Nasser Kalaji: “My photography is rapping through images.”

A talented young Jordanian photographer dedicated to covering the emerging Arab hip-hop scene, Nasser Kalaji acquired his first camera in October 2009. By August 2010 his incisive and moving urban images were already being featured and admired on Leica blogs. Nasser has recently formed a company, Immortal, with his dear friend and Mentor Laith Majali, a master hip-hop photojournalist and Leica devotee, to more effectively convey the Arab hip-hop movement and its underlying messages of oppression and hope to the world at large. Almost every project Immortal is involved in is deeply inspired by urban realities. Its mission is to use photography to promote understanding and empathy, and to create a transformational force based on the perception of our common humanity. Here, in his own poignant and thoughtful words, is his compelling story.

Q: In the portfolio you sent it is clear that you are deeply inspired by urban realities, and you certainly captured the depressingly squalid and chaotic conditions of street life in the Arab world. Did you find similar conditions in Cairo as well as Beirut and Amman and how do you think this relates to the content and message of Arab hip-hop?

A: The civil war in Lebanon involved the Muslims, the Christians, the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Americans, the Russians, the French, the Libyans, the Iranians, the Iraqis, the Sudanese and the Saudis. So in a sense it’s the place where the Third World War was carried out.

I get a feeling that Beirut is “haunted”; I mean it was not that long ago that the civil war ended there, a war that claimed around 200,000 lives, so you walk around in the streets knowing that a lot of people lost their lives in the very same spots you’re walking around in.

I think there are universal truths that are found in “the streets” all over the world. However these truths manifest themselves differently depending on the location. In the politically charged streets of Beirut you will find a lot of street art, graffiti, slogans and posters of political parties and their leaders, that relate to the frustrations, feelings, thoughts and aspirations of the Lebanese people. In Beirut you can see a poster promoting a Saudi-backed political party and right in front of it, a girl in gym shorts and tank top going for a morning run. It’s that contrast that makes Beirut what it is. Also Beirut is the most liberal Arab city and that is reflected visually in terms of the number of women walking the streets, what they wear, the nightlife, the beaches, etc.

In Cairo because the regime there is very repressive you won’t find any of this stuff–no political slogans of opposition parties, no women dressed in non-Islamic attire. There is a sense of paranoia that is very palpable in Cairo. One in 40 Egyptian men is a government informant so walking around a ghetto in Cairo with a camera will always make people regard you with suspicion. Cairo is one of the largest cities in the world and therefore conditions manifest themselves with particular force and poignancy. Egypt is home to almost a third of all Arabs so what happens in Egypt has ramifications all over the Arab world.

In Amman the despair does not impact you on the scale or with the same force as it does in Beirut and Cairo. For decades Amman has been the sort of refuge that other Arabs seek in times of war. Almost half of our population is of Palestinian origin and we have over 600,000 Iraqis who fled the war and a lot of Lebanese families that have made Amman their home for over 30 years. It’s that ethnic complexity that makes Amman what it is as a city. As a photographer one has to be mindful of that in order to understand that the images he or she is capturing—a picture of a person in need in Amman, Jordan, for example—has a wider emotional context. It not only speaks of conditions in a particular country but also conveys volumes about the war in Iraq, of Saddam’s regime, of the Israeli occupation in Palestine, and of the city of Amman itself and its people who have been directly affected by events over which they have no control.

Q: Do you have any images of actual public hip-hop performances of the groups you’ve worked with, and what is their reaction to your photographs of them and their urban environment?

A: One of the most established Arab hip-hop groups (Ramallah Underground) recently approached me to work with them on a collaborative project. Visuals are an essential part of their shows, so when they contacted me and were very complimentary about my work, it felt really good.  To get that kind of approval from such accomplished artists was very encouraging.

DJ Lethal Skillz, the founding father of the Lebanese hip-hop scene once told me, “The rappers are the voice of the movement. We (referring to producers like himself) are the ears, and you guys (referring to my mentor Laith and me) are the eyes of the movement.“ Narcy, an Iraqi rapper residing in Canada refers to us as the minds behind the movement. Such heartfelt feedback has given us the sort of backing and assurance that our work has hit home with the Arab hip-hop community.

Q: You mention that you use three Leica cameras. Is there any difference in the kind of work you do with the Leica X1, V-Lux 20 and D-Lux 4, and what characteristics of each camera work best for your kind of shooting?

A: The X1 has amazing low light capabilities so I try to use it in low light settings more than the other two. I think the X1 is also very good for shooting portraits because of the richness of the files it produces. The V–Lux 20 on the other hand has an edge in terms of flexibility due to its superior zoom capabilities. It’s a technological marvel really and I use it primarily when I need to be discreet. Nevertheless the D-Lux 4 remains my overall favorite, and it’s my number one choice.

Q: You said you got interested in Leicas by reading about them. Aside from the excellent international reputation of Leica equipment what particular features or characteristics attracted you to Leica cameras?

A: When I show my work to people and they ask me what I used to capture the images and I pull out the D-Lux 4, people have a hard time believing that I can capture what I do with such a small, compact point and shoot. To me that is what Leica is all about; that an outstanding end product, a memorable image, can be captured by such a small, compact, easy to use device.

Q: Since your specialty is street photography and documentary photojournalism have you ever considered using a Leica M such as the M9?

A: My mentor Laith Majali recently used an M9 while he was working on a project out in L.A. and what he produced with it was simply magical. We are in touch with Leica about using cameras for certain projects and I really am looking forward to working with their other models, especially the Leica M9.

Q: What is your main aim in covering the Arab hip-hop scene—in other words what essential message are you trying to get across to people who view your pictures?

A: I am trying to accomplish several goals at once. On the one hand a lot of the crews that we associate ourselves with are simply topnotch artists. For example Omar Offendum just released his debut album Syriaamericana and for me it is one of the best independent underground releases on the international scene. So we cover Omar and others in the hope that we can get them the exposure, recognition, and respect that they deserve.

Arabs are a very young population. Over 60% of us are under the age of 25 and hip-hop is one of the tools that the youth are using to give voice to their feelings, thoughts, hopes, frustrations, and aspirations about life and conditions in the Arab world. Because of recent international events such as 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the world seems to be fixated on the Middle East. I see our work as an attempt to offer a more balanced, real, and raw account of what Arabs are all about to counter the racist, biased, agenda-oriented coverage that the Arabs usually get from Western and even their own media outlets.

What makes Arab hip-hop so special is the fact that it is an underground movement, which allows it to elude government censorship and thus it is a raw, unedited version of how the Arab youth truly feel and think about their past, present, and future.

Moreover, I also think that conditions in our poverty-stricken Middle Eastern streets are somewhat similar to, say, the streets of New Orleans, and they are also somewhat connected. The fact that most American soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq are poor Latino and black soldiers and the fact that most Iraqis who were killed come from similar poverty-stricken backgrounds speaks volumes to me. By covering hip-hop with my cameras I hope to highlight the facts and conditions that force people of color to carry out the wars of the rich and powerful. To overcome these conditions we need to have a better understanding so that we can address them collectively.

According to some studies, Muslims are destined to become the majority in some European countries and in countries like Holland and France the top rappers and producers in the game are of Middle Eastern heritage. That’s why covering the hip-hop scene there is an interesting angle—it reveals what is it like to live in segregation, and how these artists deal with integrating into Western societies and how they manage to coexist with their fellow citizens.

Q: What did it feel like working as part of Immortal, the company created by Laith and yourself, and shooting 8000 images in about a week with the V-Lux 20? Did you find it exhilarating, fulfilling, depressing, tiring and what do you think you learned in the process?

A: It was such an emotional rollercoaster. On the one hand I was really pleased with the quality of the images I was able to produce, but on the other hand I did have a couple of incidents with the security services and some local citizens that made me fear for my safety. Having said that I think the thing that annoyed me the most was the feeling of despair that I personally felt. Walking around the Cairo streets made me realize that the future of Egypt and the Arab world looks very bleak at this moment.

Q: What influence has Laith had on your work other than inspiring you with his own great pictures? Did he actually make suggestions, guide you, or mentor you? And what were the most useful things you learned from him?

A: Besides obviously helping me with the technical aspects of photography, Laith is a perfectionist as an artist, so while others might praise my work he has been the one guy that has kept me grounded, whether through his insightful critiques, or by exposing me to his own images and the work of other great photographers. I think this process has forced me to develop my own style and to realize that there is a bigger mission at hand than simply producing good images.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving going forward in terms of equipment, technique, and subject matter? Do you think you’ll be taking the same type of pictures 5 years from now, and if not how do you think they will they change in the future?

A: I think that I still have some ways to go in order to become a better photographer, from becoming better acquainted with different equipment, to having a better technical and ethical understanding of photography.

Having said that, photographers who choose to cover the streets of the third world, wars, conflicts, etc., have, I think, a certain responsibility towards the humans depicted in and affected by their stories and a personal responsibility toward themselves as well.

At first I used to get excited when I managed to capture a well-executed image of kid going through trash to find something to eat, because it’s a hard-hitting image. This “feel good” factor is discomforting for me now—it’s like OK, so I came, I saw and I captured and now what? Do I capture such images so that I can claim that I am a good photographer or does it really entail a more significant mission?

As a filmmaker, producer, and photographer I have access to government officials, NGOs, wealthy people, artists of all sorts, and my work has been getting a lot of attention, so the question becomes how do I use these connections to better the conditions I see on the street. One of my friends owns an upscale gastro pub and he has been showing my work on LCD screens. I sometimes listen closely to the sort of reactions, debates, and thoughts generated by my images. This experience has convinced me that a photographer has the power and responsibility to shape opinions, force debates, and raise awareness about social, political and economic issues.

For example, after we became involved in the Voice of the Valley documentary, we contacted the Minister of the Environment in Jordan in the hope that his ministry would react positively to social issues in the valley. Luckily for us the minister showed immense interest in the issues we raised and accompanied us several times on trips to the valley. In the process he was able to communicate directly with citizens and issue directives and orders to his subordinates in order to solve certain pressing problems. Photography is all about showing things as they are, but it’s also about creating a better world.

Thank you Nasser Kalaji!

-Leica Internet Team

For more information, please visit Nasser Kalaji’s website www.immortal-ent.com.