together and celebrate being different yet living side by side, it was now.
Exhibiting using major advertising space was a brilliant idea – replacing its capitalist function with a humanist cause is genius. It’s a bit like secretly replacing someone’s cigarettes with carrot sticks, or opening up the Daily Mail to find the poetry of Rumi.
Check out other works of Ali Mobasser here