“Photograph me as I am, or don’t look at me at all,” says Arab American photographer Tamara Hijazi, defining how she captures and likes to be captured in photos. At a very young age, migration to the Middle East kickstarted her love for photography. She tells us why photos help preserve fond moments we look back on later and how the pandemic rekindled her connection with cameras.
It goes without saying; the Covid-19 pandemic changed a lot of our habits and lifestyles. To a great degree, it made us reassess how we indulge in our passions. I would have loved to document the city’s emptiness during the first lockdown, but that wasn’t to be. Being limited to going out only for groceries and pharmaceuticals meant I wasn’t able to document the initial events with my camera. Even being a photojournalist at that time came with restrictions. But the freedom of movement after those brief few weeks was like a breath of fresh air. (Not that I didn’t keep myself busy while I was indoors, but my camera was itching to snap away outside.) Trips to the countryside flowed once life gradually returned to normal. I began to see streets and towns with renewed vigor. There’s a saying where I come from, which roughly translates to, “We only realize the value of our sight after we go blind.” And emerging from this lockdown period certainly helped me see life differently, both with and without a camera. Tamara too, during the lockdown, understood just how many things humans took for granted. Photographing the little but essential things in life brought her much happiness after that.
The Essential Photo Gear Used by Tamara Hijazi
Tamara told us:
- Canon EOS R
- Canon 80D
- Sigma 35 mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART
- Canon 50mm f/1.4
- Disposable Kodak film camera
- Canon EOS G
- Canon AE-1
I’ve always used my Canon AE-1. It was the first film camera I ever bought, and it remains the primary camera I used to shoot film. I have a Canon EOS G that I recently bought and have started using, just because I want to experiment with the cameras that were caught in the bridge between old school film and the new digital era.
The Phoblographer: Hi Tamara. Tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.
Tamara Hijazi: The first time I ever opened the box of family albums as a kid. I never even knew the albums had existed, and I definitely never expected them to be filled to the brim with photos from over 20 years ago. Faded photographs of my mother pregnant, of landscapes in the Middle East, black-and-white portraits of my mother and her classmates, of my dad smoking in his old insurance office with his coworkers. Stacks and stacks of albums I had never known existed, never mind that they were filled with histories I’d never seen before. I found myself pestering my mother about why the colors were the way they were, asking her what camera she used and if I could borrow it (did I understand that a 20-year-old camera couldn’t use any of the film currently around? No. Did I care? Absolutely not) and take photos with it. I begged my parents to let me play with their point-and-shoot film camera, and after that, I think my brain absolutely rewired itself. I became obsessed with picking up the camera whenever I could. Everything could be photographed; everything wanted to be photographed. I wish I still had access to those photos, but I lost them after an awful backup fail (my younger self really did not care for external hard drives).
I began my serious journey with photography when I finally got my own point-and-shoot camera, exploring the hills of Birzeit, Palestine. I was 9, and we had just moved to the Middle East. I didn’t want to just take photos of my friend and random flowers I saw in the streets. I wanted to understand my relationship to the land and my heritage––to my nose and the lemon trees, the bustling food markets, and screaming Friday traffic. It was sensory and emotional overload, and I needed to make sense of that. I started photographing with more intention and taking the time to actually play with lighting and backgrounds, asking people to pose for portraits, and taking photowalks around my neighborhood whenever I could. Photography transformed from a way to just capture everything on camera to a dedicated medium for me to understand all these new feelings I was going through. It became a way for me to explore the intentional relationships with my friends, how I related to fashion trends and my identity, my relationship with the local ice cream shop, and what it means to be a teenager. To look at home and diaspora and what it meant to be constantly stuck in third-culture space.
The Phoblographer: 2020 – a year that changed the world in many ways, a lot of it irreparably. Tell us about the moment you decided to start the series 2020-We Didn’t Know.
Tamara Hijazi: The start of the COVID-19 pandemic hit me in ways I never expected. I remember, when we first heard about the potential for lockdown, jokingly saying it would only be 2 weeks, maybe 3, before we were back outside, doing everything we always did in the same way we always had. Of course, none of us knew what was really to come. What to do, what to expect. When to show up for dinner. If we should show up to dinner. How to grieve, how to mourn. When we thought we were done, we found ourselves mourning again. My father is 85 years old now, and every time we interacted, even just being in the same room together, I always thought, ‘we don’t know if we’re doing the right thing. Or what to do’ and it made our interactions so painful and stressful. In Middle Eastern/ MENA culture, it’s also customary to greet by kissing cheeks. Whenever I visit my parents, I kiss my mother’s cheeks. Every time, without fail. I can’t even begin to explain how strange, how distanced and disconnected I felt to see my mother, masked and afar, and not kiss her cheek for almost an entire year. The only thing that gave me relief was documenting all of the moments I felt most settled in a time that was so unsettling. Like sitting with my two cats on a soft, glowing Sunday morning reading a book about herbal medicine or seeing the faintest hint of a double rainbow over the Chicago sky after a torrential rainstorm in July. The entire series is a tribute to the process of connection, disconnection, and reconnection over the height of the pandemic––with myself and my partner, with my family, with the landscape, with the empty streets of my neighborhood.
The Phoblographer: Apart from the lockdown aspect, what were the other subjects and feelings you wanted to capture for this series?
Tamara Hijazi: Honestly, nature. I’ve always loved nature but living in a city, sometimes you forget how much access to nature can shift your mental and emotional state. While we were staying indoors during the lockdown, it almost felt like the outdoor world, and the outdoors disappeared from sight. It almost felt like the trees, the air, the sound of the wind, and the rain ceased to exist. As a child, my father always made a point to keep us in nature. We would forage for edible herbs, hike local trails, and just have picnics under the park trees. We would build small fires and boil fresh mint tea over a metal pot, and you could taste the hint of fire and ash in every sip. I actually still own the pot my dad used in those fires––it’s almost 15 years old.
The lack of nature in my life at that time made me realize I wanted to rediscover my love of nature. So, whenever the weather was good enough, I spent every moment I could tracking down new walking trails in the city, taking day trips to forest preserves––and at one point, I convinced my partner and my roommate to take a 5-day trip to Upper Michigan, where we stayed in a quiet cabin and completely rested our bodies in nature. Finding hidden waterfalls during the hot summer day, listening to the crickets, and tracing out constellations in the night. The series is a nod to the outdoor landscapes we often take for granted, and that gave us the space to be during a pandemic of loss and distance.
I used to shoot with a Canon 80D, primarily with a Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens. Recently, I’ve wanted to see how the mirrorless world works, so I actually just started shooting on a Canon EOS R and I’ve added on a Sigma 35 mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART lens. I’m definitely loving the Sigma and the way it captures close portraiture. I’ve been exploring the idea of getting a fisheye lens, too, but that decision is still in the works.
The Phoblographer: The sense of emptiness and desperation we all felt. Would you say this may still find its way into our art for some years to come?
Tamara Hijazi: I do think a pandemic magnified those feelings, but emptiness and desperation are feelings that have always been there in our bodies. We feel emptiness when we lose someone we love; we feel desperation when we’re striving for something that looks so out of reach. I definitely think they’ll find their way into our art because those feelings have never left us. And the world has changed in a way that we can’t ignore. Things are never going to just go back to the way they were––we are never going to go back to the selves we were before this pandemic. I think these emotions and these changes will be part of an ever-present ripple effect that finds its way into everything we do, everything we make.
The Phoblographer: Did you opt to shoot this series on film over digital? If not, what were the reasons for the nostalgic, film-like post processing?
Tamara Hijazi: I definitely enjoy film more than digital. Film forces me to be more intentional with my work since the number of shots I can take per roll are, of course, super limited. It makes me second-guess myself whenever I’m shooting––to check the lighting one more time and rethink the model’s pose. It challenges me to be a better photographer and become more familiar with how my camera works. The reality is, though, that film isn’t the most convenient medium for photography. Sometimes, you need to take 150 photos in a session and pick out the five that you absolutely love. Sometimes you actually want to look at the shot you’ve taken so you can adjust the lighting and poses. I think digital cameras have given us flexibility in photography that’s completely changed the game and how we operate, and in a lot of ways it’s made photography more accessible.
But I can’t help but be attached to the grain, the faded tones, and deep contrast of film, so this series was shot in a combination of film and then digital photography edited to look like film. It’s always been a part of me, and it’s a nod to my childhood and how I started my journey on cheap Polaroids and a very basic point-and-shoot film camera. The tones immediately make me feel like I’m stuck in time––like I’ve taken the photo with the intent to keep a moment preserved exactly how I saw it, how I felt it, and bury it in a time capsule for it to be discovered years later. It forces me, lets me slow down, and be present in the work and my process.
Sometimes, I’ll experiment with a basic point-and-shoot film camera of a disposable Kodak film camera, just to try something new, but I definitely prefer the control I have with a more professional film camera. I like to experiment with grain and shutter speed, and that isn’t something you can do with the disposables and point-and-shoots.
The Phoblographer: The slowest two years of our lives. Was your camera the primary means of coping with this period?
Tamara Hijazi: Surprisingly, no. It was definitely a strong one, but I actually think my primary means of coping became reading. I dove into the world of graphic novels and comics, an area of reading I’d never tried before. Frankly, I used to judge that area pretty harshly, but discovering graphic novels gave me an entirely new perspective on storytelling and art. It taught me about the importance of critically thinking about narrative, and it allowed me to step out of the slowness and isolation of the pandemic without, well, really stepping out of it. I’m also primarily a portrait photographer, so I felt very stuck with how to approach photography when I couldn’t approach or be near the subjects I wanted to shoot. It felt strange to be staring at my camera and wanting to call friends and models to shoot and realizing I couldn’t do that. Eventually, I made my way back to photographing nature, as I mentioned before, but my return to it has been slow. And I think that’s OK––I don’t ever want to feel rushed or pushed to produce photography, which I think is something all photographers feel. That if we’re not producing, we’re not photographers. That we’re failing or not keeping up. I’ve definitely felt it, but I’m learning to accept the fact that my body will tell me when it’s ready to return to photography, and I’ll trust it.
The Phoblographer: What is the emotional significance of the butterfly that often makes its way into your frames?
Tamara Hijazi: The meaning of butterflies is iridescent––at least in my work. They mean different things to me in different contexts. Butterflies are often considered the symbol of migration and immigrant families––each fall, millions of monarch butterflies leave their summer breeding grounds in the northeastern United States and Canada and travel nearly 3,000 miles to reach overwintering grounds in southwestern Mexico. They fly across borders in massive amounts to and from their home, ignoring the borders of the nation-state for safety and warmth. As the child of immigrants and as someone who technically migrated back and forth between Palestine and the United States, I’ve never not been fascinated by the way that butterflies take this journey. I like to pay tribute to them and the soft place they have in my heart.
I also just think, really hilariously simply, that butterflies are visually ridiculous. I mean, the glad-eye bushbrown has wings that imitate the eyes of their predators. A Blue Morpho Butterfly’s wings can produce blue pigments––and blue is one of the rarest colors made as a pigment. They’re absolutely ridiculous. They bend our understanding of light and color, and I think part of my work and what I’m moving towards is to experiment with light and color in ways I never have before. To use light and color to push the boundaries of my work, combine them in ways I’m not used to––especially in conceptual portraits––and see what those combinations produce. The butterflies probably don’t know it, but they are a big inspiration for the way I operate.
The Phoblographer: Where does your love for 1980s fashion come from? Does it also extend to 1980s cameras, films, and photographers?
Tamara Hijazi: My mom, without a doubt. I will without shame say that most of my blazers and wildest fashion pieces have come from my mother’s closet––not to her approval, of course. Most of it I’ve claimed I’ll eventually give back, that I’m just borrowing for the night, but that’s never really the case. The 80s represented an era of fashion that was absolutely wild––it was bold, vibrant, colorful, and experimental. It was loud, fun, packing out-of-this-world patterns into every skirt and jacket imaginable. It was also an era where photographers were taking a dive into photographing the new wave of hip-hop and punk of the 80s–a lot of flash photography and street portraiture. This intersection of rebellion and youth, crisscrossing with music and culture, has inspired a lot of my portrait work and my film work. I just love how that photography captures people and the process of growing up, screwing up, finding our awkward place in the community, rejecting labels, and then grounding ourselves in the ones that really make our bodies and our minds sing. I always love those flash portraits of the 80s, where the subject is staring right at the camera––it’s a challenge. Photograph me as I am, or don’t look at me at all.
The Phoblographer: This part of your bio made me laugh – If a film camera and a digital camera had a passionate love affair (that maybe got a little messy once the darkroom found out). Are you torn between both mediums of photography?
Tamara Hijazi: Oh, man, all the time. Sometimes I can’t help but think, “A real photographer would suffer through the film process!” while a part of me also whispers, “But working with film is so tiring and expensive!” which pulls my mind and heart in two different directions at most times. I wrote that line because I think it represents my love for the nostalgia, authenticity, and in-the-moment quality at the heart of film (which you can see in most of my editing style) and my passionate desire to photograph everything everywhere and all at once (the fast-paced and easy access to digital photography). Sometimes I’m craving the raw, grainy nature of film; sometimes I’m absolutely drooling over the smoothness of the colors in digital. Because of that push-and-pull, sometimes my color and grain editing gets kind of weird. It takes me to some really interesting, “messy” places that totally change how I think about the photo I’m working on. Someone needs to figure out how to put film stock in a digital camera so I can take a million photos of my cats on Kodak Portra 400 and not be worried about the processing fees, please.
I’ve also always loved the idea of having my own darkroom, but I’ve never actually developed my own film! I’ve worked with people who have direct access to the darkroom, and I’ve definitely helped once or twice, but I’ve never owned that process from start to finish. It’s something I’m working towards this year because I think it will completely change how I feel about working with film and how I develop my photos.