Born in Bahrain in 1980, Ali Sharaf was a fashion designer who became fascinated with photography and pursued his photographic education by traveling to the UK to attend photographic workshops and one-on-one seminars in Manchester and London. There he made enduring connections with fashion photographers and the fashion industry, and transitioned from being a fashion designer to becoming a full-time photographer. He cites one of his signal achievements as being named Portrait Digital Photographer of the Year 2011 by Digital Photographer, a well-known UK-based magazine. Here is the first-person account of his first foray into cultural photojournalism with his newly acquired Leica M.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: Photography is still about capturing moments, experimenting with light, color and perspectives, creating a different way of seeing things and telling stories about our history. Bahrain has also been the centre of trade, cultural exchange, and hub for the arts in the region. This has inspired me to share the rich, vibrant colors of our culture with the world, with the ultimate goal of wanting to bridge the gaps between cultures via my photography.
Q: Can you provide some background information on these images?
A: It was my first time using a Leica so I decided to go to the back alleys of Muharraq Island, an old gem of an island known for its traditional, colorful scenes. There I stopped at a local coffee shop. It had an intimidating feeling to it; as you can see from the image it gives you an old, strong vibe. There I met an old man called Mr. Abdullah and we talked about the old days in Muharraq and how hospitable and inviting people were. I was so touched by this man that I had to take a portrait of him. I printed and framed it and went back the next month to give it to him and there I met yet another interesting character. This other man approached me and was very experienced in photography and lighting essentials. He had seen my photos on Instagram and had commented on my lighting techniques. After a long conversation I took a portrait of him too. This moment really made me realize that we should never judge people based on their looks. If I just had passed by this coffee shop and didn’t take a moment to interact I would have never known about the vast knowledge that this simple old man had.
Some of the other images happened in the same alley of Muharraq Island. I ran into a group of photographers from the GCC going to traditional houses in Muharraq and they invited me to go with them. They had invited a group from the infirmary where I had a chance to hear their stories and capture a few portraits too.
Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?
A: My approach is like “when you photograph a face, you photograph the soul behind it.” It’s a silent conversation that says far more than any words ever can.
Q: What camera equipment do you generally use?
A: A Leica M with 35 mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH., 50 mm f/2 Summicron-M and a Multifunction Grip.
Q: What are some of the characteristics of the Leica M that you found especially useful in executing your Muharraq Island project?
A: Aside from the ability to capture rich color in general, the auto White Balance control works just great for both indoor and outdoor scenes.
Q: Which of the two lenses, the 35 mm or 50 mm, did you use most often in shooting this portfolio and can you say something about the advantages of using the Multifunction Grip?
A: I used the 35 mm most often. As for the Multifunction Grip, I feel that I cannot actually use the camera without it. It gives you a really stable feeling while shooting. Also GPS data embedded in the photographs are very important in organizing your photos by location within the workflow.
Q: Do you believe, as many have asserted, that Leica lenses render the subject in a unique and identifiable way — the so-called Leica look, and if so, is that important to you?
A: As a new Leica user, I can definitely say that I noticed the Leica Look within the photos. Shooting mostly with the 35 mm Summicron I found it to be a really great travel lens that allows you to get more of the scene into the photo with your subject. Whether you’re shooting portraits or landscape, the sharpness and details in the photos from the 35 mm are very pleasing.
Q: Did you have any formal education in photography or were you self-taught?
A: I am a self-taught photographer. I’ve been always a big fan of fashion photography and the idea of creating a world that the public wouldn’t necessarily see in real life. To me this makes fashion more exciting. Even when working with fashion, I was always interested in the aspect of bridging the cultural gaps between societies by using my fashion photography as the tool to do that! However, once I started using the Leica M it inspired me to explore history and culture via new channels (interacting with society, street photography) rather than just focusing on fashion.
Q: How do you think your experience in the world of fashion, both as a digital artist and photographer, has influenced your personal work, and how do you think the images in this portfolio help to bridge gaps between cultures?
A: I believe my experience in the world of fashion has influenced the composition and lighting of my personal work. Because of my experience I have the ability to shoot on the go and create scenes on the spot that look like they were planned or staged, but are actually instant compositions that are created on the spot. Besides helping me to hone my compositional skills, my experience has also helped me develop my ability to tell stories through my images.
As someone who has grown up in the Kingdom of Bahrain, a country in the Middle East, we always notice when traveling abroad that the common person (who doesn’t know much about the Middle East) could label the entire Middle East as one, sometimes linking it to chaos in political matters (wars, oppression, etc.). What I try to show through my shoots is the history, background and culture of my country, to give people a doorway to actually step back and think, “Oh, I want to know more about this place” and to give them a chance to actually wonder if their pre-defined perceptions of the Middle East are correct.
Q: Do you think it’s necessary to interact with and get to know your portrait subjects before you photograph them? And is it even possible to capture a meaningful portrait of a total stranger?
A: Yes, I personally believe that it is very important to get to know your subjects before you photograph them. As they always say, first impressions are always the ones that last. Usually through my brief introduction to the subject, I would have a specific element in mind that I would like to reveal through the image. I believe that this initial introduction adds strength to the end result.
As for the possibility of capturing a meaningful portrait of a total stranger, I believe you can capture a meaningful expression of a total stranger. However, the expression that is captured would remain open to interpretation as to what message it could deliver.
Q: This image is a fascinating assemblage of variegated elements including an ancient record player with morning glory horn, a traditional coffee pot, a lantern, and a profusion of flags and posters. Where was this picture taken and why did you decide to include it in this portfolio?
A: This picture was taken at the same coffee shop I visited. I decided to include it in order to reveal the first feeling I got of intimidation when I entered this place. At the moment I first entered I just stood there and was wondering, “Where am I?” I saw flags of different countries, different rulers and kings, pictures of different contradicting political parties. But after I sat down and had a conversation with Mr. Abdullah, my impression changed, because all that I saw from contradicting political views is simply what Bahrain is truly about. Even though we differ in political thoughts, and we might have different beliefs (we have Muslims, Christians and Jews in Bahrain), in the end our country unites us and brings us all together.
Q: The most striking aspect of this image is the juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary elements — an ancient shelf and traditional Arab head covering, a modern TV and commercial water bottle. It is also amusing that the subject is smoking a cigarette, with a No Smoking sign in English and Arabic clearly visible in the background. What do you think this image says about the society of Bahrain in general, and Muharraq Island in particular, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: Honestly, the juxtaposition in this image again reveals what I mentioned above. Bahrain has always been the center of trade, so you will see a mix of traditional, modern, different cultures, etc. He is looking at the iPad because he was going through my profile on Instagram, and then I asked to shoot a picture of him at the end.
The No Smoking sign vs. him smoking, to me was an idea of habits. There is an Arabic saying that goes, “If someone is used to doing something for a while (as a habit), you can’t really change it.” The country has imposed many non-smoking regulations, but in old rural areas, you can’t really get the old men who view the place as their home or property, to really change what they are used to. They are also very possessive and would like to run things as they have always been.
Q: This is a straightforward picture of a man in traditional garb with his left hand held upward atop the front support of a traditional archway and with prominent wooden-shuttered windows on the right. The off-center composition and the architectural elements combine to create an impression of great dignity, serenity, and presence on the part of the subject. Do you agree? Also, who is this person and what is his story?
A: Yes, I do agree. This man was also from the infirmary, and people living there have either been abandoned by their children or don’t have anyone to look after them, so this organization takes care of them. I think the composition really shows the great dignity that this man still holds, even after years of probably either being abandoned or living with no family. I must also add that in our culture it is extremely rare to be living alone at an older age, because sons and daughters usually take the responsibility of looking after their old parents. Those who end up at the infirmary are actually very rare cases.
Q: How do you see your photography, in all of its aspects, evolving over, say, the next three years and do you plan to explore any other genres besides fashion, portraiture, and cultural documentary?
A: In the fashion world, you have an imaginary world you create on set and that’s what makes fashion more interesting to me. You can create a scene for a few days, live in it, but then you leave and you are back to reality.
But with these new genres (documentary photojournalism and portraiture) I convey real stories, which is the opposite of the imaginary world I was in. And in the next few years, I am looking forward to meeting more people and revealing their stories. I would also love to explore shooting architecture, since I believe in this part of the world there are beautiful historic buildings that need to be documented. I also want to work towards joining local and international galleries to exhibit my work.
Thank you for your time, Ali!
– Leica Internet Team
Learn more about Ali on his website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.