Q&A with photojournalist Ed Kashi: ‘Through social media, we can be our own publishers’

Ed Kashi talks Instagram and the changing fortunes of photography.

Photojournalist Ed Kashi with his camera during Friday prayers at the Sultan Bayezid mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. Courtesy Ed Kashi / VII
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Ed Kashi doesn’t just want to take a good photo – he wants that photo to shape people’s opinions and, little by little, maybe help to change the world.

From the war in Iraq to the Niger Delta, large parts of Kashi’s 35-year career have been spent shining a spotlight on humans in need.

A longtime contributor to National Geographic, he has published acclaimed, socially conscious books including When the Borders Bleed: Struggle of the Kurds (with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens) Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta, and Aging in America: The Years Ahead.

Kashi, 58, is also the president of the cooperative photo agency VII, whose exhibition Smile – documenting subjects in the midst of that great photographic taboo, smiling – opens at Gulf Photo Plus on Thursday, February 4.

The following day, he will host two talks at the inspirational Photo Friday. He spoke to us from India during a four-week shoot that is part of an ongoing project documenting a ­kidney-disease epidemic.

“It’s hard work, even at the best of times,” he says.

Your first talk is titled From the Personal to the Global: New Frontiers of Visual Storytelling. What are the “new frontiers”?

I don’t know – they’ve changed since we started this conversation. I look at it like this: when I began, 35 years ago, the dreams [were to be] a photographer or photojournalist.

Then I look at where we’re at today. It’s just incredible, the opportunities we have, the tools we have and the channels of communication – we’re publishers now. But the question is still the same: How do we use the language of photography to be effective storytellers?

With all that technological change, has something been lost?

I try not to look at what’s been lost because I would start crying hysterically.

I don’t lament the loss of film. I love digital – it’s not only more efficient but I have so much more power. There’s so much more to the language; more that I can do.

But we’ve lost a certain amount of care and rumination, space to think about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. I feel we’re all more than ever hamsters on a wheel – no matter what level of success or however well one might be doing, you’re just a different level of hamster.

And what have we have gained?

What we have gained through social media – and Instagram, for me, is the crown jewel of it – is that we can be our own publishers. There’s nothing now in between me and an audience – and that’s very exciting. I know I’m not going to change the world through those channels but I can definitely change people.

The other thing mobile photography has shown is the universal language – the power of the image and ability of people all over the world, from every religion and race, that can communicate on this platform through imagery.

Is it not worrying to have all the information, and ultimately power, in a single online place?

It is concerning, but then so is the way our whole world is going with information. I certainly don’t see myself as a lemming, it just seems to be that this is lingua franca [a common language] of the moment – this is where things are at and I want to be in that game – that sphere.

Is it potentially filled with potholes, or something evil? I don’t know – certainly potholes, there could be some ugly turnouts from this. But I also don’t know how the genie can be put back in the bottle.

It’s like our financial industry. Yes, it could all go away tomorrow but if it does, we’re all in the same boat, right?

Your second talk is titled The Magical World of Mobile Photography.

Is that really how it’s titled? I’ll have to wear my wizard’s outfit. I think I regret that title now ...

Can a picture taken on a smartphone have the same worth as a “proper”, professionally shot image?

These lines are blurring. I’m more and more hesitant to distinguish. Look at it this way: photography is the stepchild of the industrial revolution, part of man’s technological advance forward. So isn’t it only fitting, and almost poetic and perfect, that as we move into the digital age, photography would move into the digital age? And even more so, the digital sensor is closer to [how] our eyes and brains [work than film] – think about that.

As a photographer, how do you see Dubai?

It’s ultra-modern and, in some ways, kind of cold. Dubai ­epitomises, in the most modern sense, what that region of the world has always been – which is a place where people come to trade and transfer to one place or another. And instead of doing it on camels and caravans , now it’s on the most ultra-modern level.

Ed Kashi is at Dubai Knowledge Village on Friday, February 5. Tickets for his talks are sold out. Other speakers include Peter Hurley, RC Concepcion and Elia Locardi. From 9.30am to 5.30pm; four sessions, Dh55 each – buy three and get the fourth free. Visit www.gulfphotoplus.com