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Miki Johnson: Tell me about why you wanted to do photograph Hajj.
Newsha Tavakolian: I always wanted to go to to the holy city of Mecca. So then when I went there in 2006 for a reportage on the death of the late Saudi king, I said to myself, “It would be such amazing place to photograph, I should come back to take pictures during the annual Hajj pilgrimage.” So for two or three years, I was applying for the visa. And I could never get it. But in 2008, I applied just five months before, and I was pushing hard because I really wanted to go there to take pictures. This time they gave me the visa and in a couple of days I had to be ready to go.
MJ: You mentioned that it was very important for your pictures to be personal. Why was that?
NT: If you look at the first picture [above], I was preparing my Hajj dress. It’s a custom when you go to Hajj, you have to ask all the people around you, family members and friends, for forgiveness, because in Muslim culture, when someone comes back from Hajj, no one should be sad with them. If you had a fight with someone, or you hurt someone, and you go to Hajj, your Hajj is not accepted. So everybody should have good feeling about you.
So I did that. I sent a text message to all my family members and friends. I said I’m going to Hajj…you can read the text in the first picture in the caption. Many of my family members and friends texted me back. My cousin brought me a Hajj dress. My aunt brought me prayer beads, and other relatives came, and they said, “Please pray for us. I want a good husband.” Another one said, “I want a good wife. I want a house.” Because when you go for the first time to Hajj, they say if you pray for someone, it’ll be accepted by God. So I had to prepare myself before I went to Hajj — from a photographic standpoint as well. Because for me, the pictures should show the emotion in such a spritual place, show how people are, and where they are sleeping, and small details. Because many photographers who go there, they are too newsy. But I wanted to take pictures of the journey I’m going through myself.
But of course Hajj is one of the most difficult places to take pictures. Because it’s so crowded. There are too many people there. It’s hot. You have to walk 10 hours…normally it takes half an hour, but because there are so many people, it’ll take 7 or 10 hours to walk between the religious sites. And I had two heavy cameras.
MJ: Tell me about being there, taking pictures. How did people react to you?
NT: Before I went there, I was thinking it was going to be hard. Maybe they won’t let me go to a certain area to take pictures. But in Saudi Arabia, when you go to Hajj, you have a minder with you, a rule which goes for all journalists visiting Saudi Arabia. They bussed all the journalists and photographers around in a group, which was a problem for me since I wanted to avoid having the same angles as the news wire photographers. I had to go out of my way to visit other places or shoot from different perspectives. To capture the feeling, the emotions of the Hajj, you cant be like a Japanese tourist traveling through Europe. I wanted to spend time in certain places, hang out with pilgrims. The high point of the Hajj is only four days so you cannot waste any time.
I was thinking many Muslims wouldn’t want to be photographed. As a photographer, I went to many different places; I covered different things. I know how to deal with people. I try focus on faces of people to see if they are ok with being photographed or not. It’s a spritual trip, so you don’t want to go around destroying people’s private moments too much. I try to be like a fly on the wall and don’t attract too much attention to my camera. Everyone needs to wear white, and in order not to stand out, I wore the same with clothes as everyone else.