As we review the hundreds of images submitted for Southern California Moments, a few photographers inevitably stand out. The first in a series of profiles, Sahra Sulaiman is a Los Angeles-based photographer who first caught our attention because of an apparent penchant for images of abandoned stuffed animals. Instead, we realized her talent for spotting quirky and unique moments in the city that many would overlook.
I’m obviously just a total amateur, but i love the city and i love the oddness of it. I don’t have any sort of series in the works–I plan on a bridesmaid project in the future, but haven’t got that off the ground yet. (I don’t think I know enough about lighting to pull it off just yet). But the photos I take mainly come from rides I do around the city. I’m almost fully carless and I have been carrying a camera with me almost everywhere for the past two years, first a point-and-shoot, and more recently, a DSLR. so most of the things I have shot have been on commutes or on rides where I deliberately go looking around town for oddities. I guess the animals show up because I am best at shooting narratives–I like to anthropomorphize whatever I find. And there happen to be an inordinate number of stuffed animals abandoned around town, I guess, which makes it easy for me to do that.
But I think what I like most is that, being on the bike, I see odd details and things that most people do not see but I wish they could see.
1) How and why did you get into photography?
I’m a bit of a socially awkward observer. I am genuinely fascinated by the way others experience their lives and how they make the choices they do. Photography gives me an excuse to poke into people’s lives and explore places and spaces I might not otherwise. When I don’t have a chance to get out and take pictures, I feel disconnected from my city and my surroundings. I have always liked it as a medium and loved b&w photography above all, but I didn’t really try to do anything interesting until maybe 1995, when a friend and I trekked (for the second time) 800 km across the north of Spain (the Camino de Santiago) and carried a Pentax K1000 SLR and a bunch of rolls of b&w film with me. We weren’t moving all that fast–we were more turtle-like, if you will, hiking with 20-30 lbs on our backs, making between 30 and 40 km per day. But the camera allowed me to linger and speak to the people of the small towns we trekked through; I felt fortunate that they were eager to explain their towns and history to me. Unfortunately, the stories behind the photos were often better than the photos–the pleasantly plump housewives of the town that had made their own thigh-high bowling pins and bowled in the town streets during at dusk, or the proud farmer who, upon seeing me taking a photo of his cow poking its head through a window, decided that since I must really have liked the cow, it would be better if he paraded it out in front of me so I could capture the whole cow in all its cow-like glory. I was hooked. There usually still are good stories behind the photos, but at least now they tell their own stories as well (I hope).
2) Where and what do you like to photograph?
Beauty stymies me. I have a hard time finding a narrative in it. I don’t know how to capture it. The same goes for big-ness. Big structural things that I can’t find humanity in overwhelm me–I don’t know where to point the camera. Somehow singular incongruities shout out to me–things that are out of place, unexpected, confusing, amusing–they tell a story or raise questions or evoke a shared experience. As a cyclist–both commuting and on joy-rides–I am able to explore the city, poke through its lesser known veins, peek into its back alleys, and find these oddities and small details that tell me something about the way we live in LA and interact with its structure. Apparently, I love to shoot over-sized and often forlorn-looking stuffed animals. There are a surprising number of them laying around in strange places. And they kind of symbolize the loneliness of the city, in some ways. As large and diverse as LA is, it can be very segregated and often feels atomized–everyone has their own stuff to worry about and little time for whatever (or whomever) falls outside their immediate scope. Abandoned stuffed animals tend to evoke–for me, at least–ponderings on how easy it can be to fall through the cracks in the city.
3) Who or what are your inspirations?
You might be surprised to learn my heroes are Diane Arbus, Graciela Iturbide, and Sebastiao Salgado, particularly because I haven’t really done too much with people recently or much in black and white. But I am moving back in that direction. I love the love with which they shot their subjects–the time they spent with them, the secrets they shared with them, and the respect with which they represented them and allowed them to represent themselves. They managed to capture that intimacy–in different ways and for different reasons, of course–in each frame. Working on my dissertation has prevented me from being able to go that route just yet. I feel very strongly about representing people honestly and in a way that speaks truthfully about who and what they are, and that requires that the photographer to spend that time getting to know the subject. I haven’t had that time. It is one (of the many) reasons I have actually just decided to bag the dissertation (despite it actually being already written) in order to return to Malawi (where I did my research) and follow up on some of the stories I uncovered while there. I hope to use photography to help me reach a wider audience than just my three advisors; it is important to me that people know how badly the development aid system works and why, as well as how the money contributed to the child sponsorship programs of World Vision never seems to reach the ground and the communities of the sponsored children. It is a story people don’t often want to hear because we want to believe that we are helping those in need abroad. But if the funds are being abused by those claiming to care for those in need, we need to know that so it can be remedied. Speaking to those in remote villages who are the intended recipients, as I did during my field research, and bringing their stories and perspectives to light is an important step in the process of fixing the problem.
4) What do you photograph with?
A Sony Cybershot (DSC-S90) that I’ve had for years and a Pentax K-x DSLR that I love so much I just might marry it.
5) What’s one of your favorite images, and why?
If you’re asking about my photos, it’s attached. It was taken on my first trip to Malawi. I was invited to accompany a women’s organization to a local village and school to watch them put their message of non-discrimination against women into practice. As a foreigner, I was an object of fascination for the schoolchildren. Hundreds surrounded me, staring. They begged to have their photos taken and then screamed in joy at seeing their likenesses appear in the screen on the back of the camera. They were the most beautiful children I had ever seen.
I have many favorite images from other photographers, if that is what you are looking for. One of them is attached. It’s Graciela Iturbide’s photo, Mujer Angel, of a Seri Indian woman in the Sonoran desert. Iturbide is a cultural anthropologist of sorts, and this mix of the past, the mystic, the desolate, and the boombox blows my mind. The woman feels like an apparition hurrying to… what? A rave? A ceremony that calls for a boombox? A seance? Her dwelling? What’s on her mixtape? Was Iturbide chasing after her? For how long? Were they picnicking in the desert and listening to tunes? The potential scenarios are fantastic and not at all obvious.
More of Sahra’s work can be seen here and here.
Caption – Right: Children in Mchinji, Malawi, by Sahra Sulaiman. Left: “Mujer Angel” by Graciela Iturbide.