On April 4th, right in the midst of the pandemic and when the whole world was under Lockdown, we decided we can make quarantine pass more easily if we spent this time talking with some of our favorite figures. So, we started doing live talks on our Instagram. One of these live talks was with Ed Kashi, who is ‘a renowned photojournalist, filmmaker, speaker and educator who has been making images and telling stories for 40 years’.
We’re glad that you’re here dear Ed.
Ed Kashi: Thanks. Me too. And hello to everyone. I’m Ed!
And I’m Saman, from IRANomad Tours. We’re here with Ed Kashi who is, among other things, a photographer and filmmaker. Today we’re going to be talking about authenticity and intimacy in photography. A lot of people ask us how they can achieve it. How they should approach subjects.
Ed Kashi: Well I believe it’s trickier now than it’s ever been. The mere approaching and photographing people is challenging enough, let alone achieving intimacy with them. It’s contextual. Nomads for example aren’t used to being photographed (It’s a rather new and foreign experience for them) as compared to new yorkers on the street. So by applying an overall analysis of basic human nature, I try to read a situation and get a sense of it. In some places, when you bring out your camera, it’s like pointing a gun. Due to the wide accessibility of the internet, certain people are more suspicious about being photographed. The key then is to read people. Read situations. Sometimes on the street, I have to take a picture without talking to the person beforehand lest I break the flow and magic of the moment. Because sometimes, as soon as you speak, you spoil the feeling, the moment. I hate it when this happens. I feel like a pariah when I’m photographing in public. Moreover, in some places in the world it’s a bad idea to pull out a camera. You have to stop and speak with your subjects first. You have to introduce yourself to them and learn about the environment. If you wanna capture a candid moment, you have to take your chance, but with consideration.
So, photographing in a small village can be quite tricky and challenging right? If you speak with them, you’ll probably break the flow; yet if you don’t ask for permission and take a picture, they might get offended. Have you ever had any trouble like that?
Ed Kashi: Yeah it happens a lot. By the way, we were supposed to meet in Iran.
Ed Kashi: Yeah. Actually I’m specifically interested in photographing Kashan (because of my family name: Kashi). Hopefully later this year. It’s my dream to come. But anyways, getting back to your question about photography in a village: I’d say get permission from the head person (mayor/religious leader) first. Say you don’t wanna offend anyone. Explain yourself and your motives honestly. 80% of the time, if you explain in a humble way, they give you permission. Then you can capture candid moments.
I don’t know if it has happened to you or not but it’s funny how sometimes, after you break the ice and they confide in you, they keep asking you to take more photos. Did you have similar interesting stories with local people?
Ed Kashi: Well yeah and as much as I always lament not being able to speak different languages, I actually don’t want to speak to people verbally after a certain point. The advantage of being a photographer is that when you can’t speak someone’s language, you can make up for it by working better as a photographer. Nonverbal communication. When there is no language barrier, you can’t separate yourself from the subject. You dissolve in them and create unism. Sometimes in small communities, when I wanted to photograph people, I came and saw that they had a place for me at their table. When I was younger, I would refuse and insist on going on with my photography. But now I know that I should sit down and have a meal with them and then work as a photographer afterwards. Because otherwise I offend the family. You learn more this way. I look back at my career when I was more amateur. I made many mistakes because I was so impatient and anxious. But now, I’ve got my priorities right: Put humanity first and trust that great work will flow from that.
What prompted you to get into photography in the first place?
Ed Kashi: When I was about 16, I discovered literature, my brain opened up, and I thought it amazing to be able to write stories and novels. It was a very romantic idea. I knew I didn’t want to be a businessman. Growing up in the 1960s in NY, I was a witness to the civil rights movement, environmental and women’s movement and Progressive movements. Affected by these, photography allowed me to combine my desire for storytelling and be engaged with the world about social and political issues.
I see…Second question: How can one promote meaningful travel, the kind focused on culture, in this age of social media and smartphones where so many glamorous pictures are circulating and going viral and changing the tourism industry and traveling?
Ed Kashi: In some ways, you can achieve this traditionally, but through using the new tools. If you want to promote nomadic tourism, you can go out and spend time with them and photograph them, learn about their history, culture, life, and compile that into a presentation on your website, social media, where you be like: “come to Iran and experience nomadic life”. Instead of leaving it out there like a vague concept, you explain their history and culture. Their dos and don’ts. To put it simply, it’s the idea of a more informed and considerate traveler.
Classical traveling is usually more glamorous. But cultural traveling doesn’t seem so. How can we make up for that? I know that storytelling can help to compensate for otherwise lifeless photos. We all fancy interesting, epic or even simple stories.
Ed Kashi: My feeling is that, anyone who comes to Iran to spend time with the nomads, has a sense of curiosity. You need to appeal to those senses. If you’re promoting Costa Rica for example, then you would have a different approach, you need to define a different philosophy. With Iran and its historic sites, you need people to come visit but not destroy them. In one of his books, Mark Twain talks about how American tourists ran up to the Great pyramids and started taking bits of stones as a souvenir. Today that would be unthinkable. You’d end up in an Egyptian prison or something. When I think back on how people used to travel, when there was less awareness, consideration and respect for other people or places, I become more hopeful about our potential for growth in such areas. The world is smaller now and you need to make something that will resonate for other people and have meaning for them. That’s a way to send a powerful message and hopefully you’ll attract people who behave well and appreciate nomads of Iran. Or the rainforests of Costa Rica. They just appreciate it and not trample it.
Any other stories about life with the locals? Photographing them?
Ed Kashi: Wow. Stories. I’m a storyteller. I should be able to do this but to be honest, there are too many and I don’t know which one really sticks out.
Haha. Alright. Another question: if you travel to Iran, will that be for personal reasons or some kind of business?
Ed Kashi: Personal project to look at the history of the name Kashi, it seems that it’s also the original name of in kashkar in china. These 3 places have the same name. So I thought it’ll be an interesting project to work on. A deep dive into history and culture.
Also, my father used to sell zenith radios in Iran in the 1930s. So my mother and father have a connection to Iran. At this stage in my life this project feels like a breath of fresh air. To learn about history and people. Not just a trivial excuse to travel.
So to focus on a lighter project than your usual work. I hope you do find where the name comes from. Any photos of yourself that you like best?
Ed Kashi: I always look tired. The picture that I like most is a picture of my son that was taking a selfie and I photobombed him. Just my eyes in the picture, I look like a weirdo. But it has meaning. Photography creates our memories, collective memories. I immediately go to my son’s picture because it has some significance for me. It was the day we sent him off to college.