Anahita Avalos was born in Tehran, and has lived in Mexico and Paris. In Mexico she began to take pictures on a regular basis in order to explore her own identity as a Middle Eastern woman who grew up in Europe and mom to a child with a rare condition. By observing and trying to understand strangers, she tries to discover herself.
Dear Anahita, a great pleasure to have you on the blog. Can you start off by sharing some of your personal background? Where are you from– and how did you discover photography?
I was born in Iran and my family moved to Paris in 1978. I was then 11 and never went back to Iran. I started to take pictures around age 20 after a workshop on how initiate kids to photography . After the workshop I got myself a camera and enrolled on a photography and darkroom course.
From the beginning I was interested in taking pictures of what happened in the street. I was familiar with the work of Brassaï, Robert Doisneau, Izis and had seen some pictures by Henri Cartier Bresson– and I wanted to do something similar. I also admired and still admire Jacques Henri-Lartigue. I loved how all his life he was constant in taking pictures of his family and friends and their everyday life.
Can you tell us more about your son Ulysses? I read he has a rare genetic disorder called Costello Syndrome. You are often out with him — when you shoot on the streets. It seems that many of your photos revolve around him being the main character of your work.
Thanks for your interest in my son. You’re right– most of my photographs are taken when I am out in the streets or at home with him. Ulysses has Costello syndrome which is a very rare genetic condition. He needs constant care and attention– that’s why I decided to stop working and take care of him full time. He is 12 but developmentally a lot behind his age. Although he hardly speaks, I am happy to see he’s able to communicate and very interested in the world around him. Some of my pictures were taken thanks to him as he noticed something and called me. Too often we don’t pay attention to things that kids notice because they’re new to life. I’m lucky to have such a guide.
I often photograph my son as I think that it’s important to give visibility to him. To show that like everybody else he can be beautiful, happy, mischievous, funny and not only strange looking, fragile and miserable (as often people assume that those who have a disability).
I know these pictures of my son living just an ordinary life usually surprise people and make them reconsider their vision of a disability. I hope I ‘ll be able to achieve an old project– a series about everyday life of kids who have disabilities. I want to show how their life is close to the life of everyone else. I am a strong believer in an inclusive society where there is room for everyone, where there is no segregation– which unfortunately is not the case in France (at least as long as it concerns disabilities).
I first discovered you and your work through Nick Turpin– when he featured your work in Villahermosa. Can you share your experiences shooting there?
Villahermosa is a big town in south-east Mexico. It’s not a touristy place, so it kept its authenticity– its real Mexican soul and aspect. When I first arrived there, it was like a trip to the past. It reminded me a lot of my life as a child in the 70’s in Tehran.
I needed to take pictures and I started to take lots of pictures of everything and everyone around me on a daily basis. Unfortunately taking pictures in the streets seemed very suspicious to people as I don’t look like a tourist. People couldn’t understand why I was so interested in shooting them — for example when they were eating a mango while waiting for the bus or when they were buying their chicken at the local market.
I was often asked not to take pictures. Sometimes people would hide or get very angry– certainly because security is lacking in Mexico and people are always afraid something very bad could happen to them. Anyways, it didn’t prevent me from taking pictures in the streets of Villahermosa.
It seems you currently live in Paris– how do you find shooting there to differ from Villahermosa? Has living in a new place changed your shooting style?
Yes here in France people are used to see cameras but they think that you’re not allowed to take their pictures. There’s something everyone is aware of which is called “droit à l’image” (right of image), so they think they have the right to prevent you from taking their picture without asking them first.
This right doesn’t really exist. What exists is a right to privacy, the article n°9. The rest is matter of interpretation–and people feel entitled to not let you take their picture. Especially now that there’s the fear of seeing their photos on the internet.
Even during public events like Chinese New Year’s or demonstrations in the street– people would prevent you from taking pictures. I’ve been taking a lot less pictures since living in Paris. Most of my photos here usually include my son or were taken in very touristy places or during exceptional events when everyone else are taking pictures.
Even taking pictures in museums is forbidden most of the time. Last year in Paris there was a Joel Meyerowitz exhibition that you couldn’t take photos inside. The Brassaï exhibition does not allow photography either. This is quite ironic as these photographers have taken pictures in the streets of Paris.
Looking through your work on Flickr– you have a big variety of photos you decide to share. Many of them revolve around your son, some of them are what I might consider more traditional candid “street photography”–while others focus around landscapes and interior shots. How do you decide on what to photograph– and what to share online?
I am a lot less active on Flickr and currently only share what I think are my best pictures.
Flickr used to be a window to my life. I I’m interested in both the intimate and the public. So I’m constantly doing this round trip from myself to strangers.
I took photos all of the time– and shared regularly what I thought was interesting and most representative of my life. It could be something that happened at home or street photography.
Nearly all my pictures are candid as I take pictures of what is happening in front of me at home or outside. I just do the same thing really noticing and recording what interests me.
Can you share how the Flickr community has helped you? Also, do you know many photographers or meet them in-person as well?
I used to be active on Flickr as I was very isolated when I lived in Mexico and needed to share and communicate with people interested in pictures. I was lucky to get very quickly lots of attention and interest from different people around the world. This was a big amount of energy that I used to improve my skills. Also, I had no idea what I did could interest so many people so it gave me confidence to continue. I also was able to meet photographers interested in my street photography work and willing to give it more exposure.
That’s how I got to know Nils Jorgensen who interviewed me for “Too Much Chocolate” — I was so surprised that such a great photographer like him was interested in my pictures. At first I thought I would have nothing interesting to say and that he would choose somebody else. Instead, he was very encouraging and introduced me to great photographers like David Gibson and Nick Turpin.
Thanks to the exposure Nick Turpin (I have one picture in publication) gave to my work I got to know many photographers from all around the world and who are interested in street photography. I also took part in 2011 along with 4 other female photographers to an exhibition in London which was part of the street photography festival ‘On Street Photography: A Woman’s Perspective’. I had also pictures in the collective exhibition from distant streets curated by the great american street photographer Richard Bram who has often encouraged me.
I haven’t met many photographers in-person but to me discovering the pictures made by someone like Justin Sainsbury who walks in the streets of his town everyday in search of pictures or those of Kay Von Aspern in Austria who shares his vision of the place he lives in is like meeting them regularly and communicating with them.
Why do you photograph? What drives you to take photographs? How much of it is for yourself– versus for others?
I need to photograph a lot more than I need to do other things like doing sports or socializing or reading. I don’t know– maybe I ‘m genetically predisposed to see life through photography. Also I agree with Diane Arbus when she says: “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.”
I mostly take pictures for myself, but if some of my pictures can have another function too– like showing what people wouldn’t notice, or giving exposure to things that are important to me, I’m even more satisfied.
Can you share the story of one of the most memorable photographs you have taken– and share why it is special to you?
This is maybe not such an extraordinary picture, but it is the one that really spoke to me at the time I took it. It is a photo of my in front of our house in Villahermosa,Mexico.
Around the time I took the photo, a little girl we knew and who had the same genetic condition as my son (costello syndrome) had just died. It was the first time I was faced with the death of a child I knew and in so many ways my son looked so much like her. I had to deal with so many feelings. I felt so overwhelmed and I sort of had to take this picture.
I uploaded the picture on flickr and it got very popular. I was not used to get so many views and faves on my pictures– I couldn’t believe such an ordinary picture could interest people I didn’t even know.
I guess I was successful in speaking a language many people could understand. Did they understand exactely my sadness, my fears, worries and hopes? I don’t think so, but they got a general view of my personal world which they could relay to. It encouraged me in staying very personal and not fear sharing more intimate pictures. And well finally it’s when you get the most personal that you get closer to each person who look at your picture and are able to touch them.
Who are some other street photographers online you follow and admire? And how have they influenced or inspired your work?
I first followed and pay a lot of attention to the work of many photographers online who did all sort of photography, it helped me to refine my vision,my use of color and light.
I discovered many talented photographers such as Mark Powell, Maciej Dakowicz, David Solomons– and I discovered what I did could be called street photography and that it was different from documental photo. This sort of made me feel better as I never had a documental purpose when taking pictures in the streets.
I still follow them as well as these other talented photographers:
I follow also follow young Mexican street photographers like the extremely talented:
They do a very difficult and exciting work, taking pictures of everyday life mostly in Mexico city.
I wish I could have met them when I was living in Mexico and took photos with them in Villahermosa. I felt rather lonely while living there as I couldn’t find any photographer taking pictures in the streets. The group I did meet were the Tabasco Flickr group — which was 99% full of nature and girl photography, and people who only talked about gear.
Anything else you would like to mention– or certain people you would like to say hello to?
Just a quote from a Latin-American street photography site: “nos llamen calle“(We’re called Street):
Viva la calle, Pero sin muros
Cinco letras que al juntarse forman una palabra; que por si sola denota conflicto, irreverencia, muerte, sueños, anhelos, complejos, control, miedo, alegría, desigualdad, y muchas cosas más.
Cinco continentes, millares de calles, diversidad inmensa de rostros y vivencias; recorrerlas es recorrernos y de esta forma conocernos, vernos cada vez más en aquellos desconocidos que ríen y lloran como nosotros. No estamos solos. Las calles nos hablan a gritos, poder llegar a entenderla es de nosotros.
Hurrah for the street, but with no walls
Six letters together to form a word that denotes conflict, profanity, death, dreams, desires, complex, control, fear, happiness, inequality, and more.
All the continents, thousands of streets, vast diversity of faces and experiences; roam around is travel all around us and thus know ourselves, to see ourselves increasingly in those strangers who, like us, laugh and cry. We are not alone. The streets speak loudly to us, to get to understand them it is up to us….