Student photographer Asef Ali Mohammad from Middlesex University, UK, was announced as the winner of the Student Focus award that attracted entries from over 200 institutions across six continents.
His series ‘Your world in colour’, shot with Sony SLT-A65 camera, about youngsters in Kabul was the winning entry over other ten shortlisted photographers. This landed Middlesex University the prize of 45,000 Euros worth of Sony digital imaging equipment.
He explains his background.
I am originally from Afghanistan,but we left Afghanistan when I was 2. I grew up in Pakistan and finished my high school there. After which I came to the UK in 2002 to study Business and Accounting. But after a couple of years when I enrolled at the University I realised that, I wont be able to commit myself to this in the long run, because it was not my cup of tea, so I decided to switch to photography.It’s been nearly four years now that I have been taking photographs, not professionally but seriously.
How often do you go back and forth?
This time was technically my third time. Obviously, the first time was when I was born there, the second time was in 2009, when I was working on a project called America. I interviewed people from all walks of life. It was a personal project but at the same time I wanted to present it at the university forcritique. I received a very positive response and my professors suggested me to give it to somebody outside the university. I gave my work to Photo Aid and they published it online as a weekly story. This encouraged me to produce more projects,so again in 2011 I did the Quetta project and now I recently did this one, which was exhibited at the World Photo London 2012.
Do you make films as well?
Photojournalism, is like multimedia now, it is the Internet generation, everything is online, so I decided to mix video and audio. The Quetta project was my first multimedia project.
What exactly do you study at the university?
It is a B.A. in Photography. It is photography, but is quite extensive. About 60% of students are from fashion background, may be about 20% are from photo journalistic background and some fine arts, so its not limited, its entirely up to you. And of course we have tutors who specialize in that area.
Have you done any commercial work?
I have been a student so I haven’t done any commercial work, its mostly personal projects that are self funded, but I want to thank the University for their help and support.
What made you want to do a project about Hazara people?
All these projects are very personal to me. The Hazara project, because I grew up in that town, I finished my primary & secondary school there and I thought, instead of me just wondering around and doing little little projects around the world, it would be a privilege for me to go back to somewhere I belong.
Did you have a team for your documentary?
Initially it was just myself and this girl who lives in Quetta, she is an activist. In Quetta, you just can’t walk into somebody’s house; you have to have a female companion. I sought help, I made contact with her, told her this is what I am trying to do, it’s a small project but I want to take photographs, and interview each of the victims, but because she was an activist dealing with all these victims, she had the entire list, so that really helped a lot.
How did you go about with the project?
It wasn’t that difficult, but I only had 3 weeks for the whole project. Fatima who did the interview, really pulled it off, in terms of interviews and arranging all the dates, times and locations. When I got back to the UK, I was struggling with translations, I understood the language, but they spoke in a different dialect. We spoke Urdu at school. I was struggling, so I contacted this friend who speaks very good Dari. Hazara people speak Persian. Dari is a different dialect of Farsi in Afghanistan and Hazargi is a different dialect of Dari. So it is like the sub dialect of a sub dialect.
So is this project over, or will you continue?
I think I would love to extend it in terms of making it more visually informative. I would like to go back and explore a bit more. I would also like to contact the police, the institutions that they call the law enforcement agencies over there. I want to get opinions of different parties and make it a bigger project. There are several areas that could be covered. Yes, so hopefully next year or later this year, I will go back. After graduation, I have a couple of other projects and then I have this Quetta project to finish till September. I need to finish it before I start my masters next September.
What is your personal favourite genre of photography?
How important is the equipment for you?
I think its not that important. We have had so many discussions where we just sit and talk about large format and medium format and digital. At the end of the day it is the light, it is the subject, and how we approach it. For the project Kabuli artists, we were given a Sony camera. It was mandatory for us to shoot with the Sony A65 camera ever since we entered this competition in December 2011. In order to enter the competition you need to have a body of work. I presented my Quetta work. That’s what got me through.
Is it difficult if you are from Afghanistan and living in Pakistan?
In that specific area, they are now severely discriminated, but 30 years ago, it was fine, because it is very close to the Afghanistan border. When people emigrated from Afghanistan, the found this town.
So what happens if you move out of this town and move to big cities?
Big cities are, in fact much safer. In Quetta there have been target killings, also because Hazara’s are Shia’s, they are easily recognizable in terms of their facial features and looks.
How did you manage to get a chopper?
Because my cousin is in the Pakistan Army. He is a Colonel and his friend is a pilot. I really wanted to get some aerial shots of the town to get a better idea, as it is a very small town. I requested them to take me on the helicopter, even though I am not from the army. They had to ask for permissions, which they eventually got.
My knowledge about Afghanistan is very basic, so each time I go back, I learn more. And then you bring those story together and people say, wow that is new.
Interviewed by: Manik Katyal and Mithila Jariwala
Pictures by: Asef ali Mohammad