Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Conversation with Brooklyn-based Bahraini photographer Ghada Khunji: Part I

Ghada Khunji creates the kind of visually arresting images that have garnered her critical success in both the United States and Europe. Traveling several months out of the year to develop her body of work, Ghada’s photographs capture the dignity and humanity in her subjects, while transporting viewers to diverse cultures through her camera lens. In 2006, she received photography’s most coveted award, the Lucie, whose mission it is to honor master photographers. The Polyglot sat down with Khunji to discuss her inspiring journey from Bahrain to Brooklyn.

Your work often explores cultures other than your own. Did you grow up being exposed to diverse cultures as a child?
My fascination with different cultures developed at school in Bahrain. I grew up with people from all over the world, and there were students from 51 countries. Just going to school with such diverse peers taught us all tolerance and true friendship that transcended cultural boundaries. Bahrain is also a very multiethnic country, so I was lucky to always be exposed to people from many countries throughout my childhood.

You’ve lived in places as varied as England, Bahrain, Indiana and now Brooklyn. How have those experiences shaped your own sense of identity?
The fact that I’ve been so incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to so many places in the world, has had an enormous influence on my thinking, on my work, on my life. These opportunities have shaped who I am today.

You studied fashion photography at Parsons School of design in NY. For many in the fashion industry the school is legendary for producing graduates such as Marc Jacobs, Steven Meisel and Anna Sui. Yet in your own career you’ve distanced yourself from fashion, instead focusing your lens on real people usually living in third world conditions. What pushed you to take that path early on?
I was interested in documenting real life. I was especially drawn to capturing portraits of people. I decided to travel abroad when I had a vacation at University. I started in the Dominican Republic where I documented rural villages. The warmth of the people immediately made me realize that my photographic goal should be to bring awareness to the existence of people and their cultures that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Were there any individuals that influenced you?
I only recently realized that it was my father and mother who were my inspirations. Soon after they married, my father got her a camera. Photography, it seems, was his passion too. My mother spent many hours photographing after that, her family, her friends, her trips, and surroundings. She remembers taking pictures aboard a ship travelling from Dubai to Bahrain soon after she had my eldest sibling. Exposure to the negatives and the photographs during my childhood had a great impact on me. From the time I was eight I had a camera at my side. Photography gave me a voice- it still does.

You take a documentary approach to your work. Did you feel it was the most affective way to tell a story visually?
Yes. Documentary photography is related to photojournalism, but unlike the latter with its emphasis on "frontline" news, I am interested in capturing what happens behind the scenes. For example, in Cuba, I was interested in how the Cuban people are really living, not on the political situation. I would rather show how life goes on, regardless of politics. It's the simple moments that allow a glimpse into unadorned humanity that interests me.

You recently had a sort of home coming with your first exhibit in Bahrain at the La Fontaine Center. How did the exhibit come about and was there a reason why it took a while to stage an exhibit there?
Bahrain is my birthplace, and I’m so honored to have finally exhibited my work there. I was born around the corner from La Fontaine [where the show was held], my brothers actually used to play in the old house when they were kids, which made it even more special to have an exhibit there. I was thrilled when I was asked to showcase my work there. It was actually a fun serendipitous sequence of events that led to the show.

As luck would have it, Ms. Alireza picked up a copy of Clientele Magazine which is distributed on Gulf Air flights and the issue happened to feature a story on my photographs. After reading the article, she became interested in staging an exhibition of my work at La Fontaine and she contacted me. I was thrilled at the prospect and so grateful that Ms. Alireza provided me with the opportunity to show my work in Bahrain for the very first time. Sometimes life works like that. Fate takes over and hands you an amazing gift. When you do what you authentically love and put yourself out there, sometimes the universe helps you along with a small and large gifts.

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