Within the world of conflict photography, having a strong support system is critical.
Abdul Aziz is a freelance photojournalist and filmmaker who has worked to document conflict, war, social issues and culture everywhere from the Middle East and Africa to the far reaches of the Himalayas over the last two decades.
Most recently his work has focused on the rise of white nationalism in the United States and the removal of Confederate monuments in cities at the center of the debate, including New Orleans and Charlottesville. He’s also been diligent in his coverage of recent events in New Orleans, from the Black Lives Matter protests to the population’s complicated response to COVID-19, and features images on his Instagram almost daily.
As a Black photographer specializing in conflict photography, Aziz’s work has a certain intangible authenticity to it; no doubt one of the reasons his images caught my eye on Instagram. The combination of his photos and personal stories shed a bright light on the editorial gaps surrounding the current coverage of the 2020 George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Black Lives Matter protests. This media coverage in recent weeks has followed a well-known trend in photojournalism, skewing heavily toward images made by older white male photojournalists, amidst a growing discussion about the importance of hiring more Black photographers.
We reached out to Aziz to hear about what it’s like to cover conflict in the US, his career and experiences as a Black photographer, the camaraderie between fellow journalists amidst recorded aggressions against the press, the current ethical debate around showing protesters’ faces and more.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. All images by Abdul Aziz.
Well first thing’s first, how did you get into photography? What was a major break that had a big impact on your career? How did it affect your career moving forward, and how do you feel when you look back on that experience?
In 2008 I was laid off from my job serving as the Director of Communications for the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. A few weeks prior to that I had watched the compelling documentary “War Photographer”, a film about prolific conflict and war photojournalist James Nachtwey. I will never forget how deeply that film impacted me. I’d always been interested in photography, and for the previous decade I’d been a documentary filmmaker traveling the world and documenting social issues in places like Morocco, and Nepal. I decided to take that experience and my new found severance and travel to Gaza to document Operation Cast Lead in what would be my first conflict.
In recent days, there has been much discussion about the ethics of photographing protests and whether the blurring of protesters’ faces is important. As someone who is on the frontlines making photos at marches and protests, what’s your take? How do you handle consent when photographing?
My photography has always focused on the subject in hopes of bringing the viewer to the moment the image was taken. I always try to engage the subject directly and ask for consent but sometimes this isn’t always possible.
I’ve been careful not to photograph individuals who may be engaged in activity that would be deemed as questionable. In the age of COVID-19, many have elected to wear face coverings which has made it somewhat easier. However, there have been instances in which individuals have contacted me and requested that I not publish their photos. It is our duty as photojournalists to tell the story while respecting the wishes, privacy, and safety of those we photograph. This is a delicate dance that I believe all photojournalists truly engaging in the work for the right reasons must perform.
Some of your coverage on your Instagram includes photos taken of you by fellow photojournalists. Tell us about some of the friends and colleagues working alongside you these past few weeks and how you’ve been collaborating/helping one another.
Over my tenure as a conflict journalist, I’ve been fortunate enough to develop a fantastic relationship with my colleagues worldwide. So much so that usually when these types of events reach a critical mass worldwide my core group of colleagues and friends tend to travel to wherever they may be happening together. This was the case in places like Charlottesville and Ferguson.
Here in New Orleans, many of my colleagues and I covered the controversial removal of Confederate Monuments. We saw each other each day and watched each others’ back through the chaos. The last few weeks of protest have been the same. As journalist’s we must protect one another and defend our right to provide objective images that provide an honest record. I am grateful for my colleagues as they provide moral support and a record of our place in this global struggle. After the adrenaline stops pumping, being a journalist that covers conflict and war can become a very very lonely and dark place. The network of support from those who have experienced what it is like to work under these conditions proves invaluable.
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Behind the scenes: Another of me captured by my colleague @juliedermansky. I’d just been gassed without my mask and was fumbling around blind trying to get it on and to get my shit together to keep taking photos. What frightens me most is how low the guard rails were on the bridge. It’s a miracle that the ancestors protected us all and that no one fell from the bridge that night.
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I never post this many pictures of myself but these photos are amazing. Many of the amazing photographers here in New Orleans have been helping me to see myself for the first time and for that I’m grateful. These were unexpected and I’m so grateful. More than anything these photos would be amazing even if I weren’t in them. Thank you @phototypeproductions for this stunning series when I didn’t even know anyone was watching. Give them a follow folks. Pt. 1
Safety is definitely a concern when photographing moments like these. What precautions do you take and what gear do you make sure you have on you to keep you safe?
I’ve never taken any safety precautions in any of the conflict zones I’ve been in other than carrying a gas mask; however I felt this situation was different. I have extensively documented the rise of white supremacy over the past few years and have made a few enemies along the way. A friend of mine offered to let me borrow body armor and I accepted. I also wear composite toe combat boots, full dexterity tactical gloves, eye and ear protection.
What are your thoughts on diversity and representation within the industry as it stands today? What would you like to see change?
As a Black photographer, I’ve found it extremely difficult to find agency representation or to gain traction with major clearinghouses like Getty, AFP, Reuters, etc. I’ve applied a number of times to many of these leading outlets but have never received as much as an email acknowledging receipt. This of course may speak to the photos not being what they want, which is fair, but I’ve felt isolated and deeply discouraged by the lack of interest in my work and one can only wonder what is at the root of it. So many alternative media outlets and members of the photography community have been so supportive, so it’s just left me confused. I don’t see a lot of Black conflict photojournalists working for the aforementioned agencies when I’m working in the field and I hope that that can be something that changes.
You were one of the many names listed on this list of Black photographers, which was circulated quickly on Instagram and was also promoted by organizations like Authority Collective, Diversify photo and The Color Project. What has been your experience since that listing?
I am ashamed to say I didn’t even know that this was happening. I’m deeply honored to be listed among so many amazing Black photographers!
Who are some of the photographers in your life who have inspired you along the way? We’d love to see their work and hear what about it inspired you most.
Two of my favorite photographers from New York are Laylah Amatullah Barrayn and Russel Frederick. I met them both during a show curated by Shantrelle P. Lewis and Jamel Shabbaz in New Orleans years ago. Little did they know how much their work moved me.
In 2008 I founded a group called the Monde Noir Photography Collective. The ultimate goal of the collective was to provide Black photographers (though membership was racially diverse) with a physical space to convene, shoot, critique, and learn from one another. This group of photographers challenged me in ways I could’ve never imagined. They taught me to shoot with purpose, the importance of light, and overall how to be a good photographer. Their work continues to inspire me.
My conflict crew is my heart of hearts. The group of photographers I worked with in Charlottesville have changed my life as a photographer forever. They are among the best of the best in my opinion and when I view their work I always say “God damn that’s amazing!” Shout out to Ian Frank, Heather Wilson, and Sam Corum.
With so many publications still running photographs by white photographers (about Black Lives Matter, about the George Floyd protests, about COVID, you name it), what story isn’t being told? Are there any publications doing it right?
It’s funny you should mention this. A dear, wonderful colleague of mine who is white made an introduction with the photo editors of a major news clearing house who I will not name. This company had reached out to her for coverage but she told them that she thought the opportunity should be given to the Black photographers documenting the movement and they flippantly rebutted saying that they don’t prioritize based on race. I was disheartened to hear this, as it was an agency I’d dreamed of working for for years. She sent an introduction email but it’s still crickets.
Abdul Aziz is taking over our Instagram account this week. His photos are also currently on display at The Front Gallery in New Orleans, featured in an exhibition entitled No Justice, No Peace curated by Leslie-Claire Spillman.
All Instagram posts featured in this blog post were embedded with the photographer’s permission.