More than Documentary

Conversation with Photographer Daniel Ali, and his latest project “Sumo School.”

Photography usually tells the truth. It captures the very moment. Even though you weren’t there, you can still feel it through the photograph. Photographer Daniel Ali recently shared his story “Searching for Karachi” on Rinse. “Searching for Karachi” tells a story about daily lives in Karachi, which is the biggest city in Pakistan. People usually refers Pakistan to a place of chaos — terror attacks and religious conflicts. While besides these scenes Mr. Ali expected to see, he learnt that most people suffer because of the corrupt and neglectful government. We’re honored to invite Mr. Ali to have a conversation with us about his work☺

From your portfolio, most your projects are documentary stories. Why documentary?

To be honest I’m not really sure, I guess documentary photography kind of chose me.

Whilst studying and growing up I wanted to be an “artist”, whatever my interpretation of an artist was then I’m not really sure either. But what I did learn through my photographic studies was that documentation is a very thin line which can be crossed and blurred very easily and without anyone even noticing. Although my photography is clearly documenting a place, or people or an event I like to think it is more than that. I am the one framing the shots, picking the moments and sometimes even staging or dressing the scenes in the photographs. I have begun to make sure portraiture is part of each series, this is because I feel it is where one truly sees my presence as a photographer in that particular scene or moment. Through portraiture one can draw many readings, essentially for me it is the connection between the subject and the photographer/camera. I pose my subjects and take great care selecting the framing. In my opinion this is where my photography stops being documentary, it becomes imagery reflecting my presence through interaction with the subject and sometimes even physically in the photograph.

You have been to lots of different places for doing projects. Would you tell us one interesting thing happening when you took photos?

For a few years I was regularly stopped at the US borders whilst visiting my father who lives in Texas. After a ten hour flight I would be stopped for a minimum of an hour at the most I was held for three and a half hours.

Whilst standing at the passport control desk the customs officer shouts for an escort who takes you to a room where rows of chairs face an huge American flag, maps of America and other pro American paraphernalia. At the back of the room another customs officer sits behind you busy with paperwork. Various members of my family have regularly been and continue to be stopped. This is due to the fact my dad’s family are from Pakistan so we travel to Pakistan to visit family, many of whom are Muslim.

During my Masters I worked a project about my experiences of immigration control at the American borders which involved reenactments, official documents and audio recordings of the environment I sat in for hours. Anyway the reason I am recounting this experience is because in all my years of travel I have never felt so foreign to a place and to people as I have whilst being questioned by individuals working for the US government. An agency whose sole job it is to deal with foreigners had no idea about a country they feared so much. I had to explain to two particular officers that Pakistan was not just camels, sand and huts. I told them they even have McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut like everywhere else in world. These encounters really stuck with me and although my art practice is very different from then, the same need to inform and bridge that gap of knowledge between people and cultures remains one of the keys aims in my practice.

Most of the time, what’s your inspiration to start a project?

It really varies but it will start out with whatever country I am going to. I try to make use of family and friends wherever they may be. Travelling is really important to me and I use my camera as an excuse to uncover something I wouldn’t normally look into without the reason of wanting to document it. Once I know where I’m headed, through research and my own interests I hone in on common or stereotypical views of these countries and regions. My aim is then simply to uncover some of these common and pedestrianised understandings of a place or culture.

For instance in “Searching for Karachi” I wanted to give the people of Karachi a face. I felt the need to let the West know that regular people, with families, struggling to makes ends meet like the rest of us exist in such a place as Pakistan which is portrayed as a crazy melting pot of extremism. And likewise in “The Modernity of Witchcraft” I felt it was important to dispel the belief that all witch doctors still emulated these visions of elaborate voodoo rituals when in actual fact witchcraft has modernised and become very much part of a fast paced and quickly modernising city such as Kampala.

Do you have any assumption before you start the project “Sumo School?” After finishing the project, does anything change you?

All I knew about “Sumo School” before I arrived was where in Japan I was going and how long I was going to be there for. I honestly didn’t know much else, as ever with these things you can never plan too much unless you have the privilege of being able to visit beforehand. What I do try to organise for most of my work is someone to translate and guide me. Nearly all of the situations I have found myself in no one other then my translator has been able to speak English, this can both be a positive and negative thing. For the work and image making not knowing too much and being an outsider often works out quite beneficial.

Can you explain a little more about the sentence in your project statement “A sumo’s life is very structured”?

The sumo way of life is steeped in tradition deriving from the Shinto religion. I relate the order and structure of sumo life to that present in many religions. The rikishi (wrestlers) have a daily routine which occurs at the same times each day dictating when they train, eat, study and rest. The Japanese are a very respectful nation and life as a rikishi and learning sumo is no different. The utmost respect is given to elders and rikishi with more experience. Often the youngers will do the majority of chores in and around the heya (accommodation) and training dohyo (clay platform where bouts take place).

“To become a successful rikishi it takes commitment and dedication summed up in the belief that you must train your body, heart and mind.” — Daniel Ali

Are you planning your next project yet? If yes, would you share a little to us?

I actually have two projects lined up for second half of 2014. The first is going to be about illegal Mexicans making a living in Texas striving for a better way of living for themselves and their families. After that I will hopefully start my first long time project where I plan to document the build up to live pro wrestling events put on for hundreds of fans in London whom go mad for the extreme fights and pure fun and entertainment.

Meanwhile, we have already invited lots of talented photographers around the world to share their best works. If we haven’t reached out to you, and you also have a great story to tell, please don’t hesitate, come share it with us on Rinse.

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