Student Spotlight: Niaz Maleknia

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Student Spotlight chats with former Mango Lab students. In the lead up to our upcoming UrbanPhotoFest Masterclass this year we chat with Niaz Maleknia from our 2016 UPF Masterclass. Niaz talks about embracing ugliness when photographing, her recent controversial projects on mental health, and why perseverance is the key to pursuing photography as a career. 

How did you first get into photography?
The honest truth is my best friend is a photographer and I used to go along on shoots with him when I had nothing better to do.

How did you come across The Mango Lab?
I met Karl at Central Saint Martins when I took his Reportage course and I loved his course so much I did it twice! Can you believe it?!

What course have you done at The Mango Lab?
The one I did myself was the Masterclass with Dario Mitidieri. But, Romy, my daughter, did the Beginner’s course with Julia.

How would you describe the Masterclass with Dario? 
It was brilliant. It was really good to see a well-established photographer, with his reputation, spending a whole day in a Masterclass. Watching him work in Covent Garden and how he approaches street photography was really good. Also, his critique was quite brutal – he was not very kind to me at all, which I loved. It was brilliant. I would do that again!

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What kind of critique did you receive?
It was about documentary photography. At the time I had enrolled at LCC and he basically said to me that he expected me to have shot a lot more varied images than I had done on that day. The truth of the matter is he was completely right — I was being utterly lazy and to be honest I think I had spent the whole week photographing at college. It was on Saturday and it was freezing that day. This is the honest truth – I was surrounded by so many good cake shops and after about an hour I thought I really want to have a cake and a coffee! He shredded me. Everything he said was right. I took away what he said for the rest of the time of the course which was that you need to keeping shooting and shooting and shooting because then you’ve got more choice of good shots to choose from.

So, you’ve done a degree in photography?
This was a one year post-grad dip in photography. Now, I want to do an MA in documentary photography.

Did photography initially start as a hobby?
Yes. It all started with going to CSM to do some of their short courses. It wasn’t until I did Karl’s course actually that I really wanted to do this. He didn’t make it solely technical, whereas all the other courses I had done with anyone else was all about how to work a camera. There was a technical side to it but with him it was more about the storytelling, the theory behind it, and the analytical thinking behind photography. That was what really got me thinking about images.

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There’s been an increasing number of courses that are offered online. From a student’s perspective what’s the value of in-person learning as opposed to doing courses online?
I wouldn’t do it online. I really wouldn’t do it online. Personally, I think being in a classroom situation you get that whole interaction whereby you can really talk to each other, interact, and get instant feedback. It is more valuable to me than online.

Are you working on any projects currently?
I’m working on coming up with a thesis idea for the MA. My Dad is suffering from Alzheimers, so he’s been sectioned in a dreadful hospital. He’s in a really disturbing ward, so I’m been — very unethically some may say — shooting images of him in there without them knowing. I’ve actually got some of the work on my website at the moment. I’m kind of doing a project on mental health.

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I also did a project called Facebook Lolita for my end-of-year project. That was about the way young girls project themselves on social media. I read Lolita when I was about 15 — it was about a relationship between an older man and a young girl. The whole thing questioned if she was innocent and how aware she was of her sexuality. I basically called this project Facebook Lolita because I think young girls are experimenting with their sexuality and performing in selfies. It’s about performance and selfies, but among teenage girls and how they expose their sexuality on social media. I’m not saying it’s only viewed by older men, in fact I think the statistics show that more younger guys look. It’s not so much about the interaction with them and the male viewer, but more about the exploration of their sexuality.

You’ve been nominated for an award as well?
Yes, I’ve been nominated by an Iranian photographer – Shadi Ghadirian – for the Mac Book Award. She has exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery. I’ve won a project at LCC which was an external competition – it was called 251. Elephant and Castle has had a massive revamp and they’re building these major apartments. They wanted to buy the work of 15 photographers at LCC. I was one them. To be honest I’m amazed that they bought my work. The whole of Elephant and Castle shopping centre is this hideous thing – it’s basically bringing the old and the new together. What I was aiming to do was glorify the ugly side of Elephant and Castle.

The breadth of photographers is incredible now compared to 20 years ago, so what’s the most inspiring thing about learning photography at this present moment in time?
I guess it’s that we’re so exposed to it and at the tip of my finger on Instagram I can look at the work of some amazing young photographers. It’s just how much of it is out there is inspiring. Whereas 20 or 30 years ago you were not as exposed to it and you could just name the famous lot, whereas now there are so many photographers.

Is there a particular genre of photography you’re concentrating on now?
I love street, it’s got no money in it but I love it.

Do you have any tips for adults coming into photography later and how they can extend it outside of a hobby?
I think if you persevere at this there is money to be made, but not in the exciting part of photography. This morning I assisted on a shoot and the photographer I was assisting was saying it really isn’t what he wants to be doing, but it’s bread and butter at the end of the day. Let’s put it this way, I’d rather be doing this than anything else. Even though I’m a teacher by profession I enjoy doing photography more. Even though I make nothing out of it I still enjoy it more than teaching curriculum stuff. I would say just persevere at it and do it, because if you’re passionate then you can always get into weddings or whatever. I’m not really pushing myself to make money out of it.

Where do you see your photography going in the future?
What I would love to do in a dream situation is to teach it at graduate level or to work within a university setting, not as a lecturer but in a smaller post. If I was 20 years younger I would try to make something out of it in the creative sense. I still like fine art photography. I might do events and weddings. I’m just doing it because I love it and I’ve never been a money-making machine.

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What does photography give you that nothing else does?
I love it. It helps me look at the world in a different way — even when I go somewhere and it’s ugly, because I love photography, I like taking pictures of things that are not always the prettiest. It actually draws me to it, instead of thinking, ‘Oh God, I really don’t want to be here.’ It makes me look at things in a very different way.

To view more of Niaz’s work visit: niazmalekniaphotography.com 

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