Myriam Abdelaziz: Passion, Presence, and Creative Adaptation in Pursuit of the Image

Editor’s Note: In our article for International Women’s Day, we looked at the contributions women have made to photography and how they’ve shaped photography for their own goals. Inspired by the women we profiled, we're continuing with the 2015 theme for International Women’s Day and, over the year, publishing profiles of women who are “making it happen” in photography and video.
Myriam Abdelaziz resists being labelled, not by any deliberate act or message but by the way she lives and the photography she produces. Myriam acknowledges that some people might categorize her work—documentary and fine art are the labels most often applied to her photography—but she prefers not to name it herself. “Once you label yourself, that’s what you do. I’m a curious person, attracted to a lot of things. I’m a photographer.” The full-stop is felt at the end of the declaration. “And I can do whatever feels right.”

Portrait of photographer Myriam Abdelaziz
Myriam Abdelaziz

Because I interviewed Myriam to profile her in the Women in Photography series, my first questions were, expectedly, about being a woman photographer. It only took the first question, however, to realize that gender is a minor consideration for Myriam. Rather, she is a cultural chameleon, shaped by living in different places, able to slip between worlds and identities as the situation requires.
Fluent in French, Arabic, and English, Myriam was born in Cairo, grew up in Switzerland, moved to Egypt in her pre-teens, then to France as a young adult, and ten years later, to New York City, where she lives now. She lived long enough in each location to identify with the country, blend in, and become part of the culture. The result, as Myriam describes it, is a “layered sense of culture,” adaptability, and an ability to live anywhere.
The move from Switzerland to Egypt was a profound cultural shift for Myriam. She notes that she grew up in Switzerland where “everything is neat, everyone is equal, and no one is homeless on the street.” 
When she moved to Egypt, she saw things she had never seen before, most notably the effects of cultural strata and poverty. “I was disturbed. I wondered how there could be people with no shoes. How could that be? Why?”
The experience marked Myriam and became the wellspring that feeds her photography. She acknowledges that she is drawn to photograph things that disturb her personally. “Injustice makes me very angry, extremely angry,” she says. “I’m drawn to expose stories of injustice, denounce something that is not right, raise awareness, and give people a voice.”
"People may try to produce photography that will sell, but if you don’t follow your heart, you’re exposing yourself to the potential for double disappointment: not making enough money and not being fulfilled.”
Myriam reveals the harsh injustice of child labour in Egypt with her series Menya’s Kids. The soft dreamlike colours invite you in, until you realize the soft look is the result of fine quarry dust, hazy in the air, causing respiratory and pulmonary diseases in the children who work the mines. Assuming the children live long enough for the diseases to manifest. Children die daily in the quarry as a result of handling primitive and dangerous stone cutting machinery.

Menyas Kids 13 Photography by Myriam Abdelaziz
Menya's Kids 13, Photography by Myriam Abdelaziz

In another series, Portrait of a Genocide, Myriam gives voice to the survivors of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. The portraits are intimate, compassionate, and frank. Very frank. The portraits confront us with the physical and emotional scars borne by the survivors. When I ask Myriam about the series, her compassion is as evident in her voice as it is in her photographs. “Everything was burned—homes, friends, families, and clothes. People would tell me, ‘No one I knew before is still alive.’ These people lost everything except their memories. They would talk about their mother but didn’t even have a picture of their mother. Their memories are of what they no longer have.”

Portraits of a Genocide 1 Photography by Myriam Abdelaziz
Portraits of a Genocide 1, Photography by Myriam Abdelaziz

I asked Myriam if a male photographer could have effectively captured the survivors’ stories. “Being a woman has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s situational and can go either way. Photographing the survivors in Rwanda was not dependant upon whether the photographer was male or female, but on how the photographer approached the subjects. Personality and trust matter more than gender,” she says. “People are less suspicious of women generally and as a result, the people may open up more. Being a man may have complicated the ability to form trust. But overall, it’s quiet energy and patience that succeed in that situation.”
Myriam earned the trust of her subjects over a month’s long stay with them. She didn’t pressure anyone. The survivors would say little at first, but once secure with Myriam, they wanted to tell their story and participate. “What was said was shocking, even for me,” Myriam confesses. 
Opening up and talking about their experiences was re-traumatizing for some of the subjects. For others, talking was a catharsis, an emotional outlet: a moment of human connection, acknowledgement, and sharing.

Portraits of a Genocide 6 Photography by Myriam Abdelaziz
Portraits of a Genocide 6, Photography by Myriam Abdelaziz

Myriam started photographing when she was a teenager. She had always been attracted to creative activities, but photography held her interest and demanded most of her attention. She took photography classes in high school, learning how to process films and make prints in the darkroom, then took a minor in photography while earning a university degree in political science.
Her first career, however, was marketing. Myriam was based in France but her job involved extensive travel, especially in Africa. Travelling with her job exposed Myriam to things she wanted to photograph. She took courses to advance her skills, and used any spare time she had on business trips for photography. Myriam did more and more photography until she found she no longer had enough time to do the photography she wanted. Her marketing career no longer provided opportunities for photography; rather, it was getting in the way of those opportunities. Myriam knew then that it was time to change careers.
Although Myriam was comfortable with her camera and knew how to produce quality photographs that appealed to her, she knew that to earn a living in photography, she needed to produce work that is interesting to others. A year of study at the International Center of Photography provided Myriam with an opportunity to refine and advance her vision, build a portfolio, and establish the creative structure she needed to succeed in the business of photography. After graduating from the International Center of Photography, Myriam signed up with an agency and, according to Myriam, “things just went from there.” 
By happenstance, Myriam was in Egypt working on a personal project when the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 broke out. Never one to stand back, Myriam placed herself at the heart of the revolution, photographing events as she saw them—an objective narrative from a subjective position. She also filled numerous press assignments to cover the revolution, but she didn’t feel comfortable in that role. Not only was she missing a helmet, bulletproof vest, and other protective equipment common to conflict photographers, Myriam was shooting with a medium format camera and a fixed lens, which required her to be in the heart of the tension and violence. Eventually, Myriam withdrew for her own safety, both physical and mental.

Egyptian Revolt 7 Photography by Myriam Abdelaziz
Egyptian Revolt 7, Photography by Myriam Abdelaziz

The work Myriam produced during the revolution is at once intimate and blunt, a perspective common to her other work. Again, viewers are drawn in by Myriam’s up close and personal capture of her subjects, only to be confronted by anger and other violent emotions her subjects exposed to the camera. It’s a perspective different from that produced by other photographers in the situation.
Myriam's photography caught the attention of Rawiya, a collective of female photographers in the Middle East. Rawiya is interested in Middle Eastern women photographers who are working against stereotypes of life in the Middle East  and, more particularly, working against stereotypes of life for women in the Middle East. Myriam’s coverage of the Egyptian Revolution expressed Rawiya’s mission perfectly, resulting in Rawiya’s invitation to Myriam to join the collective.

Egyptian Revolt 29 Photography by Myriam Abdelaziz
Egyptian Revolt 29, Photography by Myriam Abdelaziz

Myriam’s experience in the Egyptian Revolution made her realize that she is most comfortable as a photographer when she can exercise some control over her environment and push the boundaries of what constitutes reality in a photograph. The experience has led Myriam to adjust her way of seeing things.
"Documentary photography is about capturing reality. You can capture it the way you want, but the goal is to capture reality. Fine art, on the other hand, is about creating reality or creating another reality."
The result for Myriam has been to push aside the boundaries of documentary photography, opening up her work for success in the world of fine art photography. Although all of Myriam’s work comfortably slips between the genres of photography just as Myriam slips between cultures, Halal, a series still in progress, clearly stakes Myriam’s presence in the world of fine art photography. 
Like her other projects, Halal is grounded in a need to break stereotypes and tell unspoken or misunderstood stories. In this case, Myriam is speaking the truth about Halal slaughtering for food. Unlike her other projects, Halal does not offer a complete or almost complete story to viewers; instead, the photographs demand that the viewer participate in creating what the photograph shows.

Halal 8 Photography by Myriam Abdelaziz
Halal 8, Photography by Myriam Abdelaziz

Myriam is not living under any false impression of what it takes to make it in the world of fine art photography. She’s quick to point out that while photographers can earn money in fine art photography, the opportunities are limited and difficult to meet. In addition to being high quality work that is of interest to others, successful fine art work must also fill a niche in the market.
Myriam is also convinced that to be a successful photographer capable of producing an ongoing body of work, a photographer must follow her heart and be prepared with a second source of income. I asked Myriam how she would translate that information into advice for new photographers. Her reply was emphatic: “Follow your heart and photograph what you want, and make sure you can also get money from somewhere else.”
Myriam doesn’t bother with the generalized concerns about anyone with a camera being a photographer. Instead, she drives to the heart of a challenge she sees every day, especially in New York City. “There are so many photographers and so many photographers who are very talented, and there are more of them graduating from photography schools every day. There just isn’t enough work to go around. Commercial work is hard to get and an income from photography alone is not likely enough to support you. People may try to produce photography that will sell, but if you don’t follow your heart, you’re exposing yourself to the potential for double disappointment: not making enough money and not being fulfilled.”
Myriam is both inspired and inspiring. Her own work has been published widely and shown internationally, earning Myriam accolades both for her work and her ability to stimulate social awareness with her work. Between 2012 and 2014, Myriam influenced photographers more immediately as a workshop leader in World Press Photo’s Reporting Change project. The project involved mentoring 70 photographers from the Middle East and North Africa to help them develop as strong, self-reliant photojournalists who could reveal the stories behind the one-dimensional, headline-oriented press coverage of the region. 
I asked Myriam to identify a peer woman photographer she admires and believes is successfully making her own path in photography. She named Natalie Naccache, a Lebanese-British photojournalist based in Dubai. Myriam respects Naccache’s work, approach, and enthusiasm.
When it comes to women who inspire her own work, Myriam named her mother andRena Effendi. Effendi is a photojournalist widely recognized for her ability to show how changing environments affect individuals and communities. Myriam credits her mother for influencing Myriam’s vision and sense of aesthetics. Watching her mother run a house and take care of herself taught Myriam what makes something beautiful or attractive. It was an unconscious education that is realized every day in Myriam’s work.
Going South is a collection of photographs that speaks to Myriam’s love for her mother. The photographs do not portray her mother, but are a result of Myriam’s need to be alone and find solace after her mom died. Needing to “de-ice” and feel alive again, Myriam travelled to the south of Egypt, photographing places bathed in sun and people filled with the sun’s light and warmth.

Going South 3 Photography by Myriam Abdelaziz
Going South 3, Photography by Myriam Abdelaziz

The need to be in her own bubble surfaces again when I ask Myriam what I might be surprised to find in her camera bag. “Earplugs,” she replies. “I use them on shoots to help curb distractions. I don’t use them all the time and I take them out when talking to people, but I always have them in my bag. Noise is tiring. I understand where my energy goes and how to preserve it.”
Myriam’s understanding of herself and the photography market will get her where she wants to be in the future. Her five-year vision is built around doing more fine art work. She acknowledges that she will always be inspired by documentary work and issues of social justice, but is leaning toward expressing that more as fine art. Her vision includes a book published within the next five years and more recognition for her work. Myriam knows that as recognition for her work grows, she'll be able to focus more on new projects. 
Weeks after our interview, I am still struck by Myriam's self-awareness and her ability to adapt to cultures—including the culture of photography. Myriam is passionate about exposing social injustice, but she's able to hold her ego in check so her subjects tell their own stories. Myriam also understands that for her work to be recognized and shared, she must deliver her stories in a way that is of interest to others. And Myriam recognizes the value of being flexible with how she expresses her passion: sometimes, it's documentary photography; another time, it's fine art; and often, it's something that flows back and forth between both. 
Indeed, Myriam's career as a photographer is a model of adaptability. At different times, photography has been for Myriam a hobby, a creative well-spring fed by and then feeding another career, and a primary source of income, but always, always, a passion. Myriam lives her own advice to follow your heart and keep an open mind about what photography is and can be, both artistically and financially.


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