Safi Alia Shabaik
Photographers who create beauty out of difficult conditions and adversity are a rare and special breed. It is they that I always seem to learn the most from. Making photographs and telling stories with your images is so much more than composition and content. There is certainly an aesthetic that these individuals connect with that brings their images to life in a profound and timeless way. It’s an intimacy and understanding of your subject that creates this connection.
Safi Alia Shabaik is one of these photographers.
I felt the need to pick her brain and share her thoughts on what makes her unique in a way that others can digest for themselves. It’s words and actions like hers that make me feel timid by comparison, even when I know that I am not. An eclectic life and career still in its infancy with so far yet to go, I can’t help but express that we all need to keep our eyes open to what she will do next. Safi’s inherent attraction to learn, grow, and experiment are the essential qualities of why I find her to be the perfect person for this interview.
Safi Alia Shabaik discovered art and photography at an early age, when her mother enrolled her in a pinhole camera class at the California Museum of Science and Industry. She attended UCLA, earning her B.A. in Fine Art with honors. Since then, she has worked as a fashion stylist and photographic documentarian, and has lived in both New York and Los Angeles. Post-college, while still in Los Angeles, Catherine Opie became her mentor and taught her the art of large scale color printing in her custom-built darkrooms. While in New York, Safi became fashion stylist, photographic documentarian, personal assistant, travel companion, and confidante to the legendary icon, Ms. Grace Jones, in her personal and public life. Safi was given free-reign to photograph anytime they were together.
Throughout her life, Safi’s work has been about identity, persona, subculture and the humanity of all people. Her subject matter moved from the public realm to the private, when she became a caregiver for her father who was beginning to exhibit symptoms of disease. Personality Crash: Portraits of My Father Who Suffered from Advanced Stages of Parkinson’s Disease, Dementia and Sundowner’s Syndrome, her most recent series, is a riveting, collaborative body of work that explores the human condition from an intimate perspective, focusing on her father’s journey up until his death. These intense, beautiful black and white images comprise the artist’s highly personal story but also serve as a universal reminder of what it means to be human.
Safi has been featured in both solo and group shows nationally. Her work has appeared in performer Grace Jones’ book I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, as well as in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Artillery, CameraCraft, and on Upworthy.com. She is a founding member of the Los Angeles Street Collective, a charter member and teaching assistant at the Los Angeles Center of Photography (LACP), as well as a volunteer in the Fossil Lab at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. A lover of the human form, the artist is also an award-winning, licensed mortician.
Michael Kirchoff: Let’s start with the basics - what got you into photography as something that you felt the need to explore?
Safi Alia Shabaik: I’ve always connected with photography starting at a very young age, when my mom enrolled me in a children’s pinhole camera-making workshop at the California Museum of Science and Industry (now the California Science Center). In the class, we constructed a simple box around a 126mm film cartridge, added a small hole with a piece of black tape to act as the shutter, then were launched into the rose garden to make images. I remember it very clearly. This was my first “exposure” to photography and it was in this moment that I fell in love with the medium. It has been my companion ever since because the time I spend creating with my camera is the only time, other than sleep, when the noise of the world falls silent. Photography allows me true freedom from feeling weighted to the world. In this way, I transcend my own existence.
MK: I think we need to address the big story right now concerning your work and the recent attention Personality Crash: Portraits of My Father Who Suffered from Advanced Stages of Parkinson’s Disease, Dementia and Sundowner’s Syndrome is having. A heavy, yet extremely touching portrayal of your father’s final days - it must be difficult to be revisiting these images in your discussions about the work. Do you feel that there is a cathartic element to this in helping you move on? Do you see the work having positive effects in the medical industry through this collaboration with your father?
SAS: Yes, this body of work is obviously very emotional for me and difficult to revisit because of my closeness to the subject matter and journey depicted, especially with the loss and grief still relatively new … but the reasons for revisiting the work outweigh the emotional difficulty. The world is embracing this work right now. I feel a level of responsibility to move with that current flow so that Personality Crash can do the good work of helping others, and honor my father by turning his decade of struggle into something life-affirming.
Making the work was tough on it’s own … but making the work while simultaneously processing the degradation of the vibrant man who had raised me and having to care for him as my child was heart-wrenching. It was an experience I could not have prepared for, but through which I learned tremendously about disease, about compassion, and about my own capabilities for love and anguish. The next step of sharing the work with the world was intimidating. When the opportunity came to me, I didn’t think I was emotionally ready as I was (and still am) in the grieving process … but the opportunity came in a very organic way and I knew it was the right platform to launch this delicate work. As I did for my father in life, I am now lovingly caregiving for this body of work – to make sure it enters the world through respectable platforms in which it can reach the masses and fulfill its purpose. My father and I had specific plans for how this work should be presented and I am doing my best to honor that.
There is actually some catharsis in this part of the journey. I am seeing first-hand how the work is affecting other people and that helps my healing begin. It opens my heart to know it is breaking barriers and affecting people to the core. Many strangers have reached out with incredibly supportive messages of common experience, so it is also building community. My father would be so proud to know that sharing his struggle is helping others … after all, that was part of our goal.
I do believe that Personality Crash has significant value, not just for the public at large, but also for the medical community. I think this work humanizes the Parkinson’s/Dementia/Sundowning experience and helps medical professionals see the actual effects of disease on an intimate personal level through the eyes of a struggling family. As a result of the New York Times publication, The Parkinson’s Foundation has reached out to me with invitation to share the work with their medical professional community at upcoming conferences.
MK: You have recently received a massive amount of attention with your project Personality Crash after being published in the New York Times. Do you see any long term effects on what it may bring to your future photographs?
SAS: Well, it certainly has set a very high bar for my current and future work. The deeper you go, the more vulnerable and personal you get, the more you connect with the viewer and audience. I want to strengthen those connections with my art. Recently I’ve been contemplating how to go deeper with certain ongoing projects but am still figuring out my angle on those.
MK: Is there a long term goal for Personality Crash?
SAS: Yes, our – I say “our” on behalf of my father and me – grand vision for “Personality Crash” is to show the printed work globally and eventually publish a book. One-on-one interaction with printed images has powerful and lasting impact. Our hope is to exhibit the work to reinforce the humanity and complexity of those who struggle with disease.
While my father’s struggle was his own, aging with disease has sadly become status quo. Some 50 million people worldwide live with dementia, up to 66% of whom also experience sundowning. More than 10 million worldwide live with Parkinson’s. The importance of finding cures for these diseases is immediate and imperative. Beyond the personal, this work has value to raise awareness and encourage dialogue. It seeks to inform, teach and build compassion for those unfamiliar with the effects of disease; comfort those who feel alone on a similar journey or have experienced a similar loss; ease the stigma of mental illness by humanizing those who suffer from affliction; and push for a cure.
The public should be able to see the work and move through the exhibit as the journey progresses chronologically. They should be able to take the time they need to understand the changes that were occurring, at their own pace. I know this is difficult subject matter and not everyone is receptive to it … but through exposure and education, empathy and understanding will build and allow for greater human connection and kindness.
MK: Moving on to other areas of your work, I think you should mention a couple of the celebrity names you’ve worked for and with over the years. How did your personal and working relationships with them shape your creative life?
SAS: Well, this is certainly an interesting question! Ok, some celebrity names in their order of appearance in my life: Catherine Opie, Paul Verhoeven, Courtney Love, Britney Spears, Grace Jones …
Catherine Opie was one of my photography professors during undergrad at UCLA. At that time she was gaining fame for her colorful and uncompromising full-scale portraits of her lesbian “leather dyke” and queer B.D.S.M. communities. Post-college, she took me under her wing and became my mentor. She taught me the art of large scale color printing in her custom-built darkrooms. Shortly after gaining recognition for her works, Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993) and Self-Portrait/Pervert (1994), I remember watching her perform in a Ron Athey piece as “the human printing press.” The performance involved needles, scalpels, blood-letting, and body modifications (cutting, carving, piercing, etc). It was tough subject matter and difficult to watch at times, but it opened my eyes to various subcultures. Her sensitivity, boldness and fearlessness in making all of this work really stuck with me.
Jumping forward to Grace Jones … I met Grace through a mutual friend, who wanted to introduce us when he learned that I was planning a big move from L.A. to NYC, which is where she lived at the time. I was doing celebrity wardrobe styling, had finished a year-long styling stint with Courtney Love and her band Hole, and had begun working with the incredible styling duo, Kurt & Bart, with Britney Spears. Grace happened to come to L.A. before I switched coasts so we had the pleasure of making the connection here. Once settled in NYC and still with Kurt, Bart and Britney, I took up the solo project of working with Grace. For the next two years I worked with her as her fashion stylist, personal assistant, travel companion, and confidante but also as her photographic documentarian in her personal and public life. I had full access and was given free-reign to photograph anytime we were together. That was pre-digital … back in the days of analog film.
I don’t think it was clear to me at the time, but I realize in retrospect that I learned a great deal from Grace. She was unapologetically Grace. She was very firm in what she wanted and wouldn’t cave til she got it – basically Grace’s way or no way. That doesn’t mean that she didn’t have a heart, it just means that she was a tough business person, and that, of course, stemmed from her life experience before I knew her. She is certainly an icon, a feminist and a trailblazer. She is a non-conformist in every way – pushing gender, fashion, art, performance and perhaps even musical boundaries – and the unabashed queen of certain subcultures. Her strength and resilience to fight for herself in a male dominated arena stand out in my mind, along with her fearlessness in pushing boundaries, breaking stereotypes, and doing things her way. We had some wild adventures and some very difficult experiences. There are many stories … I need to write a book.
MK: There is a sense of adventure - and one that doesn’t look back - to your photographs portraying individuals that seem to be on the fringes of society in general. Do you see this as a reflection of the many stages and changes to your own life?
SAS: Certainly. I have always been an adventurer at heart, a chameleon and a true Gemini. I’ve always wanted to be a million things at once and have led an eclectic life because of it, following my heart down unusual paths. I’ve always been a little atypical and perhaps have never quite fit in, but I don’t see that as a downfall. I explore my interests no matter how unconventional. I’ve always embraced the “other” and feel a kinship with anomalies. I find true beauty in difference, uniqueness and what some might consider flaws. The backbone of my work revolves around identity, persona, and the humanity of all people. I am drawn to those that society might deem outliers, eccentrics, gypsies and/or experimenters … those who use external creative expression – such as costume, culture, ritual, alter-egos, etc. – to find acceptance and community. I’ve never been able to “live inside the box” or “color inside the lines,” which started at my introduction to the world (I was a breech birth) so perhaps I seek community with fellow non-conformists. Though we like to believe photography is purely representational and unbiased, it is impossible to remove the author from the work, so my subjectivity and world-view is inherently there.
MK: Along the lines of the previous question - one might say that the majority of your work centers on people who are extremely colorful and full of life, yet you choose to immortalize them in black and white (very well, I might add). Why is this? Is it a conscious decision or simply something that fits your aesthetic?
SAS: First, thank you so much for that lovely compliment. To answer the question, I definitely go through phases with how I see the world. Having learned on film/analog, back then you had to make a choice. Are you going to shoot on color film? B/W? What ASA? Etc. I think this had profound impact on the way I see the world and use my camera today. Though I used both film stocks throughout my analog days, I had to decide on my film stock and vision BEFORE shooting, based on my intentions and subject matter. That has carried over to digital. I mostly see the world in B/W. I leave my LCD screen on monochrome – always. At times color comes in. For me, B/W allows the viewers to actively participate in the image discovery. It engages their minds and allows them to bring their own unique life experience to the image, without providing all contexts. It is also a way to control chaos and reduce visual noise that can kill an image – by “visual noise” I mean visual distractions. The use of B/W is a conscious decision and fitting for my dark aesthetic. With my colorful subject matter, perhaps stripping that information out adds a layer of mystery … and hopefully leaves the viewer wanting more.
MK: What is it about your creative process that you feel is represented most significantly in your photographs?
SAS: Wow … this is a TOUGH question! My creative process is so internal … I might just have to keep this one a mystery!
MK: Was there a specific point in time where you felt that you had found your voice in photography and became satisfied with the direction of your work? Do you ever truly find yourself in a good place with your images, or are you always searching for more?
SAS: I think I have a unique and distinct way of seeing that allows people to recognize when an image is mine – that there is a certain consistency to my work – but for myself, as an artist and photographer, I am always searching for more. I am a perpetual student of everything the world has to offer, including photography. I remain humble because the older I get, the less I realize I know. My feeling is that when you feel that you are at the top of your game, that there is nothing left to learn and that you are “the shit” (pardon the expression), that might be the very day that your soul dies. That doesn’t mean that I think that I don’t make good work or that I’m not proud of the images I create … on the contrary. But I do know that my work can always improve and that there are endless amounts still to learn and explore technically, stylistically, compositionally, with subject matter, etc.
MK: With regard to creativity and the projects you take on. Do you feel it is better to create work that fits a particular style for yourself, branch out and try new things, or better to simply leave yourself open to possibilities that happen organically?
SAS: I get very frustrated when I fall into a pattern and have actually been feeling that way a bit now. I like to branch out and try new things but I do also leave myself open for organic possibilities. I believe that if you try to control everything about your life and your art, you won’t go anywhere and you certainly won’t grow creatively. Personal growth occurs in the risks we take, in experimentation and in the uncharted territory we explore. I am an adventurer at heart … currently figuring out new ways I can push myself to grow. At this very moment, it’s been happening organically in the area of guest artist lectures and public speaking about my work. I have project ideas swirling in my head that I’ve been having a hard time articulating or translating to a particular medium. They are still incubating … but when that growth spurt hits, they will make their way out. I work in various mediums – photography, collage, assemblage, experimental film, etc – which also helps me exercise my brain in new ways when I feel in a rut.
MK: Do you study what others are doing, and do you find their influence in your own image-making?
SAS: I think both of those are hard to avoid. If you are knowledgeable about your medium and art in general, it is nearly impossible not to reference or see associations with work that came before yours in some fashion, subconsciously or consciously. We live in such a saturated culture and it feels like nearly everything has been done already. That doesn’t mean that it was done in the exact same way you are doing it, or that you cannot create your own new, unique and exciting work, but there will still be undeniable references or associations to something that came before. Also, when I am drawn to a particular aspect of someone’s work, I like to understand it or dissect it. Perhaps, from time to time, a little bit of what I love about that work carries over in some subliminal way or influences my vision. I don’t know. I think it is very important to be informed about your contemporaries and your predecessors. Again, these associations will strengthen and deepen the work you make.
But I will also admit that there is a beauty to not being informed and just letting pure experimentation drive your creations. There is magic in that, so I allow myself to work in both ways. I don’t necessarily research everything before I start a project. But, with that said, I do have a foundation of art history and the history of photography, I do go to museums and galleries to see art, I attend cultural performances and events around town, I travel, I read, I see concerts and films, attend lectures … I derive inspiration from all of these.
MK: What is it that inspires you to decide upon a particular project?
SAS: Hmmmm … another tough question. It really could be anything, but I guess there has to be an initial interest, attraction, idea or problem I’m trying to work out. A personal experience could trigger a project. A project could even stem from a repulsion … I have always been attracted to things that repulse me. I’m a curious being with a twist of mad scientist.
MK: You are an active and ardent street photographer. What has working in the streets taught you about yourself as a photographer?
SAS: It has taught me that I have deep empathy for the human condition and a sincere admiration for the beautiful dance of life, which I like to call the choreography of human existence. It has forced me to strengthen the way I build my frames and has honed my attention to light and design. It has helped sharpen my intuition and ability to anticipate human behavior, and has given me an even greater appreciation for human diversity, which has always been part of my foundation since I come from a mixed background.
MK: Ok, you’re going to have to explain to me where and why the moniker Flash Bulb Floozy came about. I’m willing to bet that there is nothing usual about having a nickname that would spill over into the fact that your own website goes by the same name.
SAS: Hahaha! Well, hopefully the story will live up to the expectation:
[Scene setting – flashback to the early new millennium and the days of MySpace]
I wanted to come up with a better moniker for my MySpace profile and also for a new email address that would be memorable and suit my personality. I had previously been “MysteriousMorticia” – also fitting if you know me well. My name has always been difficult for people … I get called “Sophie,” “Saffy,” “Sophia,” “Safey” or whatever people want to hear to have it make sense to them. It’s been a problem my whole life. I knew I needed to steer clear of it if I wanted people to remember me. I wanted something alliterative that resembled the structure of my real name, but it also had to be catchy. I had a large collection of vintage cameras that still worked (several brownies with flash bulbs) and was known in my circle as the “friend with the camera.” Photography was already extremely embedded in my daily life so I knew it would involve that in some way. Somehow it came to me during a brainstorm … and the bonus was the cute coincidence that it’s easy lilt fit with the beat of “Flat Foot Floogie,” which seemed memorable! I had other websites for a long time that revolved around my birth name or parts of my birth name and the word “photo” but those just didn’t feel authentic. Flashbulbfloozy felt authentic, so I got rid of the others and just have that one now.
MK: What’s next for Flash Bulb Floo…uhh, Safi Alia Shabaik? Projects? Books? Exhibitions?
SAS: Yes … lots of things! I have several speaking engagements coming up at local universities and for The Parkinson’s Foundation. There are some magazine features and interviews on the horizon. I am awaiting notification on a grant award that would provide funds to print, frame and show Personality Crash (fingers crossed that I am selected for that). I have several new personal projects swirling in my head that I’d like to start birthing out of me. As usual, I’ll continue digging into subcultures and street life with my camera. And, of course, I will continue the journey, regardless of the grant award, with sharing Personality Crash with the world.
MK: Clearly, we will be seeing much more from you in the not too distant future. I appreciate your time and effort in helping me put this interview together. Many thanks to you, Safi.
You can find more of Safi's work at her website here.