Yamam Nabeel is an Iraqi-born London-based artist and founder of Art Forward Media where his latest virtual exhibition Waiting for Time is being shown. Nabeel’s love of photography began as a child living in exile; born in Baghdad, his father’s anti-regime positions made him an “enemy of the state” and thus his family were forced to flee the country. At four years old in exile, Nabeel travelled the world with his family before settling in Hungary for eleven years. At the age of sixteen, Nabeel moved to England and has been here since. Screen Shot Pro sat down with the artist to talk about the message behind his exhibition, how exile has shaped him as an artist, reality and perception in photography, digital versus analogue and how you can grow as a photographer.
Without knowing a word of English, he began to explore his complicated identity and build a life for himself. To cope with the language barrier, Nabeel began to write short stories that were eventually published in a number of notable publications. He went on to study politics and history at university and later became an accomplished television producer, working for stations like Channel 4, Sky News, CNN, ITN News and MBC. Departing from this work for a period, he created an incredible and successful non-profit football organisation titled FC Unity—aiming to create an educational platform harnessed by the power of football for the development of the youth.
Handing off this work to the younger generation, Nabeel returned to the world of art and photography, co-founding his own London-based multi-media production house—Art Forward Media. Its aim is to create and showcase its own projects as well as platform diverse artists from around the world.
“Art is powerful, it tells us stories we can learn from; let us use it to move forward.”
Nabeel’s Waiting for Time exhibition is currently being showcased on Art Forward Media’s website. Shooting the photos for the project over the past year, Nabeel wanted to explore how “our reality is only a perception, and it might be manipulated beyond our control. What we perceive is often not reality itself. With all available mediums to broadcast information, more often than not, we are fed perceived realities.”
This exploration of “perceived realities” took place over a year of lockdowns. During this time, Nabeel safely travelled between London and Berlin to shoot and interview over 50 diverse participants. Shooting in both black and white analogue photography as well as digital, the photographer set out to create a “subtle critique of our times, questioning how perception—that can be created easily—can override the truth and place us in harm’s way, especially during a deadly pandemic. This is an experiment of reality versus perception, of truth versus propaganda through the lens of an analogue and a digital camera.” So, where did this idea begin?
This fascination and frustration Nabeel had with the concept of perception stemmed from digital media and the role it played in the pandemic. “When social media was created or became widespread, it was giving a voice to the voiceless but, what it has done recently is giving voice to the loudest, the most incoherent and diluted messaging. And it’s, in a way, a mouthpiece for all, from extremists to idiots to racists.” It was the explosion of conspiracy theories and misinformation about the pandemic online during the year—who can forget 2020—that motivated Nabeel to take this journey into reality as a perception.
“There’s a narrative in this country. And if you’re part of that narrative, you can do whatever you want. And I’ve never been part of that narrative.” The wider societal narrative—according to Nabeel—tells us how we should be thinking, what we should be doing and how we should be feeling. “I thought, I want to hear what people say, I want to hear what people feel. And that was the reason for doing the project and while I was doing it, the murder of George Floyd occurred. And it became a much more important project again, the narrative itself and how it’s presented.”
Nabeel wanted to see how people felt about the whole thing. Due to obvious social distancing reasons, the participants were shot from a distance outside their homes. “I used the whole idea of a chair and sitting down, there are no cars on the street. So, let’s sit on the streets. Some of the ones weren’t on the actual street because some of the streets were still busy with deliveries and things like that.” This was Nabeel’s idea of playing with the stay at home rule.
“I asked people all I wanted them to do is bring a chair. So, if you look at the chairs in the images, they’re all the chairs of the people. It wasn’t a chair with me. I didn’t take a chair around. It was their choice what they brought out, I mean, someone brought out a lounge chair. So that’s how I went about it.” They were given no direction on how to sit, the choice was theirs. Simple, yet powerful. That’s how Nabeel recommends tackling a subject matter in your own photography. His philosophy is to let it flow. “I start with a thread, then you start pulling at it and it opens off. For example, I started with a few people around my neighbourhood and then moved to the next one.”
Nabeel shot a wide variety of people, from an intensive care unit consultant doctor to a bus driver—the diversity is incredible. But, how did he find these people? According to Nabeel, it was not pre-planned. “It started off with one or two […] and then people would just recommend another and in the end, it snowballed.” Finding participants is really easy if you ask the right questions, says Nabeel. Often the people you shoot will know of others who would want to do the same—networking and expanding your circle becomes key in finding people for your photographic and artistic work.
Shooting the project on both digital and analogue, Nabeel discussed the differences in these mediums in photography and how they can shape the perception of reality. He argues that although digital photography is more accessible and that it can allow for most people who have phones with cameras to be photographers, it isn’t actually real. “It is analogue photography, which by definition is real, because it’s a film that an image is burned onto when you open the shutter. It’s tangible. Whereas digital is a manipulation of data.”
He argues that people don’t really look at photos anymore—not properly, “We don’t print images, we don’t really spend time looking at those images. We just take them.” And when we do look at these images; they’re often manipulated beyond our understanding. For those budding photographers out there, Nabeel warns of the overuse of editing in your work, “When you go onto social media, all images are altered, from filters to heavy editing and you can put as many filters as you want to but when you do, it loses any relation to reality.” This is why he suggests analogue photography.
The overconsumption of digital imagery can lead to a loss of focus, continues Nabeel. With analogue photography “it makes you stop and think”—especially when it’s black and white. Every film roll has its own personality but Nabeel chose Ilford HP5, “Black and white images captured on film take time to develop. It actually might not be as sharp, it might not be as representative of the actual day it was taken in terms of sunshine, or the weather and the lighting, but it is real.” So, is showing reality or truth necessary to be a photographer?
Nabeel doesn’t actually think of himself as a photographer. He reflected to Screen Shot Pro that first and foremost he saw himself as an artist and that photography was just a medium for his work—a medium to show a specific reality. When asked whether aspiring photographers should portray truth in their work, Nabeel responded by saying it’s important not to overly influence your audience, “In my own work I don’t want to feed them, because that’s what I’m going against—I’m challenging the mainstream narrative.” The mainstream narrative that tells you how to think, feel and behave.
He argues that it doesn’t matter what the subject of your work is, whether it’s people, places, food or animals, “Ultimately as an artist, or as a writer, I have a responsibility to present you with reality. And that is the truth, you know, and in this case, reality against perception.” Nabeel says this responsibility is not something that holds you back as an artist, “Artists shouldn’t judge each other. Everyone can [create] whatever they want. It’s how it’s promoted and how it’s presented to others, that’s where the problem is. It’s whether what I do will not be available to the mainstream because people have an issue with it.”
As a budding photographer myself, that has always been something that has terrified me—what will people think? Nabeel’s advice? “Let people judge. I wanted to create something and just put it out there and see how people reacted. So far? The reaction has been very good.”
Nabeel’s photography on his Instagram profile has attracted over a whopping 100,000 followers—it’s safe to say people like his work. When asked on how he grew his platform, the artist thanked Instagram’s old algorithm. Ah, the good old days. Don’t we all miss it? Starting in 2013, “The algorithm was simple. You post to get likes, people follow, the more likes you get the more people follow you. The timeline was chronological so you knew around what time to post for people to follow.” For Nabeel, it was an organic growth over time.
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We are living in an increasingly online world where we showcase our lives, our minds, our bodies and also our work on the internet. Having a presence online seems a must-have for a photographer, right? Not to Nabeel. When asked for advice about how photographers can grow their platform, Nabeel emphasised to not put all your eggs in one basket—that basket being social media. “Create whatever you want to do, do it for your ability, and forget about social media success. Do it in the so-called real world, get your success there, and let social media supplement and support that work.”
He continued by stating that an up and coming photographer needs to have that balance. Having been on social media for 18 years, Nabeel cited that he had seen companies and creatives come and go. He cautioned future aspiring creators of this, “Social media is such a weird thing, you know, something going viral, it’s got nothing to do with actual talent or determination. It’s just an algorithm. People need to be aware that success needs to be tangible, to achieve something.”
Nabeel realised that “this so-called social media reality—which is a parallel universe—can take over from your own reality.” He continued, “I think when you get ‘successful’ on social media people correlate that as real-world success.” Nabeel stated there was a period of time when he wanted to delete social media, “When you’re working, and really working, you don’t have time for social media.” So when you see creatives or people with big platforms that are always on social media—know that a lot of that isn’t real. The real stuff in their lives is not shown, it’s important not to compare yourself to those on social media, Nabeel advises, as this parallel universe is one of great manipulation. This brings us back to reality versus perception again. He’s really on to something. You should definitely check out his exhibition.
“I’m known for taking pictures very close, and the older I get, the closer I get,” Bruce Gilden, one of the most iconic street photographers of our time, once said. The same quote comes to mind when looking at some of Russian photographer Gosha Bergal’s raw-yet-highly-technical work. From capturing Moscow’s youth-led protests since 2011 to perfecting the art of shooting everything that surrounds him and everything that he considers important, here’s what advice Bergal had to share with Screen Shot Pro.
For someone with close to no idea as to how certain photographers manage to capture certain moments with such strong emotion, I had a good feeling that Bergal had somehow been influenced by the skateboarding community prior to his photography career. Not to compare his work to the likes of skate photographer Atiba Jefferson for example, as that would downplay the former’s wide range of subject matters, but Bergal’s work seemed too honest and revealing for me not to link it to the skateboarding community’s similar free-thinking approach to creativity. And, as he told me himself, I wasn’t too far off from the truth.
When asked when he first started experimenting with photography and what led him to it, Bergal explained, “I was skateboarding with friends, and of course all of it had to be filmed. That’s the first time I consciously held a camera in my hands.” However, he ended up getting injured and had to stop skating. “I always thought that I would stay in the skateboarding industry as a photographer, but photography simply had other plans for me,” shared Bergal.
Bergal decided to go to university in Moscow instead, where “I began to study photography techniques and technology. I also went to Berlin under a student exchange programme, and took a photography course at the Berlin photography school Focon.”
After four years of studying, when Bergal graduated, he had already begun to switch from digital photography to film photography. “I learned how to develop and print photos myself. That was back in 2011.” Speaking to the photographer, it’s clear to see how much respect he holds for his education, or pedagogy in general, which I’ll get back to shortly. That being said, I couldn’t help but wonder whether he would promote autodidacticism photography over it.
“I believe that receiving a certain type of education when it comes to photography is essential, both for professionals and artists,” Bergal told me. “Photography is all about optics, mechanics, chemistry, physics, and art. Therefore, it would be very difficult for a young photographer to craft their skills without theoretical knowledge.” You know how it goes, “learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
First and foremost, photography is a technical skill. In order to truly appreciate how light and shadow can turn a simple picture into a photograph of interest, a basic understanding of the mechanics of photography is required. The very fact that anyone with a camera can take pictures means professional photographers need to be exceptional in one way or another. Otherwise, why would your work stand out from the rest, right?
“But, it is not at all necessary to go to study photography at university,” adds Bergal. “Besides, institutions often follow the path of wider conjuncture, which is the complete opposite of art. I read books on photography by old Soviet masters, and I also draw inspiration from there.”
Of course, the photographer also has his teachers and mentors to thank too, “A.V. Agafonov, N.M. Udalova, Y.M. Ydilevich, V.N.Kornyushin, and Mukhin I.V. They are all heirs of the Soviet school of photography, and I would like to think I’m here to continue this glorious tradition.”
But if you’re not sure whether paying a substantial amount of money just to go to university, Bergal has the answer you’ve been looking for, “Most of the information that schools or universities are trying to sell us in the form of photography courses, master classes, and modern books is nothing. Don’t waste your time and money, it’s available on the internet for free! Masters rarely share their real experience, and you can find the operating instructions for a particular device yourself. Probably the best advice is to take pictures. Shoot and don’t stop, don’t waste time on dubious connections or profits. It is important for your creativity to be completely disinterested, for the sake of your creative process.”
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When asked to describe his take on photography and what influenced his style, Bergal compared the former to “an eternal search based on the study of space and its behaviour.” The photographer’s subject of choice is people as well as the way they live, move, breath, behave, and so much more. “Photography is not just creativity, it is my teacher of life […] I study visual means and artistic techniques in order to establish contact with space, with its metaphysical manifestations,” he once told the Paris-based photography edition PARAD.
Bergal’s favourite photographer is Maxim Petrovich Dmitriev, a Russian photographer of the 19th and 20th century, and one of the pioneers behind documentary photography. “He left a cosy studio to go and film the hunger in Nizhny Novgorod [a large city on the Volga River in Western Russia].” In a way, one could say that Bergal’s work draws some inspiration from Dmitriev.
As I mentioned before, Bergal has been documenting anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow for a little over ten years now. “Over the years, the opposition in Russia has been literally killed,” he told i-D in January 2021, after he shot a series of images on Pushkin Square for the publication. “People are almost accustomed to the fact that it is impossible to change something in this country; many do not vote in elections. But thanks in part to Alexei Navalny, other opposition bloggers, and the internet, a new wave of socially active citizens has emerged among young people,” he continued.
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In perspective, leaving your “cosy studio to go and film the hunger in Nizhny Novgorod” and regularly putting yourself in the middle of anti-Putin protests for ten years both sound bold to me. But then again, what’s photography if not a constant search for something, be that the exploration of the mundane or even the violence in life?
“Most often than not, photography is of an applied nature, but one should not forget about its social side either. Today, documentary photography is dead, because any eyewitness with a smartphone suddenly becomes a ‘documentary filmmaker’ and it’s easier and faster for editors to buy unprofessional materials,” explained Bergal on the topic of candid (or candid looking) photography.
“But it also has its positives,” he added. “It makes young photographers look harder for an interesting topic, work with drama and other expressive means of photography. In my opinion, today’s documentary photography has moved into the category of art.”
When asked about his number one tip for working with people behind the scenes, the photographer explained that his process is as simple (meaning difficult) as it gets, “You can seize the moment, or you can try to recreate the situation. But my trick is as simple as possible: ‘Hello, my name is Gosha, I’m a photographer. You look very interesting! Let me take a picture of you?’ This does not always work, I often end up with a refusal, sometimes it is even dangerous, but I am not cheating on myself.”
He further shared that there are times when he knows he can’t ask, “you just need to shoot right now. Photography teaches not only composition, it is also psychology, and most importantly, it teaches you to look three steps forward, assess the situation from all sides, so you need to shoot more.”
When it comes to photography, having an engaged (and engaging) social media presence can be tricky, to say the least. Instagram photographers are a thing, and many actual professional photographers think they don’t deserve that title. But what if you’ve gained theoretical knowledge first and are now looking to expand your reach?
“I love the internet, it allows you to think much wider than the boundaries that are built by society and the state. It was social networks that helped the clients I’ve worked for find my work in the first place. It was unexpected and pleasant—the first publication that commissioned me was Neon, a magazine based in Hamburg, Germany,” shared Bergal.
“Daily posts on your social pages will provide you with an influx of subscribers, so think about a content plan for the week ahead, and adhere to this strategy,” he continued. “Imagine that your page is someone’s favourite series—do not upset your viewers, publish new works! Of course, it is difficult and it is not always possible to keep such a rhythm, but it will help you find your audience.”
In the end, it all comes down to the same point Bergal made previously: as long as you’re willing to put in the work and master the technical aspects of the art, then why shouldn’t you take advantage of the exposure social media platforms have to offer?
“At the moment, I am shooting with a Leica M5, and I’m very happy with it.” Debuted in 1971, the Leica M5 is an interchangeable lens 35mm film rangefinder camera. Although reviews tend to be mixed, depending on the shooter using it, the Leica M5 can be either “singularly elegant or uniquely cumbersome,” reads the first review that showed up through my Google search. Another one simply reads: “it’s the camera that nearly put an end to the Leica rangefinder after it was balked for being too big, heavy, ugly and incompatible with what came before. Despite this, the Leica M5 seems to have been given a second chance.”
“For beginners, I would recommend Japanese or German SLR cameras, which have good optics and a reliable mechanism—everything a photographer needs,” adds Bergal. “And for all aspiring creators, I recommend that you learn the basics of exposure and composition before picking up your camera.”
Speaking about the artists he looks up to for inspiration as well as the artistic movements he dislikes, Bergal admitted, “I do not like institutional art, it is too loaded with theory. The ordinary viewer does not understand it, and artists in pursuit of conjuncture are losing themselves.”
As for inspiration, “I turn to myself—I remember my childhood, the films I watched, the books we read with my grandmother. Actually, my grandmother did the reading while I looked at the pictures! Maybe that’s why some people call my work ‘honest’. And if I go to shoot something extraneous, then I put myself in the hands of curiosity, trying not to forget to correctly set up the camera and build the composition.”
Because he mainly shoots on film, Bergal hardly edits his pictures. “I run everything through Adobe Lightroom, and, if necessary, make preparations before printing in Photoshop,” he told Screen Shot Pro.
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“Good question! I see myself in a circle of creative, talented people, who are working on large commercial projects, which allow us to engage in independent creativity. And of course, I am engaged in pedagogy. Both now and in the future. I think that it is necessary to change the pedagogical system in Russia, it is simply outdated.”