Globally recognized as a war and humanitarian photographer, Aydin Matlabi is a self-described Humanitarian Artist whose work has been showcased in several exhibitions, including the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA).
Through his photography, Aydin is bringing attention to international issues on the ground level. While he was a child refugee himself, Aydin was fearless to return to the country that brought him to Montreal years ago, so in 2009, he decided to return to Iran to document the political Dictatorship.
In 2016, he founded Foundation 64, a non-profit to create visibility for NGOs and charities who are committed to supporting human rights causes and human empowerment. His stunning photographs are the ‘product’ – the art that he utilizes to get the message across while providing us the opportunity to help make a difference.
His art brings a very real perspective on difficult international social issues and has been recognized for his efforts by international members of political influence. Aydin is a recent recipient of The Art for Peace Award, which he received in Malta from the Counsellor and President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca.
A Q&A with Aydin Matlabi
JN: You identify yourself primarily as an artist then as a humanitarian photographer. While they both share certain similarities, how do you feel these roles or ‘labels’ differentiate from one another?
AM: Actually, if I would ‘label’ myself anything it would be Humanitarian Artist. I navigate between the photojournalism and Art photographer, to create my own personal style. Unfortunately, I feel photojournalism is weak as a medium.
I highly respect photojournalism (war, humanitarian, documentary or press photographer). The disadvantage and shortcoming of photojournalism is that it follows what the media wants; unlike fine art, which has a message formulated and shared in partnership with the subject and viewer.
It is an old battle that could be traced back to the main founders of the prestigious Magnum Photography agency Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson (If curious read: Fifty Years at the front line of history: Magnum by Russell Miller).
To me, and this is just my personal opinion, photojournalism is quick and based on sensationalism. I personally will never show a “bloody” picture. Photojournalism is a visual you see, flip the page and move on. Unlike fine arts photography, the narrative is created as a partnership with the viewer. The audience needs to work to understand what he is seeing. The process of creating the art is also a partnership with the subject. As an artist, you are less of a voyeur, and more an anthropologist trying to find a multifaceted language that all could understand.
JN: I can imagine that social integration plays an important role when visiting these communities. How do you connect yourself to these people to properly capture the essence of their situation?
AM: My work explores individual and communal struggles. From how societies adapt to war to how a suppressed community find strength. How I approach any of my subjects is to find a message that will empower them.
Being a humanitarian is just who I am. The art evolves from it. My art explores some of the humanities struggles for freedom, I use photography as a tool to understand and re-direct that knowledge to a global audience.
As an artist, you are your art, material, subject and narrative.
Photojournalism versus humanitarian photography: which do you feel does a better job at communicating the message?
Photojournalism goes hand in hand with the media outlets. There is nothing wrong with that and we need photojournalist, however, can you remember any photographer from last year’s World Press or any year?
The sad truth is that photojournalism captures visuals the news outlets can utilize to promote their own stories.
I quit for the simple reason that my work was only relevant as long as the media deemed it to be.
JN: You took quite the risk in returning to Iran in 2009 during the Green Revolution. Were you ever in any serious danger during that period?
AM: In 2009 the Green Revolution in Iran ignited the uprising in the middle east. For a brief moment, a suppressed nation said “enough”, and millions risked their lives to protest in the streets. It was considered an act of espionage if you were photographing the movement.
Very few photographers, myself included, dared to document the movement. For two weeks the world media was glued to Iran and the rise of freedom.
Until Michael Jackson died, and that was it. The world stopped caring. Just like that, finished, let’s all change the channel.
Though I won awards for the work, what gave me a sense of pride was that I did not sell any to the media. I built a powerful exhibition to demonstrate the beauty and darkness of Iran and exposed it at the museum of fine arts, which will also be part of the balade pour la paix curated by the Museum of Fine Arts in June.
With the media, you just flip a page or change the channel. There’s less of a connection to the material. With art, however, you become part of it.
JN: You risked your life to carry out your work as a photographer in a not-so Liberal State. Was there a particular situation that you found yourself in that you thought you might not get out of?
AM: I get that question a lot. To be honest, I just like to talk about the times it ends with a huge smile on my face. I know that’s weird, so let me explain.
It was Christmas last year. I was working in south Thailand, not the touristic south. Literally south Thailand, in the province of Yala. There is a full on civil and fundamentalist war happening there for the past 30 years. No one wants to talk about it because it will impact tourism.
So, it is Christmas and I felt lonely. My family, friends and at that time girlfriend were in Montreal. I wanted to feel happy and normal.
Therefore I decide to take a few soldiers and my translator who is a flamboyant queer soldier to go celebrate. Now, in hindsight, fundamentalist insurgency, highly trigger-happy guards, lots of cheap whiskeys, the one nightclub in the city and my “date”‘s a group of soldiers turned into beautiful fairies, that the smartest idea.
It sounds like the beginning of a Kafka story.
Well as the night comes to an end, we all decide to grab a bite at the food stand next to the club. In that moment, a group of insurgents randomly start shooting. They were targeting anyone, made no difference to them who. Never mind taking a picture, it all happened so fast.
My translator screaming, the beautiful soldiers holding one another, the soup burning me as it dropped on my crotch, my whiskey bottle breaking, flipping the table so we could take cover, and I see the army Humvee pull up and light the M90 (a very big machine gun) on the individuals randomly shooting. A car pulled up, we all jumped in and Vrroom…we were out of there!
Now I am on high stress, like seriously WTF!!! But then out of the blue the song from Fast And Furious “See You Again” is playing, and everyone is singing!!!
I am screaming furiously: “We almost got gunned down!!!! And you guys are playing this s*&^!!!!”
The communal answer: “I will tell you all about it when I see you again”
I was so confused and in shock. There was nothing heroic, no elegance, just simple everyday existence for that community. I was angry, yet smiling, it was a strange sensation. I even tried to explain it to my girlfriend at the time, which was not a good idea. She could not understand because she should not understand. That is the reality, we in Montreal are used to a snowstorm, while others in the world are used to insurgents randomly ruining their parties by trying to kill them.
Still, to this day, that song aggravates me. And I seriously hate getting shot at.
JN: You have taken many dangerous risks in the work you have done and some have had long term consequences. From what I understand, you have been banned by your native country Iran. Has this given you a deeper appreciation for where you are today as a Canadian citizen?
AM: Unfortunately, my native country does not approve of the notion of freedom of speech. And yes, there is a minor fatwa on my head. Not sure how high it is at present, but last I checked, if you would like to make an easy 10K, you can try to kidnap me and hand me the Iranian Islamic Government.
The impact is simple. You seriously appreciate freedom!
Look, I don’t always approve of the students causing traffic in the city of Montreal. But I do appreciate that no one shows up to gun them down.
Canada accepted me and my family as refugees. The liberty and freedom I grew up in have enabled me to not only acquire personal growth but also help support other communities in the world.
Iran is a beautiful country, run by sadistic dictators. I personally can not do anything for all the innocent individuals who are prisoners in the Evin prison. What I can do is scream via my art. Scream so no one ever forgets that Iran has no freedom, no liberty, and no justice. That freedom is mine, and being in Canada, no one can silence me.
JN: I read that you were a child refugee in Montreal who grew up surrounded by gangs. Is there a specific moment/event that influenced you on becoming a photographer?
AM: Yes, I came to Montreal because of the political instability and war in Iran. Actually came with a fake Italian passport, and recently found the journey took us through Emirates, Turkey, Romania to Canada. I was only 5 and it was just a huge game, I did not panic till the moment the doors opened at Mirabel airport and saw the snow storm. To this day I am so impressed with my mom’s courage and perseverance to manage to literally smuggle me and my brother to Canada.
As for growing up in gangs, I rather say that I grew up with a different form of education. We talk about segregation and racism, yet go back 20 years, the terrorist where the Biker gangs who placed bombs in public, the multi-version of street gangs you had to avoid and the police that was too scared to deal with any of it. Therefore if you wanted to stay safe, you created your own family that protects and defended each other. We even had a name, CIC, Crazy Immigrant Crew, which was ironic because there were Quebeckers in our group too.
What made me break away from that form of “education”, was a teacher in college. I took a photography class for the simple reason that there were many attractive girls taking the course. In that class, our teacher Suzanne Girard saw something in me. She gives me boxes and boxes of negatives and just told me to document my world.
I just had an easy understanding of light and composition, plus it comforted me to see that maybe I had some sort of talent besides punching stuff.
What is even crazier, Suzanne Girard also was running the gay pride in Montreal called Divers/Cite at that time. She gave me my first contract. I went from a tough guy to the official photographer of the gay pride. Talk about a transition. I have been documenting gay pride around the world for over 12 years now. All it took was one individual who gave hope to a stubborn, arrogant, tough, refuge.
JN: Has it ever crossed your mind to create your very own large-scale project here in Montreal in the near future?
AM: I would like to open my own gallery one day. Political art does not have much of a demand in the art market or in artist-run centers in Quebec. Not many people would purchase a portrait of an orphan and unfortunately, in Quebec, the art world is very conservative. The museum of fine arts and the DHC show powerful political art, unfortunately, they are the only ones who do it on a regular basis.
Political art is very hard to break in. Already what is considered political art? Who cares? Why should they care? And how do you make a narrative?
As complicated it may sound, there are so many incredible artists who are doing just that. They are slowly getting recognition, just not in their own hometown.
It is very frustrating to build your career with the help of outsiders, then have your own community say “hey we like you now, you made it, would you like to have a show in your hometown now?”
I love my city, Montreal is dreamy even in winter. Just when it comes to the art world we are very behind, and no it is not because we have no money. It is because we don’t risk and we are bland. However, I am seeing the evolution and the change, it is happening galleries, museums and organizations are slowly changing and catching up. As for right now, I think the most powerful contemporary art piece is the construction sites. The mayor should have just lied and said he was building a 4-year long art project to make us feel the struggles of individuals driving in war zones.
Final Takeaways and Awards
In March, Aydin presented his Art of Peace Exhibition in Malta and received the Artraker Biennial Award for his work.
His work will also be presented in a group public exhibition for the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal for the 375 anniversary of Montreal, and he will be creating an art photography mural at this year’s MURAL Fest. His work will send a message that children are the kings and queens in his work.