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a visual conversation

by Valeria Ornelas

On Sunday, Sep 20, Creatives Around the World (CATW) held a roundtable on the Language of imagery: the impact of visual storytelling with photographers and visual artists Mashael Al Saie and Reza Deghati in conversation with CATW founder, Vallabhi Singh. The conversation touched on topics regarding the different creative processes of producing a picture and the challenges of being a visual artist in a world of visual proliferation.

Reza Deghati is a world-renowned French-Iranian photojournalist who covers the stories of pain and suffering and joy and beauty in war-torn countries and the stories of striking individuals he meets along the way. He is the portraitist of remarkable people as well as of the oppressed and the anonymous, whom he depicts with all the fervour of a convinced humanist.

Mashael Al Saie is a photographer and video artist whose interest in the field began in the fashion industry, taking portraits. With an inherent desire to see more women like herself represented in the industry, she devoted her art towards highlighting contemporary issues like the narratives of women in the Middle East, the history of representation and visual culture of the region and most recently the impact of the pandemic on cultural representation.

Reza and Mashael follow very different creative processes. Mashael makes decisions regarding sets, lighting, models and equipment, amongst other things, in an effort to faithfully reflect the vision she has crafted in her mind. Reza, on the other hand, has no control over the variables that compose the image he is seeking. He has an idea of what the picture should convey and must observe his surroundings until he witnesses this idea taking shape in front of his camera. But in the end, they are both pursuing the same goal: to share a message through a picture.

The Responsibility of an Image-Maker

Because our eyes can’t deceive us, we choose to see images as truth. However, every picture is the result of decisions made by the creator. Mashael suggests that her work is always influenced and determined not only by her explicit decisions regarding a particular image, but implicit decisions she may make based on her culture and background. Artists and journalists go through this process consciously and intentionally. Their goal is to transmit a message through their work. Individuals with smartphones and social media do not go through such reflexive processes to take a picture, yet that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t sending messages as well.

Images have been a universal common language throughout history, from cave paintings and hieroglyphics to emojis and memes. Pictures are a language that everyone can understand. And because we now can easily produce and share our own pictures, it also seems to be a language that everyone can speak. Thanks to advancing technology, the instruments to make and share pictures are more available to us than ever before. Because of this, we call everyone with a camera a photographer. Photography has evolved so rapidly and has become so common in our daily life that pictures are perceived more as casual communication more than artistic expression. But, as Reza stated, “we don’t call everyone with a pen a writer”.

Social media and smartphones have provided platforms for everyone to make, share and consume visual stories constantly. We don’t struggle to take a picture the way we struggle to put our thoughts down into words. That provides a sense of freedom. But the barriers we have taken down in the technical process of taking a picture has also led us to remove the creative process that defines the message behind the image. We are telling a story we didn’t think too critically about, and other people are consuming it without thinking critically about it as well.

The Social Dilemma

The Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”, which is mentioned in the conversation, showcases how social media became a vessel for filtered and unsolicited content. By levelling the field, brands and companies now have equal access to your internal worldview as your friends and families. Advertisers are not too different from artists in terms of using visual imagery to convey a message. They are fully aware of the implicit messages they send through their image. The real problem lies when cognition remains implicit. We are being easily influenced by what we consume on social media because we don’t observe content critically the way we would observe a photograph in a gallery, although the process to convey a message is equally complex and intentional.

There are implications to photographs. There will always be. Our worldview will be reflected in every picture we take and share. Artists and journalists like Mashael and Reza show us that taking photographs is no walk in the park, but can be a wonderful journey of discovery both within ourselves and of the outside world. So, as we explore the art of photography and its power to share messages and communicate without barriers, we are reminded to be more critical about what we see, and more conscious about what we share.

left: Reza’s portrait of an Afghani man he calls “Sindbad” — one of those photographs that symbolises, for those who really look at it, the perfection of man, a representation of masculine beauty // right: Mashael’s dreamy portrait of capturing the nuanced essence of the female Arab experience

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CREATIVES AROUND THE WORLD

CREATIVES AROUND THE WORLD

Creatives Around The World (CATW) is a network leadership platform conceived with an intention of orchestrating #NetworksForGood to service sustainable good.