Malin Fezehai, Photographer & Visual journalist
Interview, 4 June 2014
Brave, talented and with a penchant for the underdog. Swedish/Eritrean photographer Malin Fezehai was never one for observing events at a distance. Her curiosity and ability to inspire confidence has enabled her to work all over the world, often in places suffering from extreme hardship.
Malin Fezehai enjoys a good challenge. But her work has to include meaning, both to herself and her subjects, and it is exactly this prerequisite that has enabled employers like TIME Magazine, NIKE and The New Yorker to feature her work. Being a citizen of the world has taught her many lessons – yet she is far from done exploring it.
When did you first know that you wanted to become a photographer?
– I attended a photo course in high school and noticed that I got really nice grades without putting too much effort into it. I have dyslexia and school was challenging, but photography came naturally to me and I thought: “this might be something for me”. So I started taking lots of photos of my friends and was doing it basically all the time from then on. Eventually my mom told me about ICP (International Center of Photography) in New York and how she thought it sounded like a good fit for me. I applied and was accepted at the age of 19.
“The blend between people that move here and the native New Yorkers is what makes this city special.”
After graduating and traveling for a while you decided to settle in Brooklyn, New York where you now live and work. What’s the main allure of New York City and how does it inspire you?
– For me it’s the culture capital of the world. There are probably no other cities that accumulate the same mix of people gathered in one major city. Of course there are other places that have a very vibrant air as well but the sheer diversity of people here is what fascinates me and the blend between people that move here and the native New Yorkers is what makes it so special.
Your photography displays a lot of strength and can be very thought-provoking at times, has your work always been about conveying a certain mood and telling a story?
– Yes, it has, but I also try portraying a certain beauty in something rather than just showing it literally. To make it something more than just what meets the eye. It can be tricky combining the two and it’s something I strive towards finding the balance in with every project I work on.
How do you approach your subjects and what is the key to gaining their trust?
– I don’t know really (laughs). I guess I noticed during my last project that I have a way of getting them to approach me instead of the other way around. I am sort of a shy person to begin with.
When you are somewhere working and you’re a girl looking a little odd walking around with a camera – people start noticing you and are eventually wondering what you’re up to. So for the most part I have to say that my “subjects” invite me to take part in their world.
Where were you on your last project?
– I was in Israel and it was one of the harder projects I ever worked on because I was doing a story about African refugees that are being sent to a detention center in the desert. I saw how other photographers were very aggressive with them and of course they were very annoyed by it. I was walking around outside the facility with my camera, until I was approached by the detainees themselves who were wondering what I was doing there and who I was and so on. That was one of those times where I didn’t force it and they invited me in the end.
“The thing about traveling and exploring the world is that things like exoticism and places that seem far away start fading and everything starts blending together.”
I’ve read that you spend up to two months in the places you work in. How important is it to familiarize yourself with the surroundings you are doing a project in?
– To me it’s quite important I must say, because I dislike what I like to call “helicopter-shoots”, where you distance yourself and don’t have time to get a deeper understanding of the story. I really like getting a genuine feel for the places I work in so I always spend the first couple of days just walking around and getting to know the area really well before I take out my camera. It’s easier to shoot if I feel somewhat at home, and I need at least a month to get that every-day feel, if you know what I mean.
Which one of your past projects touched you the most?
– Many, but particularly the one I did in Sri Lanka when I was 22 years old. That was the first time I had ever been in a war zone and I met some really amazing people there and some of the strongest women I’ve ever encountered in my life. It was one of the most difficult trips I have ever made yet it made me grow tremendously as a person. But also the project I did in Israel where I followed the African refugees, that had a very strong impact on me.
What are the most significant lessons you have learned during the years of traveling and working around the world?
– Realizing how little we actually know about the world and how much more there is to learn. That is something I keep learning over and over wherever I go. Also that people have the same wants and dreams. Basically just to be able to support themselves, have freedom and a desire to be in control of their own circumstances.
– Another lesson is learning how people think and reason all over the planet. That is something I never stop being fascinated by and learn from. What is normal for one person can be completely unthinkable for another. The thing about traveling and exploring the world is that things like exoticism and places that seem far away start fading and everything starts blending together. Although traveling was never anything strange to me because I grew up in very multi-cultural area of Stockholm so I learned about the world through my friends from early on.
“When you are somewhere working and you’re a girl looking a little odd walking around with a camera – people start noticing you”
So what does the future hold for you?
– I want to work more commercially and I will also start working a little with cinematography. Sometimes I feel that shooting still pictures limits the ability to tell a story and I would like to explore beyond that genre a little bit. Other than that I have a few projects lined up, among them going back to Israel. I want to continue being productive and keep doing good work that I can be proud of.
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