Mozzified’s Brett Murphy had the opportunity to interview Abdul Halik Azeez, one of Sri Lanka’s most popular Instagram photographers. Halik lives in Colombo and currently works as a consultant for both the corporate and development sectors, and is also an independent researcher and citizen journalist.
It looks like you’ve been all over. And you’ve definitely seen a lot of Sri Lanka. What’s your favorite place/setting to shoot? I love expansive, grandiose landscapes, be it in urban settings or natural. And I also love street scenes and crumbling, old neighborhoods. I love shooting anywhere where I feel a sense of authenticity and honesty; spaces with heritage and history, or with a story to tell. For this reason I usually tend to shy away from plasticky, kitschy, or ultramodern spaces. I find, like many others that the best times to shoot are the morning and afternoon hours, when the sunlight has that magical golden hue.
Good morning #puddlegram A photo posted by @colombedouin on
A lot of your stuff could be described as minimalist. Do you agree? What is it about visually clean, uncluttered compositions that makes for good shots?
Well I wouldn’t consider myself a strict minimalist. But I do focus on trying to tell a story with each photo I take. And this means being conscious about composition and the elements present in the picture, and how they inter-relate. I also try to remove things that don’t contribute and end up creating noise. Perhaps this is why there is this thread of minimalism in my photos because I try to focus on the story and most of the time I try to tell it in the simplest and the most visually inpactful manner possible. The narrative accompanying the photo is just as important as it complements and augments the visual. So most of the time what I do is multimodal, incorporating text and image into one story.
How do you approach subjects on the street and ask them to let you shoot them?
I only take pictures of people that strike me as being very interesting. And mostly I want to catch them naturally, so sometimes I just shoot first and ask questions later. But this depends on the person and the situation, and a lot of times I don’t mind them posing for the shot so I ask them if I can take their picture, and they usually oblige. Some are very willing and excited. Some refuse also. It’s mostly a matter of body language, approach and being respectful. I find that it is important to be comfortable with the person you want to take a picture of, so that they in turn, feel comfortable with you.
An officer of the Sri Lanka Police, sitting at a table marked ‘Grade 8A’. #Srilanka #Police #Matara A photo posted by @colombedouin on
Black and white or color? Obviously depends on the composition and what you’re trying to do, but do you have a favorite?
I usually use whatever I think is best for the picture I’m taking; to say what I want it to say. Some photos gain a lot when color is removed and some don’t. But I do find black and white challenging because of the limitation it imposes. I think it is highly underappreciated among popular users of Instagram and everywhere else. But being a fan of gritty, stark compositions I would say that yes my fascination with black and white is greater.
You also like infrastructure—I see a lot of trains, ports, etc. What is it about big moving things that make for good photographs?
I like symmetry, and I find architecture and buildings offer up a lot of this. Architectural patterns, shadows and lightplay created by structures also provide great backdrops for photographs. Also I like street photography, and buildings are a big part of it. A big fascination I have with them relates to my interest in history and decay. Buildings, especially old ones, tell stories and have ‘presence’. I love trying to capture them through my photos.
What I am is an emissary of my soul. A photo posted by @colombedouin on
Some people have commented that you see the world in a special way. What can you say about your process and approach? How do you try to see the world?
My worldview is very influenced by my religious and spiritual beliefs. And my Instagram is both a window into that worldview and also a means for me to explore it. I suppose it is some kind of way to document this journey of conscious soul searching that I believe is the lot of a Muslim. I like to play on ideas like how fleeting existence is, how easy it is to get caught up in the world and lose track of reality and how beautiful and significant creation is. Said Nursi speaks of ‘three Qur’ans’; the revealed book, the ‘Qur’an’ of human civilization and the ‘Qur’an’ of natural creation. The Qur’an itself constantly exhorts its readers to learn from the signs in creation. I like to think that my Instagram, in its own way, is exploring these other two Qur’ans.
Abdul Jabbar is a sufi from Kalmunai, now in near permanent residence at Jailani for over three decades. There are others like him, brought away from their homes to medidate here, lured by its spiritual draw. Medidation isn’t a formalized ritual in Islam, but rather I think, a constant state of awareness. The Turkish scholar Said Nursi speaks of there being not one qur’an, but three; the revealed words of God we know by the name ‘Qur’an’ is one, but he also points to the ‘qur’an of nature’ and the ‘qur’an of human civilization’. The Qur’an itself calls on its readers to first reflect and understand creation, asserting that this is what will lead them in the end to knowing God. As a person who pretty much left the folds of islam before finding my way back, I can attest to the truth of this. Hardcore sufis like Abdul Jabbar though, take pride in rigorously practiced meditation. He studied under his guru, also his father, until he mastered the discipline. And tells me that if i’m keen, I’ll need to find a guru as well. Abdul Jabbar doesn’t pray five times a day, claiming his path to be above and beyond such things. On the flipside there are ultra-ritualistic Muslims who will pay immaculate attention to practice but place little significance in spiritual gnosis. I prefer to be somewhere in the middle. We will show them Our signs in the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth (Surah Fussilat 41:53)
For many of your shots, and their captions, you’re telling a story. Is that what you’re always trying to do? Or sometimes is it as simple as: “This looks cool, people should see this?”
Sometimes I am actively trying tell a story, be it from a photojournalistic, spiritual or some other perspective. Sometimes I know the story I want to tell and wait until I get the best picture to tell it with. Othertimes I don’t know there’s a story until I take a picture first. And yes, other times its just because something looks cool. But ultimately I think every picture tells a story. Even if it is a very simple one. And I usually only put up pictures which I think have some form of narrative significance.
Before you get mad, this is what the BBS wants to do to the #srilanka flag. March 2 was the 200th anniversary of the country’s full abdication to the British. On the morning of March 2 1815, before the agreement was signed, a British soldier took down the flag at the Temple of the Tooth, (supposed to have been the so called ‘Sinhale’ flag with only the lion in current flag displayed on it) and hoisted the Union Jack. This incensed Wariyapola Sumangala Thero, who promptly took down the Union Jack and re-hoisted the lion flag claiming that it was still the flag of the country until the agreement was signed. The ultranationalist Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) walked into the Temple of the Tooth on March 2 2015 and tried to pull down the Sri Lankan flag hanging there, at the very place that Sumangala Thero did it 200 years ago, in an attempt to replace it with the ‘Sinhale’ flag. They also want the country’s name changed to ‘Sinhale’. The BBS doesn’t want minorities to be represented on the flag, and want the two strips on the side to be removed and chucked away. The BBS is simply making a play for attention. But the BBS are still extremists who shouldn’t be allowed to run loose like this. While their power is largely diminished, none of the crimes they committed have been accounted for. The new regime of #My3 has done little to bring justice to all those hurt by it’s hate crimes. Instead we have seen its CEO, Dilantha Withanage, actually appointed as a Director Board Member of a leading state educational institution. As a person who was a staunch supporter of #My3 i am frankly disappointed by this nonsense. Politicians continue to politicize, rumors of corruption are already spreading, as are those of nepotism. And promised reforms towards better governance are yet to materialize. Still, better than having the Rajapaksas in power by miles. More on my series on religions violence in post war Sri Lanka. Link on profile.
A photo posted by @colombedouin on
I’ve seen the phrase “citizen journalist” in some of your descriptions. And some of your work definitely explores some themes of socio-economic rifts. How do you define yourself? Journalist? Activist? Artist?
That’s a tough question, and something I encounter often. We’re used to defining people either by their profession or the entity that they work for. This is something I like to reject. If there’s any identity that I ascribe to, it’s ‘Muslim’. There are other identities that form who I am also, like ‘Sri Lankan’ etc. But I’m careful with assigning labels to myself or others because we all interpret what they mean in our own way. In terms of what I do, I think there’s a bit of everything you mentioned mixed in there.
Man Pulling Man. A friend once refused to take a rickshaw because he didn’t like the idea of ‘man pulling man’. He was subsequently convinced otherwise by the argument of the rickshaw driver himself; how else would he feed his kids? Rickshaw pulling is a profession just like any other, often being passed down through generations, and it is the only thing most of them know how to do. But just like shining shoes, rickshaw pulling (now moving to the more accepted form of motorized tuktuks, still known as rickshaws in India) is a profession that reminds the rich just a little too uncomfortably of their privilege. As capitalism, along with slavery, adopts a more genteel facade, it must be discreetly hidden away to preserve the illusion of egalitarianism we like to trick ourselves with in order to sleep better at night. #vscocam