An Incisive Eye On The Emerging Pan-Arab Hip-Hop Movement

Laith Majali, a dynamic young Jordaninan photographer and filmmaker, has a heartfelt passion for people and for documenting the human condition. An award-winning film producer, editor, and photojournalist, he recently won the Leica “Cairo Take This” photo contest hosted on Leica’s page on Facebook, for his searing coverage of life in the Egyptian capital. In this two part interview series, seasoned journalist and photo writer Jason Schneider interviews him on his latest project, covering the amazing an unlikely world of Arab Hip-Hop, a proletarian art form that originated in the West, but is now a vibrant force in the Middle East and the worldwide Arab Diaspora.

Part 1 : From accomplished filmmaker to passionate photojournalist

Q: What comes across decisively in all your work is that art transcends all social, national, religious, and class distinctions, that truly we are all one. Where did you begin this journey and how did you get to this point in your development as a visual artist?

A: So far as my formal education is concerned I was fortunate to get a scholarship to Elon University in North Carolina where I earned my degree in broadcast journalism and film and minored in theater. I didn’t really become committed to being a professional still photographer until fairly recently—it all happened after I spent two years producing and editing my first film, the 2008 Sundance Audience Award Winning “Captain Abu Raed,” the first Jordanian feature film to achieve worldwide distribution.

However, my passion for photography started long before that. My dad gave me a camera when I was very young—one of his old film cameras and I played around with it. I can remember being in school and always having a camera with me, but I never really took it seriously. Back then I had aspirations that had nothing to do with art—what I really wanted was to join the military. My uncle was head of the king’s security and I was destined to go to West Point and do the military thing because doing both military and political work is a big thing in our family.

We come from a big tribe and in our part of the country that’s part of the tradition, but ultimately things didn’t work out as I had planned. I ended up getting a full scholarship to Elon, and I knew they had a great school specializing in communications. I thought I’d take this opportunity to do something that people in my region aren’t doing that much–especially Jordan, which has no big media industry or film industry. I decided then and there to take the creative route and I put all of my energy into it.

After leaving school I moved to Los Angeles and worked there for two years. Then in 2005 I took a trip back to the Middle East, bought my first nice digital camera, and got back into photography. It was a slow process, but I became a self-taught photographer in the end. Not surprising my education as a filmmaker hade a profound influence on my still photography. I also got to do a workshop in Amman, Jordan with an experienced pro photographer and through that connection I got to shoot my first documentary photojournalism, a photo essay on Egyptian construction workers and the conditions in which they live.

Once that photo essay was published and I saw people’s enthusiastic reaction to it, it made me understand that photojournalism and reportage is just another form of storytelling—one where I’m not using 24 frames per second to tell a story, but  trying to capture telling moments either on film or on a sensor. That’s what really intrigued me—the realization that it was my love for human beings and the desire to understand and reveal the human condition itself that really motivated me to become a street photographer and a photojournalist.

There were practical considerations as well. In the Arab world what does it take to be a filmmaker? Let’s just say it’s really, really tough to survive just as a filmmaker anywhere, but especially in my area of the world. So basically I needed something that would allow me to make a little bit of money, just to keep me afloat, and photography became that thing.

Q: You’ve studied cinematography and you’re an award-winning filmmaker, and an accomplished film editor. How do you see still photography, and street photography in particular, fitting into this mix?

A: Still Photography with a Leica is an essential element for me. A lot of people are telling me you’ve got to focus— either you’re going to be a still photographer, a filmmaker, a producer, or an editor. You’ve got to decide what you’re going to do. My instant reaction every time is that each of these completes who I am as an artist. When you’re making a film it’s a collaborative effort, working with other elements and other people to create a big project. You start living in a bubble of the film you’re making and working on and it’s easy to become disconnected from reality.

Still photography, especially street photography, is my connection to people— it’s what drives me to do all the other stuff I do, because it provides the basis of my understanding of the human conditions, of human beings on the street. That’s what fuels my sense of reality and empathy in filmmaking. I get to think, analyze, and respond instantly, and that creates an emotional bond to human beings and who they are. It’s what drives me to affirm my connection with people. It’s really what balances me and helps me to be who I need to be. I have my alone time in the streets engaged in an individual creative process and then I have the collaborative side of me when I want to work with a director and a producer, etc. That’s how I achieve a balance in my own life that is then manifested through my art, so each part pushes my creative energies. I should also mention that another advantage of being a still photographer is that I also get to travel a lot, which is not only fun, but also expands my life experiences.

Q: What do you think is the special power of still photography compared to other forms of visual expression?

A: Still pictures that are effective make people realize that life is interesting—it opens their eyes to what’s happening around them. When you walk down the street every day in a big city like New York, you tend to zone out and never notice that there are so many fascinating things going on. With still photography, especially street photography with a Leica M, you get to freeze these moments in time and to expand people’s awareness. It’s really this awareness that I try to show through my photographs. It’s being able to line up a good frame with a significant moment in the right setting. People viewing the image you’ve captured then get to feel something profound in the end, even though there’s no dialogue or music as there is with movies. Black-and-white photojournalism is the bare minimum—you have to get everything into that one frame, and that is what I strive to do. Capturing these moments for me is what drives me—I need to make people feel something, to experience the emotion even without all the accoutrements of cinema. The Leica is a minimalist tool that lets you capture that moment in one frame rather than at 24fps, but to achieve that you have to be able to pack all that emotion the viewer can feel into one spare frame. When you succeed, it’s the famous “decisive moment.”

Q: Is there something about the configuration of the Leica M, an elemental something that lets you see the world and articulate your vision in some special way?

A: Yes. What comes to mind is a phrase Leica uses in its promotions. Unlike a DSLR where you view the world through the viewfinder the Leica M is more like an extension of what I see, an extension of my brain, my eyes, and that moment. I can get the shot I want without worrying about this big huge camera in front of me. The experience of shooting with it is organic and fluid and I that’s why I would choose an M camera rather than any other camera out there. I have lots of different cameras including a Hasselblad and an old Rolleiflex I sometimes use for portraits, but with the Leica I can get sneaky shots without attracting peoples’ attention, I can capture true moments rather than artificial looking or posed moments. That’s why the Leica is my go to camera I use on a daily basis, an extension of who I am. My friends kid me about this and call it my wife. Indeed I do love this camera and everyone knows my wife is an M6. Thanks to my dear friend and fellow photojournalist Chris Weeks who let me shoot with his M9, I now have a new love. But this is not really infidelity because it’s just the Leica M experience in digital form, and I can’t wait to get an M9 of my own.

Check back for Part 2 of this interview in which Laith Majali tells the fascinating tale of how he became involved in documenting the pan-Arab Hip-Hop scene. For more information on Laith, visit his personal blog and his company’s blog Immortal Entertainment’s Blog.