Interview by Filep Motwary
FilepMotwary: You were born in Jordan, which is completely another world from Europe. Back in the late 70’s, the differences much have been twice as intense. How did you perceive then, this chance for you to experience the world from a different perspective than the one you were raised in?
MustafaSabbagh: Nomadism is my deep form of traveling, and cultural contamination is the only way I know and possess to be son of my choice, as of my time. As a matter of fact, I profoundly think to be an outcome of our times: when I was a child, in Jordan, I used to watch the same European children’ cartoons, dreaming to fly quite probably in the same way; that’s why, to me, it is meaningless to talk about places. I am a foreigner wherever I am, such as at home in any place.
FM: You got yourself a degree in Architecture before moving to the medium of Photography. Could you share with me some details about this transition, from one to the other and if today you can see a possible connection between them?
MS: Architecture is planning and creating spaces, in order to make human life smoother; photography is planning and creating images, in order to make human mind smoother.
But photography is my mother tongue; I speak by means of image codes.
FM: From what you told me during our last acquaintance in Brussels, you were also a model, the reason why you met legendary Richard Avedon..
What is the exact story?
MS: During a casting, holding in my hand two books and two composites I used to employ as bookmarks, I met the God of Photography. After exchanging a few questions and answers, he decided to choose me not as his model, but as his assistant…
Too bad it didn’t last longer; I would have liked to absorb even deeper secrets about human nature in relation to one shot.
FM: Can secrets be revealed in a photograph really?
MS: Avedon himself taught me that “Strength of one shot lies in its intimacy”, and intimacy ineluctably means a secret to cherish. However, secrets never have to be fully revealed, otherwise it would mean to betray them. But you can instill them, you can whisper them, you can sketch them even through a photograph, so that whoever gets a glimpse of them will be pushed gently, humanly, to discover by himself the final design – which is always different, according to the person who is, at any one time, the repository of that secret.
FM: How important is for a young photographer to be working with a legend?
MS: Having the good fortune to work with a legend teaches you a fundamental precept: photography is a craving to understand the world, not to be understood by it. Avedon taught me the method. He gave me the language.
FM: Does photography require a language method? How do you mean it?
MS: Anything that implies a communication, necessarily requires a language. Photography is my preferential communication medium, and the language by means of which I narrate it, is a syntax of lights and shadows, visions and hallucinations, transposed through the grammar of planning.
FM: And how easy it is to find your own voice in the craft of your choice, once left alone? How many years did it take you to find your own “voice”?
MS: It’s never easy to find our way, such as to discover our voice, but if you truly love photography, you’ll always keep on trying… I’m still searching. Hope to be on my way.
FM: Why it is that your work reflects sexual tension. At moments it looks as if both sexes make amends yet at the same time they start a war between them…
MS: As aforesaid, I perceive myself as a son of our strange times, in which contradiction is a daily act. My photography is a mirror of the times and of my own self – indeed, every single day I come into conflict with myself…
FM: How does fashion stimulate you?
MS: Fashion as a creative act is not so different from the whole other arts: it involves me if treated as a generator of culture, it doesn’t if reduced to mere product, or in terms of consumption numbers.
FM: And it is translated in your photography.
MS: Yes, sometimes… and when it happens, I test the enjoyment of sublime.
FM: Your obsession with the 1990’s era is much reflected in your photography. What was so special about it.
MS: Actually, I don’t think I have an obsession with 1990’s. What really attracts me – and what I constantly struggle to achieve – is the absolute cancellation of spacetime. I’m moved by the investigation of the person, the skin, the human imperfection, dimensions that transcend clockwork times and spaces; basically, that’s because I dream of perfection, loving the imperfect.
FM: Since early 2000, your work has been exhibited in galleries and museums. How does photography become art? (if not art) what makes an observer, the public interested in photography. What kind of language or how can photography link people?
MS: I am a photographer: to me, everything becomes art from the very moment it touches our deepest nature. I love to play with my inner nature, and with other people’s pseudo-ethical grounds.
One shot represents the synthesis of a feeling, and people are often attracted by emotional synthesis.
FM: You are always inspired by youth, its naivety, beauty, nerve…
MS: I’ll expand just disclosing one title: “The Ragazzi”, by Pier Paolo Pasolini.
FM: What was so special about Pasolini in your opinion? You know he died on November 2nd, which is my birthrate…
MS: Love for the individual, no matter how inconvenient and uneasy, and hunger for life, no matter how uncomfortable and unsettling, narrated through the register of raw stepmother Truth. “I devour my existence with an insatiable appetite. I am outrageous; to the extent that I tend a rope – or better, an umbilical cord – between sacred and profane”.
Conversely, I was born on the day Martin Luther King and Gloria Swanson died… What will it mean?
FM: Witnessing how digital means and media have changed the photography landscape, which kind of career path do you think you would fit yourself into if just starting your career in the present day?
MS: On the square, I don’t thing something has really changed. Digital improvement is just an upgrade in technical terms, but it is always substance that makes the difference.
FM: Having worked through the last few decades of fashion photography, what kinds of major aesthetic shifts have you noticed in your own work?
MS: After so many years spent in fashion photography, I’m no more interested in what a person wears; I’m much more interested in why a person wears it… I guess this perception of mine permeates even my photography.
FM: Yes, though in your photography, the characters are always super carefully stylized, or so it seems…
MS: They are indeed. Each picture of mine underlies a researching and planning job bordering on the manic, which is also translated into a styling bordering on the hallucinated. In a com-modified and mystified society in which the dress – rather than the individual – is privileged subject of liturgical cares, I try to overturn an aberrant sacredness, quite exasperating its own content. It is as if – starting from the terrifyingly homological aesthetics of the apparel – I’d transfer the message on the level of the truly unique ethics of the person, through its own code, pushed beyond its own boundaries.
FM: You have recently photographed legendary costumes by Danilo Donati and Sartoria Farani that were featured in films by Pasolini, Fellini and Zeffirelli. How was that experience. Would you mind walking us through the timeline of this project?
MS: Clara Tosi Pamphili asked me to serve this project out together. The day I received clothes that have really made the history of cinema, I was happy and thrilled like a child: that night, in my house/studio, sleeping next to those costumes I also slept with Donati, Pasolini, Fellini.
On set, I retraced my steps in conveying my aesthetic codes through photography, bringing to a new life those masterpieces; thus, a new wonderful project was born.
FM: What it is that you are looking for while taking a photograph?
MS: Every time I take a picture I look for inner nature, simultaneously looking at my own fears, at my own fetishism… I never get tired of playing with them.