ABOVE: Zed Saeed
Photo Credit: Tom Fougerousse / University of Louisville
Photo Credit: Tom Fougerousse / University of Louisville
︎ Zed Saeed, Louisville
SPEAKING: Zed Saeed
with Sean Patrick Hill
Photographer Zed Saeed, currently a graduate student at the Hite Art Institute at the University of Louisville, has already made a substantial impact in the community. He has received grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project, and he was an artist-in-residence at the Louisville Free Public Library’s Collider program. Utilizing large format film photography, especially the 8x10 view camera, he is best known for his portraits of refugees and immigrants that have settled in Louisville, as well as his portraits of gentlemen’s club dancers featured in a show he curated, alongside the work of Walker Evans, at the University of Louisville. Sean Patrick Hill visited Saeed at his home to discuss his photography, his influences, and his philosophy of art.
SPH: You say in a previous interview that you grew up looking at the photo essays in Life magazine. Were there particular photo essays that attracted you?
ZS: The most memorable photo essay I ever saw was the Country Doctor by W. Eugene Smith. There was something in it that I hadn't seen before. It was an American ideal. I was born in Pakistan, so this was a new idea to me. The idea that a selfless individual like the country doctor existed somewhere in the world, and that this photographer had caught this doctor's selflessness so well in the essay, was just one of the most moving experiences I'd ever had.
SPH: When I think about the Country Doctor I think about a person who is essentially unsung. We wouldn't have known about this person unless someone did a photograph of them. This makes me think of the dancers you’ve photographed, as well as the refugees you’ve photographed. Do those feel connected to you?
ZS: Completely. I'm attracted to unsung people. I would never use the word “ordinary” because nobody is "ordinary." None of those women I photographed for my Gentlemen's Club project are ordinary. Part of what my thesis is about is the search for the vernacular, the everyday. That's an idea that runs through my work. I got that through Walker Evans's work. And Walker Evans got it through Eugene Atget's work. I'm attracted to those photographers because I identify with that idea of giving a voice to the everyday people who pass us by on the street.
SPH: Tell me more about Atget and Walker Evans, about the thread as it runs through your work.
ZS: When Pictorialism was raging across the world of photography, Eugene Atget was living in Paris. He had attended a seminary but then later worked as a sailor and even a traveling actor. He was just a regular guy trying to figure out a way to make a living and support himself. What he discovered was that there were artists, set designers, and art directors in Paris who needed images of Paris to work from. So Atget would leave his apartment with 40 pounds worth of equipment, his large format 5x7 camera, glass plates, etc., and he would go all over Paris and take photographs of places. He would do this early in the morning, so that there were no people and crowds in his shots. He'd return home, and since he did not use or own an enlarger, he would make contact prints in the sunlight. People would walk by his shop and buy one for a couple of francs, and he also started selling to the historical society. The sign on his door read "Documents for Artists." He did not think of himself as an artist. I'm not even sure he thought of himself as a photographer.
He ultimately created something like 15,000 photographs of Paris that are considered masterpieces of vernacular photography. Atget had no pretensions of art. He had no pretensions of anything. He was just trying to earn a living. So he was one of those unsung people we talked about earlier. Berenice Abbott was in Paris working as a photographic assistant for Man Ray. She discovered Eugene Atget and she was so taken by his work that she bought a whole bunch of his work when he passed away and spent the rest of her life printing and promoting it. Walker Evans first saw Atget's work in Berenice Abbott's New York studio and was deeply influenced by it.
SPH: You curated the Walker Evans show at the University of Louisville. You had an entire room reserved for Evans's shots of the tenant farmers from the book he worked on with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In what way are Walker Evans portraits an influence for you?
ZS: All you have to do is to compare Evans's photographs for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men with Bourke-White's photographs for Have You Seen Their Faces to see just how far ahead Evans was of his times. Belinda Rathbone, one of Evans's biographers, wrote that the kind of respect Evans showed for his farmer subjects was not only out of time, but beyond the imagination of any other photographers of his generation.
The way he treated the farmers was completely different. He wasn't capturing them at their weakest and most candid or unprepared moments. The use of the large format camera precludes that. I learned that while working on the portraits for Gentlemen's Clubs.
With an 8x10, you're not sneaking up on anybody. You're not catching them in their worst moment. You're giving them all the time in the world to present themselves the way they want to be presented. At a minimum, you are extending them that dignity.
SPH: Let's talk about the large format camera. You shoot with 4x5 and 8x10. What is the importance of large format photography and your choice of subjects? In what way is the large format camera really feeding the dignity?
ZS: There's a number of different things there. First, I'm a photographer who's uncomfortable with candid work–the idea of sneaking up on people in any way. Candid work has a long history. For a while in the thirties, Paul Strand did this. Walker Evans did this. Strand's famous photograph of the blind woman was done with a hidden right-angle lens. Most of Strand's portraits from Mexico were done in a similar way. Evans did a subway series where he used a hidden camera. It sounds awful now, and we can fault them today, but really, it was a thing at the time.
Putting that aside, today we have things like photojournalism that are the kind of photography that makes me uncomfortable. I'm not a photojournalist. I don't even think of myself as a documentary photographer. The term "documentary" gives me the heebie-jeebies because it has come to stand for some kind of misplaced loyalty to some higher truth. I don't have the remotest interest in presenting you “The Truth.” I just have my own to show.
The large format camera has a built-in "preventer" of candid photography. There's just no way to sneak up on someone with a giant 45-pound, Horseman studio 8x10 camera. Besides, I don't have any desire to make anyone look bad. Take the portraits I made of the women for the Gentlemen's Clubs project. These women are judged harshly by society, and there's a particular point of view that says that the people who present them, like myself, are part of the problem. I find it curious that by trying to present someone as a dignified person, I am perpetuating some problem. But if that is the burden I have to bear to make my work, then I am okay with that.
For me, the large format allows the room for me to at least give a bit of dignity to my subjects as human beings. There are no un-posed photographs with the large format camera. I get to allow people to present themselves the way they'd like to be seen.
SPH: In addition to the Gentleman’s Club pieces, you also photographed the refugees for the Collider residency. Tell me about these choices; how did you come to each group and what motivated you to do so?
ZS: The refugee project came about because I was doing 8x10 street portraits in the West End. I saw this building and all these people coming in and out. And they all looked like they were from all kinds of different ethnicities. I walked inside and found out that this was the Catholic Charities' Migration and Refugees Services, a gem of a place in our city. I met with the people running the place and they were open to me taking photographs. It worked out very well.
I'm an immigrant, but there's a world of difference between an immigrant and a refugee, and that distinction is important. An immigrant leaves their home by choice to search for a better life. A refugee is running to save their lives from persecution and a direct threat. That's an entirely different sense of displacement.
SPH: What does it mean to you to put the people you photograph into the public eye? Now the public can really see them, most recently the dancers, hanging on a gallery wall.
ZS: As a starting point, I will say that much research has shown that most people's circle of friends and contacts lacks diversity, meaning we all associate with our own kind. And when I say diversity, I don't just mean race. I mean diversity of class, gender, sexual orientation, education, etc. This is true across the board and not limited to any race or class. How many of us will come into contact with a refugee today? Not very many is my guess. The focus of my work is people who lack visibility or representation and are difficult to access due to their context.
I feel it my personal responsibility to get into these restricted spaces and bring back images. I am not naïve. Some photographers have an idea that their work will make a difference. I have never once had that feeling. If others change their mind because of my work, that's great, but that is not the reason for me to wake up early and get working each day. At the same time I know full well the modern critiques of photography and recognize the limitations that it has. However, I don't think those critiques mean we should stop trying. I make work and I will continue to do so to the best of my ability.
SPH: Let's talk about the portrait work you've done for the Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project.
ZS: I've received a few arts grants to travel around Kentucky and do work. Some of those grants were photographing refugees that have settled in Kentucky. I ended up focusing on the city of Bowling Green. What I discovered was that Bowling Green has one of the largest populations of international refugees in Kentucky, perhaps one of the largest in the United States. It's dramatic. For various reasons certain towns become the center of refugee settlement by the United Nations. There are a few refugee organizations in Bowling Green, and I met some good people helping settle refugees.
Ultimately, I did portraits of hundreds of people over two extended trips to Bowling Green. It became a timely project because of current events and the focus in the news about refugees. I was told that in many cases the refugees had to leave all of their possessions behind, including their family photographs, and that many of them wanted me to take their photographs so they could have new family photos. They loved having their portraits done, and of course I made sure to bring them back the prints.
Many refugees spend decades living in camps while their refugee application is processed through United Nations. There's an average wait of 10 years. There's numerous layers of vetting for verification of their cases and security. Believe me, this is something none of us would want to go through.
For me it was eye-opening to meet such a diverse group of people in such a short time and to hear their stories. Their stories were of course heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.
Many of these refugees are forced to leave because their ethnicities are unwanted in their own cultures, in their own countries. They had to leave because even though they were part of a country, and a culture, their ethnicity was unwanted or became so. In many cases they had lived as citizens for generations, and then suddenly they were unwanted in their own homeland, by their own neighbors and community. It must have been a terrifying experience to have your own community trying to kill you after decades of living in harmony and peace.
When I grew up in Pakistan, there were Hindus, Christians, Zoroastrians—Parsis—and all these ethnicities lived together. And I am a Muslim. My classmates were from all of these religious backgrounds. Some of my best friends growing up were Hindus, Christians, and Parsis. I ate meals in their homes after school. Look, life in any culture is not tension-free between ethnicities, but I had never seen this level of animosity, based on nothing more than religious beliefs.
In Pakistan, what Christians do to get along sometimes is to make up Muslim names for themselves. So for a while this Pakistani Christian family I photographed kept telling me their Muslim names. They were traumatized from decades of fear and hate that had been leveled at them. I didn't say anything, of course, and just went along.
It's my habit not to just take a photo and run. I made several trips to them. After a few trips, they got to know me a lot better, and then one day over tea the father said, “You know, my name is Joseph.” And it was this beautiful moment. Sitting there with this family of nine and the father going around and for the first time ever, perhaps, telling a Muslim man the Christian names of all of his family members, without any fear. They had been in America literally just a few days. I remember trying to hold back tears. I said to them, this is why I'm in America. This is why we're Americans. This is why we come here.
It was like a throwback to that Country Doctor moment I had, that we spoke of earlier. Seeing that W. Eugene Smith essay as a child and thinking, only in America can this occur. And then decades later, here I am, a Pakistani with a camera in America, with this persecuted Pakistani family, thinking, only in America can this happen. And I have some photographs to show for it, too. It doesn't get any better than that.
SPH: How do your personal experiences, as an immigrant and as an American, inform your work?
ZS: Not to even remotely compare myself to the experiences of the refugees, but certainly when I grew up, my family was from an ethnicity that when we settled in a big city, there was a feeling of not belonging or not being wanted. We spoke a different dialect and did not exactly fit in. That's how prejudice works. I remember growing around that kind of discomfort. I wasn't beaten in the streets for it or anything like that, but nevertheless when you're unwanted, you know you're unwanted. That's a really difficult feeling to grow up around. So, it wasn't like being put in jail or being "illegal" somehow, but I think in a way society has these lines that it draws for whatever reason—say these women that I photographed that work in these clubs, they fall on this side of the line, and the other people fall on this other side of the line. It's what attracts me to the people on the other side of that line. There are people who would rather I not photograph these women. They'd rather believe the world is like it says in the books of theory. But to me, not photographing them violates the very idea of America.
I've always called my photography a search for America. Please don't hear this or understand this in the context of this nationalist moment we are having in our culture. I'm talking about the original idea of America that has been a little hazy recently and gotten lost for the moment, but it has always been around, and it will always be around.
My father was born and grew up in this tiny little village in Pakistan. He went to a college in the city of Lahore, a place called Forman Christian College, an independent liberal arts college founded in 1864 by an American Presbyterian missionary, Dr. Charles William Forman, who was from, of all the places in the world, Washington, Kentucky. Forman changed my father's life with an American-style education.
To my father, the American Dream was never ever about making money and owning a house and buying a car, even though there's nothing wrong with that, if that's your idea. His idea of American Dream was the idea of self-actualization.
I think that is why I react sometimes in this culture when even the most well-meaning people will try to thwart you by telling you that you are doing something that is against a certain fashion or is violating a certain value. I'm only concerned about treating people with dignity, and if I'm not doing that, I know to stop.
I love this country. I love the people of this country. I know fully well what's going on. I'm a Pakistani Muslim. For some, the current political climate is merely offensive to their precious values. For me, it's literally a matter of life and death. But to me, whatever is going on does not take away from the original idea of America.
SPH: Considering all this, what are your aspirations as an artist?
ZS: I'm deeply influenced by the Modernists and their ideas of straight photography, despite them being very unpopular in our present postmodernist moment.
With my work, I'm focused on what is American about America. I'm fascinated with that question. This is not new. Every generation of artists has had to look at that. But I love that question, and every age has a different answer. Walker Evans had his own answer to that question. But so did Robert Frank–they were not fools. They knew what was wrong with this country. Evans constantly photographed African-American neighborhoods for the Farm Security Administration, which were horrible slums. How can he not be aware of what was wrong? At the same time, look at his work and see how he celebrates the beauty of the made America. Edward Hopper was keenly aware of the way Americans lived and worked obsessively for the almighty dollar. No one captures the loneliness of American life as well as Hopper. Both Evans and Hopper were critical of their country. And yet, they had a deep regard and love for it. They both criticized but also celebrated America. That is my goal with my work.
Sean Patrick Hill
Contributor for Ruckus
Photography by Zed Saeed
Photography by Zed Saeed
Photography by Zed Saeed
Photography by Zed Saeed