Photo Credit Nadia SalamehJerusalem-born and San Diego resident Nadia Salameh is an award-winning photographer who is internationally recognized, not only for her achievements, but for her intensely personal and emotive style. Holding a Master of Photography degree and the title of "International Photographer of the Year" from the Professional Photographers of America, Salameh uses her friendliness to pull you in, creating lasting relationships with people all over the world.
Since she decided to focus on photography as a career in 1995, Salameh has captured many amazing moments in time, allowing all of us a glimpse at life in the remotest of areas within the remotest of tribes. From a lioness on the hunt to a shy boy in the Hadzabe tribe, Salameh uses her photography to show the threads that connect us all, regardless of race, gender, or culture.
Salameh has an upcoming exhibition in San Diego, CA. at Gallery 21, called "Faces and Places." Running from December 19 to December 31, the show will present guests with her genre-defining photos, showing people from different countries and cultures in their day-to-day lives - including the Mursi, Karo, and Hamer tribes of Ethiopia - as well as gorgeous landscapes and wildlife shots.
I was fortunate enough to chat with Salameh recently and got to hear all about her experiences with primitive tribes and learn what sometimes happens when you follow a lioness for hours, waiting for that one kill. Make sure to read the whole thing to find out which photo has left the biggest impression, how she feels about camera phones, and what it felt like to get snowed in at the gates of Petra!
Mila Pantovich: Your site says that you got your start in wedding photography and portraiture in 1995; how did you go from that to traveling the world and capturing a wide range of cultures and traditions?
Nadia Salameh: My love for travel came long before my passion for photography. I was born in a small town outside of Jerusalem and moved to America as a young girl, so I'd always had an incredible appreciation for cultures and traditions and people. I think it's genetically ingrained; my father as a young man worked and traveled to many countries, so as a young girl, listening to all his stories, I was fascinated... When I got older I started traveling and fell madly in love with it. A few times in my early 20's I traveled alone and I'd be standing some place, looking at these amazing sceneries and wanting to capture it to be able to take home and share with my family and friends. That's sort of where photography came to life for me and it was just a very natural transition.
I worked for American Express for many years and 1995 was when I quit my day job to start my photography business; I started doing weddings and portraits and absolutely loved what I was doing. I tend to be a very shy person...it takes time for me to come out of my shell and I think photography helped. When I'm behind the camera I'm a different person, I just sort of come to life. I'm totally in charge and I'm more extroverted and excited and creative. A lot of clients would laugh at hearing me describe myself as shy cause they’ve never seen that side of me.
MP: You have a Master of Photography Degree; do you think that having that sort of formal education has made a big impact on your style and success? What or who else has impacted you?
NS: I'd say yes and no. 'Yes' because I forced myself to meet certain challenges and deadlines, and learn the academics and technical side of photography, and 'no' because you can still learn that in other ways. It just has more of a discipline and is more prestigious because not a lot of people choose to take that route, but it's not the only route to go in, many wonderful photographers that I know haven't done that but have done the work to get the knowledge and education they need. I see the value in it and...to this day I continue to attend conventions and take classes and workshops. The cool thing about photography is that the education never stops, you never know it all, and to me that’s more exciting. I feel like I have more to learn than I know.
There's a few [photographers] that have been my idols for a long time but I have to say that the very first one I fell madly in love with is Steve McCurry. As a young girl, seeing the National Geographic magazines with all these amazing images of people from different parts of the world, I was absolutely mesmerized - thinking about these people, wondering who they were, what their lives were like and how different they were from mine. Steve McCurry's work just really resonates with me on an emotional level.
MP: In terms of wildlife, what's the longest you've had to wait to get the perfect shot and what kind of challenges did you face?
NS: I've probably waited three or four hours and still haven't gotten the perfect shot. In wildlife I can plan everything down to every detail as far as the right time of day for optimal lighting and positioning myself in the best position to capture something...but animals don’t sit around waiting, they do what they do. Often times I'll sit for hours waiting for something to happen and in a split second it's gone.
Just this last trip to Africa in June there was a lioness about to make a kill...following this heard of zebras. We were in the jeep standing up, hanging onto our equipment, following her through this really rough terrain and trying to keep up with her for miles and miles. I had photographed after the kill before but I had never actually photographed the actual kill, so I thought this was my opportunity and we stayed with her for a couple hours. At the very split second she finally decided to jump on the zebras, it was behind a tree and completely blocked our view, and that moment is gone and I lost it. It's still an exciting moment because the experience is very exciting but yeah, we spent hours waiting for it and it just didn't happen. In photography waiting is a huge part, so I'm used to that and I don't mind doing it.
MP: Traveling can be full of misadventure and exciting moments; are there any experiences that stand out as the most memorable for better or worse?
NS: I remember a few years ago...I'd always wanted to photograph in Petra and I finally made a trip out there. [We] got to the entrance and made our way down the windy road - you go through these very narrow cliffs - and got to the first stop, which is the infamous treasury, and it started snowing. We were hiding under a tent...and it just continually got colder and snowed even harder. This was very unusual for Petra - they hadn't seen snow in over 55 years. Then they started worrying about if it stopped snowing and continued to rain that there'd be flash floods cause we were on a downhill spiral.
It just continued to get colder and [darker], and people were trapped down there and they didn’t know how they were going to get people back up because there were more people down there than they had jeeps. We found some kids who had some camels, so we paid them to let us take their camels back up to the main entrance. It was snowing and windy and cold, and the poor camels couldn't even continue walking in a straight line - I remember I was just pounding up against the stone cliff from side-to-side. We got back up to the entrance and ended up stranded at the hotel for five days, snowed in. The first opportunity for the roads to open up and leave, we had to leave. I feel like I got to the entryway of Petra and never got to photograph it.
NS: Another really cool one that comes to mind is when I was in India. I went to photograph the Kumbh Mela, which is a pilgrimage where people gather in the Ganges river and it’s a ritual where they wash their sins away. It's the largest gathering of humanity in the world and it lasts for about a two month period and in that period about 100 million people come for this pilgrimage. We happened to be there for one of the main festivals and...there were just hoards of people and there was no room to move. I guess they decided that they wanted to do this in private and so they wanted all the people out. So, here's a couple million people that are trying to move out and they started pushing people back, and it was just a stampede of people falling all over each other.
This one young man, that was standing next to me the whole time, kept looking at me...wondering about me - I obviously looked like I didn’t fit in holding this big camera. In the stampede of people I lost my friend I was traveling with and [the young man] saw that, so he grabs my hand and says, "Are you with that guy?" and I said, "Yes." He says, "Stay with me, hold on." Through this crowd of people he helped me work my way, it took a good two hours...and it wasn’t easy. It was hot and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. After we finally found my friend and started talking to this young man, who was just this beautiful soul [who] was there because he was sort of going through some changes in his life...and we ended up hanging out with him at the festival for a few days and built this relationship. Now he calls me his sister and has me listed on Facebook as his sister. You go and have these situations and these amazing things come out of them. You meet people and build these relationships that would never happen under any other circumstances.
MP: Are there any specific tribes that have been the most enjoyable to work with and have there been any groups that have refused to work with you?
NS: Traditionally [many tribes] wouldn’t allow anybody to photograph them because many of them feel like you're stealing their soul. I think as the western world has made its way over there and they see more and more people with cameras and people who have photographed them, they're more open to it. Many of the tribes have allowed me, and I'm always very respectful, I always ask, and if they say, "no," that’s the end of it.
Probably the toughest places I've had with more people saying "no" than "yes" is in northern Africa, like Morocco, and in the Middle East some people are a little more adamant about not allowing it - and a lot of the African tribes. But again, those same tribes, many of them have become open to it. So, I can't say that any one is specifically "no" and any one is specifically "yes." I think the most interesting one I've ever photographed is the Mursi tribe in southern Ethiopia because they are the most primitive. I think that was really interesting and those are some of the images that are going to be shown in my upcoming show.
MP: Have you ever gone back and shown them the photographs?
NS: I have actually done that - I've gone back with actual prints in my hands of their portraits. The first time I meet the people and take the picture, often times I will show them in the viewfinder - one of the really cool things about digital. There was one instance when, I think back in 2006 when I was in Africa, and it was a really long day driving through the Savannah on this open road that you could see for miles and miles and not a living soul in sight. All of a sudden I see these five young kids just crossing the road, so we stopped and talked with them. These kids hadn't seen very many western people and even our guide spoke a different dialect so it was hard for him to communicate with them, but we managed to interact with them for an hour.
At first they were kind of leery but I think they realized we were certainly no threat to them. We just talked to them and smiled and gestured and got them laughing and giggling - for whatever reason, maybe they thought we were strange - and gave them some food and water. I then put up my camera [gesturing] "Can I take your picture?" The guide was trying to explain to them what that was and I'm not really sure they understood it, but they allowed me to do it. I took their photos and started showing each of them the pictures of themselves in the viewfinder and they had this look of bewilderment on their faces when I was showing them images of themselves. But when I showed them images of each other, then they were smiling and laughing because they could recognize the other people. I realized that they don’t even have mirrors and probably don’t even know what they look like, which is why they looked bewildered when I was showing them their own portrait. [When] they realized, after I was going back and forth and showing each of them, they were looking at their own portraits, the smiles on their face were just amazing. It was a very cool experience. These kids were just so adorable, very sweet.
MP: If you could hop in a time machine and photograph any time period and place, where would you choose?
NS: Probably ancient Damascus, which is the world's oldest city and is about 3,000 years old. During the Roman empire [there] so many different dynasties going through Damascus at the time, like the Aramaeans, and the Greeks, and the Romans…It being an essential place where the traders went to from east and west, and just thinking about all the many different cultures and people that went through there and influenced the architecture, lifestyle, culture and food. I think that would be so cool to be back in that time and…document that. To this day that’s always been a city I've wanted to go to and photograph because I know a lot of that history is still preserved.
MP: When you photograph people in other countries, do you ever have a message that you're trying to get across?
NS: I think that message would have to be to not judge, to look at these people and appreciate them - not even so much to appreciate them - but to look at them without judgment. This is who they are, this is what they believe, this is how they look, and just not judge it and enjoy it. Or wonder about it or question it, just get you thinking about it, about the person. Ultimately they're not that different from us, it's just the exterior that looks different. Hopefully when they look into their eyes that they can see…they see a mother, and a mother in another part of the world is the same as a mother here and has the same concerns and compassion's and goals of taking care of her children. The exterior looks different but in the end we all bleed the same color of red.
MP: Is there a photo of yours that left a special mark on you and if so, which one was it?
NS: One that I never get tired of looking at, that I'm madly in love with - and not because I took it - [is of] this adorable little boy from the Hadzabe tribe. The Hadzabe's are the last of the bush tribes in Tanzania, they're the ones that speak with the clicking. We went to visit them and spent the whole day with them. When I first came in [I saw] this little boy - he must have been about five or six years old, they said he was five but it was hard for me to believe, he just seemed so old for his age and had this really mature look about him - and his youngest brother who was very open and unafraid, and his father and his uncles and all the men were very welcoming. Something about [the older boy] was very standoffish, he was very untrusting, and when you look at the image you see that because he immediately puts his arms and wraps them around his shoulders in that protective mode. So when his younger brother saw him do that, all of a sudden he backs off and he does the same thing because he's taking his cue from his big brother. This little boy just got to me.
We went hunting with them and learned about who they were and got to see how they lived and within an hour this little boy warmed up to me and came to approach me himself. I didn’t force myself on him at all, from a distance I would look at him and smile and wave to him and then leave him alone and hope that he would eventually warm up to me. He finally did and came and joined us around the fire. We couldn't even really communicate with the people...our guide actually was able to speak to one of their relatives who actually spoke a dialect of Swahili. They were a really open tribe, they were fun to spend the day with. By the end of the day when we had to leave, I went up to his younger brother first - I always come down to their height level - and I asked if I could give him a hug and he let me. I could see the other brother that was standoffish sort of smile, like he didn’t want to but couldn’t help himself, so then I put my arms out to him to see if he wanted to come to me and he did and we hugged. That was pretty beautiful. That image I love, every morning when I go down to have my coffee, its hanging on my wall and is one of the first images I see and every morning I smile and look at his beautiful little face.
MP: What type of camera do you prefer?
NS: Back in the film days I was madly in love with my Hasselblad and everything about it I loved. What I use now is all Canon equipment. I'm not one of those people that are going to sit here and say, "It’s the best, it's what you have to have." You'd never ask a surgeon, "What sort of knife do you prefer?" You trust the surgeon and you trust the tools. I use all the best high quality lenses and the most up-to-date cameras that Canon offers. I've always been happy with any of the equipment I've ever had with them but again, it's my tool. I think it's funny when people start arguing about the two biggest makers and which one is better. They're all good; that’s just [how] I ended up evolving from film into digital. When you invest in very expensive lenses it's hard to change and I have no intention or desire to change.
MP: How important is editing to your process?
NS: It's very important. Part of editing I absolutely hate…is the part where I'm sitting at times at my computer for ten hours straight before I realize its dark out and I haven't even had my morning coffee [laughs]. Sitting at the computer going through thousands of images just to edit and make decisions about which ones I like and which ones I'm letting go - I don’t find anything interesting about the process.
The part of it I really enjoy is once I've made the decision, and the images I love are in a folder, is to go back and start the creative process of preparing those images. I personally never change the integrity of my images ever, I'm a little bit of purist that way - not to say that’s the only way or the right way, I know many great photographers who take bits and pieces of many images and put them together in this incredibly artistic collage. Its just not my style, it's not my message, I want to show these people for what they really are. I do basic enhancing, just to catch light in their eyes, contrast and exposures...that sort of thing.
MP: How do you feel about the phenomenon of taking photographs with cell phones? How do you think it has impacted the world of photography?
NS: I think in a positive and, maybe at times, a negative way. The world is becoming a smaller place in a sense. You’ve got that instant gratification, always having a camera in your phone, and it seems none of us ever go anywhere without that glued to us, so you're always able to take photographs. Information comes to us so much quicker, even if you look at the Arab strain...when the governments in those countries cut off the media and wouldn’t allow them in. The way we learned and found out a lot about what was going on, and still find out what's going on is through people taking pictures and video with their phones. So that, and social media, has played a huge role in how we're getting our information.
A lot of people also, in general, are just having fun with it. A lot of these newer phones take pretty incredible pictures. I don’t think you can compare it with a professional camera, or a professional taking an image compared to someone just having fun…there's a lot more to it than that. But the opportunity is there to document things more.
MP: Congratulations on winning the International Photographer of the Year award. What was your reaction when you won and how has it impacted you and your career?
NS: I'm hard on myself and if I win something, honestly…I tend to think, "Well, if I won it, it couldn’t be that hard to win." I probably don’t give myself the props that people tell me I deserve. I'm kind of shy and I don’t know why I'm shy about it. I think those sorts of awards give you recognition with your peers more than anything else. Has it gotten me these amazing jobs? Nope...I think that’s more me and what I go after and pursue, and people who know me and like my work. I think people who hire me could care less about my awards. If they like your work, that’s what's going to get you the job more than anything. I guess it's more of reaching my personal goals.
MP: Your comprehensive exhibit Face and Places is coming up soon in San Diego; what's next for you?
NS: I'm already booked [at Gallery 21 in Balboa Park, San Diego] in 2013, which is pretty exciting. They approved me for a show next year when they haven't even seen this show yet [laughs], so I'll be there again next fall. I have a few things that I'm working on, one is a personal project that I can't really talk about in great detail. [It's] one that is close to my heart and it’s a project I approached the United Nations five years ago to work on in the Middle East and they loved the idea. We were trying to work out the logistics and things got really heated there and they had to put it on hold. Recently I was approached by a Swedish documentary filmmaker who wants to work together on that project and so I think in 2013 we're going to try and make that happen. Then more travel. I want to go to Namibia and photograph the tribes there and go to New Guinea and photograph the tribes there. I'm researching Antarctica for 2014 or 2015 - that’s not wildlife, that’s more landscape - but that'll be another big trip that will hopefully be in the near future.