Robin Barratt met up with the award-winning Bahraini photographer
Time Out Bahrain staff
Robin Barratt met up with the award-winning Bahraini photographer Ghada Khunji to talk about her work.
Ghada Khunji’s photographs are known for documenting both landscapes and people from all over the world and the inherent dignity of the human element. Undoubtedly her images inspire and excite and prompt discourse yet they also captivate and terrify. We can appreciate the composition, the colours, the characters, yet what is the real story behind Ghada’s images; who are these people and what sort of lives do they lead?
Ghada is a paradox; her images are bold and brave and fearless; they greet you with a smile and kick you in the shins at the same time, yet Ghada the person is a sweet, petite, timid looking woman with an effervescent personality, a whopping big heart and a warm - yet perhaps slightly shy - smile. She freely discloses that she is an introvert yet she is uncanningly bold and brave enough to venture into some of the most difficult regions on the planet and chronicle and document people and places most of us would never meet or ever see. Her portfolios from Hindustan won awards and accolades around the world. Her images from Cuba and the Dominican Republic prompted humanitarian appeals and fund raising events, and her extraordinarily sad, haunting and unforgettable images from a care home in the USA made tens of thousands of people consider their own fragility and destiny.
Born on August 27th 1967, Ghada grew up in Gudaibiya, just a stone’s throw from what is now La Fontaine Centre of Contemporary Arts. Her father gave her an old Polaroid camera when she was eight years old and, snapping almost everything and everyone in sight, the streets and culture of Bahrain of the ‘70s and ‘80s became her guidance and inspiration. And she has been taking photographs ever since. With a host of awards to her name, Ghada Khunji is now one of the very few internationally recognised master photographers to come out of this tiny island.
As a teenager Ghada went to study at Harlaxton College in Evansville, England, and then moved to New York where she graduated at two of New York’s première arts institutions; the Parsons School of Design and the International Center of Photography’s documentary program.
One of her first jobs in the early ‘90s was as a freelance photographer for a fashion magazine and at fashion events across New York city. Ghada also spent a two years as a research assistant for photo agencies including the prestigious Black Star and Magnum and, before turning professional, almost eight years as a printer and print manager for clients such as Annie Leibovitz, Greg Kadel, Pamela Hanson, Steven Meisel, Brigitte Lacombe and Richard Burbridge. But she quickly realised that her skills and passion were not in documenting the glamorous and beautiful, the rich or the famous, but in chronicling ‘real’ people with ‘real’ lives, and spent her spare time scouring the world searching for images that would provoke thought and arouse feeling and emotion.
When asked what drives her to take the kinds of images she does, Ghada modestly replied “The most important thing for me is to show these people and places and to document them. It is not important for me if people don’t buy my images, the most important thing for me is that I want to show the things that most people would never see. This is the driving goal and motivation I have as a documentary photographer; to show people’s pride and dignity and self-respect.” And when asked what kind of images she prefers to take; “I am more interested in taking the pictures of one or two people, rather than groups of people. I single them out. I don’t try to stage things too much, I just see an image, look at that person, look at their surroundings and take it. Every picture has to be a story.”
In 2006, she was named the Lucie Discovery of the Year. The Lucie Awards are presented by the Lucie Foundation in Los Angeles, a non-profit, charitable foundation whose mission is to honour master photographers, discover and cultivate emerging talent and celebrate the appreciation of photography worldwide. And in January, 2007 she won the Grand Prize in the 1st ever American Photo magazine’s Images of the Year Competition.
Ghada still uses her 18 year old Nikon SLR and rolls of film. “there is something about not being able to see the photographs until I get into the darkroom that really interests me. Just having a few images per roll of film makes you think harder about the image and the picture. With a digital camera you can take pictures with your eyes closed and it can make people lazy. As long as film is still available, I will still be using it.”
Although now based almost permanently in Brooklyn, New York, Ghada returns to her beloved Bahrain for a few months every year visiting friends and family and catching up with Bahrain life; the life of her roots, her heart and her soul. She misses Bahrain terribly but understands that there is still very little opportunity for professional photographers here on the island and so, for the time being anyway, she is resigned to life in the Big Apple.
Ghada has a personality to match her images, she empowers and inspires, she is thoughtful, articulate and intelligent and knows exactly what she wants to achieve, both in her life and artistically. “I want my images to inspire other photographers, especially female photographers of which there are very few here in Bahrain. I want to empower Bahraini women, as well as women everywhere, to pick up the camera and start taking pictures.” Ghada’s images are available in Limited Edition prints from her website www.ghadakhunji.com. Robin Barratt is a Bahrain-based writer, www.bahrainwriterscircle.com.