By Hussain Almoosawi
This article is part of the Khaleeji Art Series, which spotlights artists and art from the Gulf region.
Sixteen years ago, in an Australian winter, I warmed to the idea of owning my first digital SLR camera. Compared to the fully-manual film counterpart I was trained with, the digital version promised to offer me more freedom and control over what I wanted to photograph, and would allow me to embark on a journey of creative self-discovery.
However, it would take a few more rounds of savings before I actually took my first photo with it, as I could not afford coupling it with a lens. For quite a while, I used to unbox the camera every day, inspect its magnesium alloy grip and play with the dials and buttons, fantasizing about putting this gadget into action. But tightening my spending secured me a 50mm lens within a couple of months.
For the next 5 years, between 2005 and 2010, my camera acted like an extension of my body, and my photos were a reflection of my social life. I also took a few small jobs such as photographing events, this helped me take good photos to complement my design projects. Along the way, I expanded my camera gear and got more obsessed with photography as medium.
Was I a photographer then? No, by all means. I’m not even sure I am one today, but I’ll get to this later. To be called a photographer, you either have to make a living out of it, or create a body of work of some cultural value. Not everyone will agree with me, but I believe you either have to earn it, or make an earning out of it. Master photographers do both.
I happen to sell my work and get commissioned for projects every now and then, but I can hardly say I’m making a living out of it. Thus, I don’t meet the first criteria. Is my work of a cultural value? Perhaps. This takes us to the reason why I am writing these words.
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For almost five years, what I photographed was a comprehensive historic accord of my social circle. I believe my close friends were lucky to have that period of their life throughly documented with sharp, in-focus and relatively high resolution photos, which are still properly indexed and shareable in the cloud. But beyond that, what I photographed did not have a value for a wider audience (this is a hint to those who take great photos to question the value of their output.). Today, I look at that period as a mere training phase.
Where did the value in my photos later come from? From the following three elements that constitute a triangle:
1. Appreciating the tool
My commitment and obsession with the medium played a great role. I used to read about camera gear everyday. I was specifically interested in optics and how the digital aspect of the camera worked in comparison to film. Many have an urge to purchase a camera without knowing how its mechanics work. Knowing even a little about the tool will make you appreciate every frame you capture with it.
2. Fostering an education
I don’t mean formal education; this include all forms of knowledge-seeking that range from reading books to visiting art exhibitions. If your practice has something to do with visual communication, it will naturally affect your photography. However this isn’t always the case, but it is with me. My formal education and (and current profession) as a designer has a huge impact on the methodology and subject matter of my work.
3. Seeking raw inspiration
This is the tricky one. Many people feel inspired by other people’s work, whether they consume it digitally or in person. It’s the type of feeling many people experience with art. I, however, don’t find art inspiring..
I’m not saying art doesn’t move me – on the contrary. I submit myself to great art. It shatters any ignorance I might possess. The thought process of its creators, who also humble you with their grand execution, enlighten me (though I consciously categorize the work of others – even renaissance masters – under education, not inspiration). Here I’m not trying to stop anyone from being inspired by whatever they want, except that I believe inspiration should rather come from the least processed sources. Other people’s work is subject to heavy processing, and using it as a base inspiration could steer our own output further away from originality.
Let’s take food as an analogy. To cook a great dish, you can learn from great chefs. Though to come up with something of your own, you need to experiment with raw ingredients and maybe seek inspiration from nature. Equally, typographers might be influenced by the work of their peers, but raw inspiration might come from Roman inscriptions.
How does this translate to photography? Many great landscape photographers are those who love nature and spend hours hiking before taking a photo. Great portrait photographers are genuinely interested in making a connection with people before photographing them. The list goes on. In these examples, inspiration was straightforward: nature and people. Though given the raw complexity of these two, the unique way how each person perceives and processes them can yield a beautiful array of diverging outcomes.
As for myself, cities – with all the details they entail – are what inspire me. It’s the vibrant city of Melbourne that first brought me to see the world as a designer and document it like a photographer. Later on, I sought inspiration from cities in the UAE with a framework of documenting our national architectural heritage. When I say cities inspire me, I’m not referring to a mere sight of their cityscapes, but to the experiences that break you away off their beaten path.
To all who aspire to become photographers: appreciate the tool, give yourself the right education and seek raw inspiration. Taking aesthetically pleasing photos is not difficult nowadays, but creating a meaningful body of work demands a long term commitment and ongoing practice.
As for myself, I don’t consider myself a photographer. An artist? Not even close. I’m a designer who uses photography as medium. If terms really matter, I’m a typologist.
To find out more about Hussain Almoosawi, visit his page on Instagram.
Hussain Almoosawi is an Emirati multidisciplinary creative in the realms of design, photography, and visual journalism. After obtaining a BA from Queensland College of Art in 2007, he started his design career working for The Letter D and the Museum of Brisbane. Later on, he completed an MA in Communication Design from Swinburne University in Melbourne, where he also documented some of the city’s urban typologies. After returning home to the UAE in 2013, he served as an infographic artist and content creator for The National and other media platforms at Abu Dhabi Media. In parallel, he has been on a quest to rediscover the UAE’s urban landscapes, through systematically documenting its overlooked modern architecture. He is currently the creative lead at Mohtawa, based in Abu Dhabi.
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