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  • Nikon Photo Contest: judges Tanya Habjouqa, Heba Khamis and Delphine Diallo discuss creative vision, today’s state of photography, and what makes a winning image

  • From left to right: Delphine Diallo; Tanya Habjouqa; Heba Khamis

    From empowering women and cultural minorities, tabooed social subjects and complex politics, photographers Tanya Habjouqa, Heba Khamis and Delphine Diallo are experts in conveying their message through unique artistic visions.

    Born in Jordan and raised between Texas and the Middle East, Tanya is known for documentary photography that brings politics and creative vision together in the same frame. Egyptian-based Heba describes herself more as a visual researcher and blends the ethics of traditional documentary with a strong belief in the need to involve the subjects while telling their stories. Meanwhile, Brooklyn-based French and Senegalese visual artist and photographer, Delphine combines artistry with activism, using powerful portraiture as a medium to empower women, youth, and cultural minorities through visual provocation.

    The trio are lending their distinct creative approaches and expertise to the Nikon Photo Contest as they join this year’s judging panel. Here, in their own words, they explore the importance of photography as a way of making sense of the world and why strong images go beyond good composition and colour – to give a profound sense of feeling.

    What does photography mean to you?

    Heba: Photography mirrors the world and human beings. It's a visual documentation of history and civilizations, showing what is happening on the other side of the earth and connecting people. Documentary photography and long-term projects, in particular, are a unique tool to bridge communities that would never meet in reality. They help to create a level of understanding and demonstrate how people can relate to one another.

    Tanya: Photography for me is a way of holistically connecting my many narrative strands of self and how I see the world. In my earlier career, I explored theatre, anthropology, humanitarian work, print journalism, and photojournalism. As I tried to compress and pigeon-hole myself in those fields, I often felt something was missing. Photography, especially with the expanding and multidisciplinary paths it is taking, renders me whole. It is a medium that allows me to narrate and make sense of the complicated world I am documenting. There are times I see it as outright resistance. It allows reclamations of self and entire communities, in situations where there are oppressive mechanisms – be it political or personal. Photography can be a powerful and therapeutic tool whether you are a refugee hanging on to your identity under an oppressive state or a single mother trying to rebuild her life.

    Delphine: Photography mimics the way we look at the world, often on an unconscious level. The vision for me is about helping people to transform and be awake. I want to be more aware of my soul and my subconscious. When I’m capturing a portrait it’s a very intense, but quick process. I want to connect with the subject and I feel as if I’m trying to heal them in some way. By taking your picture, I want to expand your power; I want to show the possibility of your soul. That’s pretty much what I feel when I see someone and get to photograph them.  I usually don’t take more than 10 pictures. It’s the opposite of commercial work where they want you to take the picture over and over again to find where the beauty is, but that quest for perfection pushes us away further from real love and deep understanding of each other. That kind of work doesn’t interest me. You’re looking for this false sense of perfection and it prevents you from seeing the actual person who is right in front of you.

    Do you have any advice for photographers entering this year’s competition?

    Heba:Don't be shy or hesitant! I encourage everyone to submit their work to teach us and the rest of the world what we don't know; correct our stereotypes, inform us about your region, highlight your perspective and view of the world. Do it for the people you have photographed—bring their voices and stories to us. We need to hear from each other.

    Also, don't be too heavy on the post-production and make sure the caption is clear.

    Tanya: Go beyond what you assume the judges are looking for. Look past the headlines; quite often people will submit images on the topical events of the year. In the case of major news events, this can be a folly. If your angle has been so well covered by major wire services and international papers, you should genuinely ask yourself: ‘Am I saying anything unique in a way that brings a new perspective, emotion or approach?’ Find your vision and don’t emulate what you think we want to see.

    Delphine: It’s a very exciting and challenging time in history. We need a new type of imagination and visual within the photography industry. I predict that next year (2021) will be remembered as a big shift for enhancing powerful and inspirational vision to the world.

    How can you encourage creativity at a time when there are so many restrictions due to the pandemic?

    Heba: Even when things are quiet and seem still, life goes on. We need to listen, watch more carefully and pay closer attention. Sometimes what we’re looking for is already there, so it’s about looking inside and around us and observing our surroundings. Self-reflection is really important, as is working on improving skills when we can't physically produce work.

    Tanya: This time gave us an opportunity to pause and reconsider; to read, write, and engage with our archive. All of these things are essential to the creative process, but we don’t take enough time to do. The pandemic and its limitations also forced us to innovate and experiment. Where I work in the Middle East, limitation of access and limited mobility is common, but it is possible to find a unique path and voice that is yours. Photography is an intellectual exercise in many ways: it’s poetry, history, art, anthropology, ethnography, psychology, therapy, and current events. It requires the same level of research, time, and preparation as many other academic pursuits. If your work is more self-reflective and about your personal being or family and friends then look to understand your motivations and go deeper. The time may not have been about excessive physical output, but about working on your inner motivations and approach.

    Delphine: We’ve had a unique opportunity to get to know ourselves better because of the social limitations and enforced restrictions on socialising with others. For me it has also helped to understand what really matters in life, outside of a consumption-obsessed society. To be able to spend more time studying and practicing activities which require a strong focus, like cooking, drawing, and mediation helps to enhance my creative process.

    What do you think makes for a winning image?

    Heba: We go through hundreds of images every day in the streets and while scrolling on social media, yet only a few stop us. When an image stops me for a while – gets my attention – that's a winning image. It has to make me feel the event and the people in the image or carry a message or raise a question that goes beyond good composition and colour.

    Tanya: It’s that je ne sais quoi.  You want it to hit you either in your gut, your chest, your heart, or your head. It should be an almost immersive experience. A good image makes you reconsider what you already assumed. I particularly feel this when I see an innovative thought process, a personal insight or approach to the topic at hand. A raw moment of connection that flicks like magic; of unbridled humanity in all of its facets; the good, bad, and ugly. A good image does all of these things, but also takes into account agency and collaboration – which can be as simple and as pure as a moment of trust between photographer and “protagonist”.

    Delphine: For me the answer is simple: uniqueness.

    What does it take to be a female photographer? What challenges and opportunities exist for female photographers?

    Heba: I want my work to be seen, perceived, felt and judged by others for it's quality and ethics, regardless of my gender. However, I admit that being a woman has been a privilege for me – some of the communities I have documented were conservative communities that would only open up to female photographers. On the flip side, I feel it takes female photographers more time and effort to prove that we’re capable of covering tough, front-line action without breaking down. It also takes time and effort to explain to friends and family what we’re doing and why, especially in a conservative country such as Egypt, but that has started to change recently.

    When I first started out in 2012, the industry in Egypt was not used to the idea of a female photojournalist, let alone the reality. My boss and colleagues always told me to go home whenever there was a demonstration or clash. I proved to them that I could work in those situations, but that was only when I left one newspaper to work for another. And that paper hired me only because I accepted a poor salary that no one else would take. For me, it was a huge change. I was the only photographer in Alexandria for that newspaper: other newspapers had at least three photographers. I worked every day, sometimes up to 16 hours, covering everything from standard conferences to violent conflict.

    Tanya: We don’t yet have the same level of pay or assignments as many of our male colleagues. I think the industry tends to “age” out women.  I respect there are male photographers who are fathers who take an active role in parenting, but I do think women that are mothers and photographers still face a lot of judgment and limited support. I respect very much the innovation of key actors in our industry who have worked for decades to open the path for our sisters and photography. I appreciate the “brothers” in the field who have mentored and championed and cleared the path.  For all of these reasons, I understand why it is important to talk about “female photographers”. However, I do not see myself as a “female” photographer and at times resent this distinction because it is still a box of differentiation. Would someone introduce themselves as “hello…I am a female doctor”? No, it’s absurd. We have far to go, but I think the movement needs to be inclusive and non-binary. I often say the difficulties of manoeuvring political borders and communities in Middle East forced innovation in storytelling and I think the same happened with women over the decades. We often subverted attempted restrictions to our benefit, for example, maximizing intimate access. I think though, the greater issue is an economic one rather than an issue of gender. From equipment to telling long form projects out of our own pocket with the risk of not making an income from it for years, I think that the greater blockage to equality in the field comes from economic disparity. The economics of those who can afford to be photographers are greatly tied to who gets hired and, of course, despite the growing frontline importance of visual culture, a diminishing financial return from the industry. This affects all photographers.

    Delphine: It definitely takes a lot of courage. In the past, I didn't realise how much hard work it was. There is a huge photography market, but most photo editors were used to hiring male photographers and that was the case for over 30 years. So imagine the work that it takes to change a mindset of an industry which doesn’t feel or even realise it is discriminating against female photographers. Add the fact that I was a black, female photographer and I was practically invisible. The shift of consciousness in the industry right now is a necessity. There is still this entire ocean of subconscious decision making that occurs at the highest levels; whether that be among producers, art directors, or creative agencies. The biggest challenge for me is to get hired for big photographic jobs, especially after 10- 15 years of experience in the field. We don’t want tokenism – we want equal and sustainable opportunities.

    What kit are you currently shooting with? Do you have a favourite or preferred body and lens combination?

    Heba: I cover sensitive topics so I’m careful not to intimidate people. I like mirrorless cameras with fixed lenses, particularly the NIKKOR Z 35mm f/1.8 S for general use. The lens takes you to the heart of the action – you become part of its energy; close enough to feel it.

    Tanya: I am a long-time loyal fan of the Nikon D850. It feels like a love tank of stability! It has withstood unexpected rain and falling in the dirt when covering protests. It captures colour so beautifully, and the files often feel like medium format film. I also love the lightness and versatility of the Z6 and Z7. I use the Z6 for film; Z7 and D850 for portraits; Z6 for video, and again the Z7 for quick journalism with wonderful colour files. My kit also features a Nikon SB-5000. I try to be a mobile studio!

    Delphine: I’m very faithful to my AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G and Nikon F100. I also use the D810 for video and still photography – I love the screen view because I’m able to trust the image preview. I’ve tested the new Z series kit and the Z 7 is unbelievably light and helps me to be more involved with my subject. I can’t wait to receive the gear to add it to my kitbag.

    How does it feel to be judging the Nikon Photo Contest?

    Heba: It's exciting and challenging to be a part of the panel of judges, especially in such a tough year, where the whole world has been severely affected by COVID-19. I am looking forward to seeing how visual makers and photographers reflect on this year’s themes, particularly "Connect", amidst a pandemic that forced us to social distance and disconnect from each other physically. The theme gives us a chance to reflect on how we connect with our surroundings in a broader way.

    Tanya: I have such respect for Nikon. As a mentor for European Nikon-NOOR workshops over the last few years, I’ve witnessed them give so much to the community, in a way that does not benefit them financially. It shows an investment in the field and the people and has provided life-changing mentorship – something I wish I had access to in my early days. Nikon is a pivotal icon that nurtured the beginning of our industry and is still innovating our field. I am honoured to play a small role in this beautiful world of storytellers. I am excited to see the submissions of people sharing their vision.

    Delphine: I’m very honoured to be a part of the Nikon Photo Contest. I’m most looking forward to discovering new visionaries and seeing the world through their lens.

    For more details on how to enter the Nikon Photo Contest visit https://www.nikon-photocontest.com/en/