Photographer Yousuf Zafar

Photojournalism is a field that I admire greatly. It takes a certain type of individual to capture a moment in such a way that can move people to action. A single image can be just as powerful as a collective body. I admire the individuals that can constantly work in this way, because it takes the ability to step away. It takes the ability to be invisible. It takes the ability to generally appreciate the world around you in it’s most vulnerable state.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Photographer Yousuf Zafar about his work. Every image of Zafar’s stands on it’s own. He embodies every photographer before him who shoots in this simialr fashion. That appreciation for the environment that he photographs in is obvious. He is a stranger, and he is a welcomed guest.

In a statement regarding his series Congregation, Yousuf Zafar states, “My work is influenced by the human perspective. My aim is to begin with an event that occurs on a grand scale and personalize it, to find the instant in a crowd that reflects the grand scale around it. This work tells a story with intimate images of a place and event not typically seen by non-Muslims. Islam is not religion practiced in isolation. Muslims pray, fast, and celebrate together. This collection tells the story of how millions of Muslims congregate for one of the world’s largest gatherings, the Hajj.”

I was recently on your website and saw that you describe your work as, “documentary photography – leans towards a photojournalist style”. To you what seems to be the biggest difference in documentary photography and photojournalism? Sometimes I tend to view them as one in the same.

The two might very well be one in the same, but I suppose I see a couple subtle distinctions. First, unlike a photojournalist, I think of a documentary photographer as someone who thoroughly interacts with their subjects. Documentary photography can really delve into the lives of its subject. Second, a documentary photographer might spend a longer period photographing their subject than a photojournalist, who might only be there to capture a fleeting event. Some of the best documentary photography work I’ve seen involved the photographer spending months or even years with their subjects. Or, maybe I just need to be more precise in how I describe my work!

Do you have any formal training in photography, or is it something that you just picked up one day?

I don’t, but I should get some formal training. I’m sure it would do me some good. I’ve read a little about the formalities of composition, and love skimming through online galleries to hone my likes and dislikes in subject matter and style. Especially for my style of photography, the New York Times Lens blog is one of my go-to resources for learning how it’s done. Portfolio reviews are also incredibly helpful. I’ve learned more in one day of portfolio reviews than in years of trial and error on my own.

Out of all the places you have been to – do you have a favorite?

I’ve been fortunate to visit a lot of places around the world, and as trite as it sounds, each has its own special character. I just visited Myanmar two months ago and would highly recommend it as a destination. The country just recently opened its borders to large-scale tourism, so it still isn’t as touristy as some other Southeast Asian countries but clearly will be in a few years. Despite decades of living in a closed country, the Burmese are amazingly open and willing to discuss their rapidly changing lives. They are also incredibly comfortable in front of a camera. I can’t remember anyone turning down my request to photograph them. More often than not, my subjects would invite me in closer. I wandered past an older couple’s home—a hut, really, with a dirt floor. Inside they were roasting tofu cracker disks. The woman invited me to sit on the floor next to her and sample crackers right out of the fire, in between shots. It’s a fascinating time to visit Myanmar.

So, I found out that you are a doctor? Is that right?

You discovered my day job! Yes, I’m a medical oncologist and researcher. I treat patients with gastrointestinal cancers, and my research focus is on how to make cancer care more affordable.

What made you want to become a doctor?

I was drawn to medicine—and to treating patients with cancer—because of the unique relationships I get to form with my patients and the rapidly evolving science of oncology. My research focus—cost of care—is particularly important to the experience of today’s cancer patient. Chris, a patient of mine diagnosed with colorectal cancer in his forties, had health insurance but still racked up thousands of dollars of medical bills in the first 5 weeks of his treatment. His experience was one of the first that formulated my interest in how to shape healthcare policy to make cancer care more affordable for Americans. Chris eventually moved out of state to be closer to family, but I talked to Chris a couple weeks before he passed away. He mentioned how much it meant to him to know that his story was an important part of my ongoing work, that his story will hopefully contribute to the greater good. It’s a challenging field, for sure, but it’s also incredibly rewarding to be there for a patient and their family in their time of greatest need.

Sometimes I find that a person’s occupation affects how they see the world. Do you think that as a doctor you view the world differently? In doing so – do you believe it has any effect on how you photograph?

I absolutely think my career has shaped my photography. By its very nature, the practice of oncology necessitates a close, personal relationship between the patient and doctor. I seek out that same intimate feel in my photography. Robert Capa’s philosophy (“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”) is key to my work, where emotional proximity, or empathy, is just as important as physical proximity.  

What type of camera do you use?

I started out with a Nikon FM2 film camera. It’s a beautiful camera built like a tank, but while I appreciate photographers who stay true to their analog roots, I can’t find the time or resources to develop my own film. My first DSLR was a Nikon D40, and I currently use a Nikon D7000.

Do you take any other equipment with you when you shoot?

I might carry a short focus lens around with me, but I rarely use it. I love my 55-200mm VR lens (VR because I hate carrying a tripod!) and stick with it for almost all my shots. While I’m a technophile in all other aspects of my life, I’ve never felt the need to load up on a lot of photography equipment. A solid camera, RAW images, and Lightroom is the perfect setup for me.

Do you consider photography a “hobby”, or is it more than that for you?

It’s definitely more than a hobby. My family might go so far as to call it an obsession. I’m regularly asked jokingly by friends and family, “So, when are you giving up oncology for photography?” I’m not sure I will, but photography is becoming a larger part of my life, and I welcome that growth.

Is exhibiting your work important to you? If so, why?   

I never thought exhibiting would be part of my photography life. Until last year, I shot only for myself, but on a whim, I applied for a juried exhibition at a gallery in Durham and was selected for my first solo show. Since then, I’ve shown my work around town in other galleries and am excited to have another show later this year. Exhibitions are a fantastic opportunity not just to show my work but also to provide people a window into the lives of others. One of my favorite sets is the one I completed during Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. I started showing this work publicly last year with some trepidation, but I was amazed at the reception this work received. The photographs spurred wonderful conversations with strangers about my experiences during the Hajj and my experiences as a Muslim in America today.

Beyond physical exhibitions, exhibiting online is very important to me as a way to reach a global audience. I’m active on my facebook page (facebook.com/yousufzafarphotography) and on Instagram (@fotoamazonas). Exhibiting online is, in my mind, equally important as exhibiting in real life, but it requires a completely different skillset. It’s a way to build a sense of community.

I have a career outside of the arts, and it can be very difficult to find time to photograph. How often do you get that opportunity to photograph?

I don’t photograph nearly as much as I want—I’m sure you feel the same. But it feels like a daily struggle. Without a doubt, in the past year I’ve spent time on photography at the expense of my day job. Since I usually photograph while traveling, I plan many months or even a year in advance to make sure I know what and where I want to photograph in a particular location. My greatest challenge is photographing my usual surroundings. I do my best work when I’m traveling, but this year, I want to challenge myself to photograph in and around my own town.

When people view your photographs – what is it that you hope they get out of the images?

This is a great question, especially considering our current political environment. Travel is the best form of education, and I firmly believe that much of the prejudice and fear of “others” we see in this country has to do with the insular nature of most of our lives. Only 10% of Americans traveled overseas in 2015, and two-thirds of Americans don’t have a valid passport. Our geographic isolation, lack of a gap year, limited vacation time, and expense of travel contribute to these statistics. But I wonder how much fear also contributes to our lack of international travel.

I hope by providing a glimpse into the lives of others, my photographs can underscore our similarities. We pray, we eat, we work. Yet despite our many cultural connections, our eyes often gravitate to differences. My work highlights cross-cultural parallels and challenges the notion that cultural identity is unique.

Interview by Sonseree´Verdise Gibson

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