Photography: Daniel Ali
Words: Bridie Riley
BR: You have described your methodology of working as preferring to “get a sense of a place and its people in a relatively short period of time then shoot and leave”. What are the advantages of working like this and do you ever work on more extended projects where you build a long-term relationship with your subjects?
DA: As with many other photographers, filmmakers and creatives in general who are trying to make personal work on the side, time and finance are a huge factor. I have a ‘day job’, I freelance, and I have a wife and child, so when I start planning a new project all of these must be factored into my plans. I would love to spend a year of my life being amongst things and truly experiencing the lives of those that I document, but only if I could bring my family with me and I were able to continue supporting them and my long term career financially. Having said that, I do not think this has a negative affect on my work or anyone else’s. Rightly or wrongly impressions can be made of a person or place in a matter seconds or moments, and that of course has and is very much a part of the work I produce. I think the most difficult thing when approaching a subject is to be as open-minded and impartial as possible, which of course is a lot easier said then done. I try to be as matter of fact as possible and approach all of my subjects with the simple thinking that they are the same as me, they are just another person, but they are the result of what time and circumstance have made them. So whether they are a witchdoctor or a humanitarian I will approach them, talk with them and aim to represent them in an equal way as best I can.
I am yet to do a long-term project, maybe if I can find a story here in the UK then that will at some point happen, but it seems my interests in travel and experiencing international cultures generally take me away from home to make my work.
‘The students look to see who their first bouts will be on their first day at their new school’, from the series Sumo School
BR: You approach subjects, which you believe have been ‘misrepresented or misinterpreted’. How do you begin this creative process of offering an alternative view? Is this something that develops as the project progresses or do you begin with a clear narrative and work from that?
DA: I simply try not to photograph or at least display the obvious imagery one would expect from the subject. For example, with Sumo School I refrained from showing any shots in the series of the actual bouts that take place. I admit there are one or two that show the training for the fights which are about to take place but this is the fine line of trying to document and trying to show something else other then the obvious. When I chose those particular photographs it is because the final image, which I wouldn’t have seen until getting the negs back from processing, ended up adding something to the series and in my opinion further expressed the determination of these kids who are adamant to succeed.
Many photographers talk about trying to capture the ‘moments between moments’ to get a true sense of a place or a subject, I am one of those photographers. I really feel that if you can capture those specific and rare snaps when your subject has let their guard down, or are unaware of your presence, or they just don’t care any more, then you’re on track to capturing something beautiful and honest. The problem with sports is that it’s competitive and a type of performance, so in its very nature a façade or a front is put up, and it’s not always easy to get around this. As well as trying to capture those ‘in-between moments’ I try to pick off as many details as possible, the things that give you a sense of the place even if you have never been there or experienced it yourself. Anything that alludes to or intrigues your other senses, it’s easy just to photograph the action but to try and inform your audience of the smell, or the feel in the air or the emotional atmosphere is a lot harder, and again I try to achieve this as best as possible. I probably fail most of the time but you’ve got to keep trying otherwise it just gets boring!
In short, I never really have a clear narrative in mind beforehand, my projects generally construct themselves as the shoot goes on and then will probably amalgamate into something else when I start going through the negatives and putting together the final series.
‘A key part to building the ring is laying down 2 inch foam for protection’, from the series Not So Illegal Wrestling
BR: How does your creative approach differ between your personal work and your commissioned projects?
DA: My approach doesn’t differ really, the main difference is in commissioned or commercial work as I’m either given a brief or there is a director with me so I’ll generally tick all the boxes of what is expected of me, and around capturing the necessities I’ll try and grab shots of what interests me or what I naturally lean towards. The work I do is very varied and a lot of the time there isn’t the need or the want for anything other than what the brief is asking for. That’s why I persist in producing my own projects because as with anyone in the industry, the aim is to get paid for the work you want to do and until then I’ll just commission myself to do that work.
BR: Working across two disciplines, video and photography, opens up your tool box when building your narrative. How do you decide which discipline is most suited to your subject? And do you prefer one to the other?
DA: I started working commercially in video and shooting my own personal photography projects outside of university around the same time in 2012, but I always saw myself as a photographer and the video side of things was purely financial to support my photography. However in the past two years this has all changed, and at the moment I’m concentrating on filmmaking to balance out my portfolio more. Ideally if time and money were not an obstacle I would split the time between photography and video, though I like to keep the two very separate when I work because I don’t find combining the mediums a very fluid and natural way of working for both my subject and myself. My transition from stills to video is a representation of my circumstance too, when I was younger the internet was only just getting going so photographs were my main visual stimulus other than TV. The internet has created an abundance of video content for everything you can think of, and since moving to London and working as a film projectionist I guess I have been inspired to start making moving images, and to enjoy the same learning curve with constructing a film as I have over the past decade with photography. At the moment I have no preference for one or the other, but I do feel a lot more free to experiment with video right now and hopefully my photographic style will be translated into my film work.
‘At the age of 22 Norvim left his home in Nicaragua and travelled to Houston to find work so he could support his mother and fund his education’, from the series Undocumented Living
BR: Throughout many of your projects you have some very powerful formal portraits. You have previously mentioned that intervention into a scene allows you to “elaborate on my [your] perspective”. How far are you willing to curate your subjects to achieve what you want?
DA: This is a fine line which can be problematic when referring to oneself as a documentary photographer, but I feel comfortable in the fact that my presence alone or the presence of a camera changes a situation before you’ve even started working, so I try not to worry about it and generally go with whatever my gut is telling me. Having said that, I never really impose myself too much in my portraiture, the main thing is finding some decent light and then if possible positioning the subject in front a backdrop which doesn’t distract from them. I tend not to give much direction, I simply ask my subject to stand naturally and comfortably then I will move the camera around them to find an angle that works. The only other direction I give is to either look straight down the lens or to look slightly off camera. I think the key moment that makes the portrait for me is when I hit the shutter. A lot of my portraiture is shot on 5×4 film so I tend to maybe only take four shots of a subject and then move on. To try and achieve something engaging and to try and represent the subject the way I want to, I again wait for one of those ‘moments between moments’. I’ll frame my shot up, give the subject the smallest direction and with the shutter release in my hand I’ll often pretend I’m busy still setting up or adjusting something, when I feel the moment is right I’ll often quickly grab the shot. There have been many times I have been told that they weren’t ready or were not expecting me to be finished so soon. I like to keep things simple and short, I find that’s the best way I work for both myself and the subject. There’s nothing worse then your subject getting fed up, whether they tell you that or not, when you keep adjusting their position or you keep re-framing, taking many shots in order to achieve the “perfect” portrait any frustration will generally show on their face in the end result, in my work it does anyway!
‘Portrait of Farooq Kavuna, one of Kampala’s most talented skaters‘, from the series Slum Skaters
BR: Working with wet plate photography really slows down the processes of image making. What drew you to this historical process other then the slow paced performance of making an exposure?
DA: In university I assisted a photographer called Sebastian Edge with his homemade 20×24 inch camera, I loved the hands on process and always knew I wanted to have a play with it for myself. It wasn’t until about three years later that I actually got all the chemicals and started to shoot wet plates. I love shooting film; at university I loved being in the dark, and I love the connection a photographer has with their work through the various steps of analogue photography and printing. Wet plates are in my opinion the pinnacle of this enjoyment. Every step of the way through the process you have direct impact on the way the image will come out. From how you store and look after your chemicals, to how you coat the plate, how you handle the plate, framing and taking the shot, and then even afterwards with the way you wash the plate off and dry it. Every single step of the process has your fingerprints on it ….it literally has your fingerprints on it.
‘Portrait of Liam Sparkes, a London based tatooist’, from the series Extended Gaze
BR: So far you have focused on predominantly human subjects and intimate portraiture using the wet plate process – what do you intend to explore next?
DA: You need a lot of equipment to shoot wet plates so nearly all of my photography in this style was taken in my old studio where I had a darkroom, hence the work was mainly portraiture. The process became a way of relaxing and removing my frame of mind from directly thinking about work I was in the middle of at that time and allowed me to just have fun whilst still producing imagery. More often than not I would invite friends over, we’d drink, eat, I’d photograph them and show them the process so they could have a go themselves. I have been out and about with the kit using a van as a makeshift darkroom but it takes a lot of preparation so this rarely happens. I would love to get back into the process but I haven’t touched it for nearly a year now and I’m not sure when it will get to the top of my list of priorities again. I’ve been wanting to shoot a whole project with this process, shooting portraits, landscapes, details, everything I would usually shoot in a project but sadly I haven’t made it happen yet.
BR: How important is using analogue materials to your working process. Have you ever been tempted to begin making digital work?
Analogue photography is everything to me and is the basis for my work in every aspect. I don’t think I will ever shoot my personal photography on digital unless the subject matter really required it, but I can’t envisage a situation where that would be the case. I am almost forced to shoot digital films because I think the choice to shoot analogue would obstruct me from achieving my goals, but as I say my personal photography will almost certainly always be analogue. I like minimising choice and options and I like slowing the whole process of capturing images down which is what analogue does for me. Other then limiting my options and allowing me to concentrate on the subject matter the other thing that I love about analogue photography is the surprises. As every photographer who shoots on film will know you often get those happy accidents, many of those images I either did not intend to come up with or came out different to how I imagined them to often end up being a part of the final work.
Searching for Karachi
Photography © Daniel Ali