Truth be told, I was legit nervous to meet her. I’ve been a fan for a while; I follow her on Instagram, and I was privileged to see her exhibit – The Invisible Majority, up close and personal at the Daniels Spectrum cultural centre a year ago. But as I got closer to the café, I felt butterflies in my stomach.
It’s always nerve-wracking for me to meet someone I’m a fan of. I always hope and pray that they’re not arrogant, mean or rude – I don’t want the image I have of them to be shattered. Luckily, Zahra was NONE of that. She was chill yet utterly profound, sweet and sensitive, and extended her arms and gave me a warm embrace when I approached her table at the coffee shop.
This was one of the few interviews where I didn’t talk too much – I really wanted to get to know more about the woman who created such stunningly awesome images. Images that display an array of people of colour – something we don’t see enough of.
I stayed quiet (as quiet as I could be) and listened to Zahra speak about how she got into photography, what her exhibit meant to her, and why she does what she does.
Her voice is slightly deeper than I expected, but very soothing at the same time. Listening to her words was like going to church! Her words completely affected me and made me think about race, imagery and perception. At times it wasn’t even what she said, but how she said it. Everything that came out of her mouth made me honoured to share that space with her.
Wanna know more about this socially conscious photographer? Read on.
Birthplace: Scarborough, ON
Astrological Sign: Libra
Years in photography: 6
Fun Fact: Zahra previously worked as a Child and Youth Worker
Recent Project: Worked for Pride Toronto in artist relations
How did you get your start in photography?
Shi Wisdom. She is the reason I even picked up a camera. She’s the reason why I even believed that I could do it. I said to her one day that I enjoy taking pictures and she said, “So do it!” It was in that moment of realization, how it can be so easy to support somebody with simple words of encouragement. I wasn’t used to that in my life.
She said if you could buy a camera, how much could you drop? I don’t even remember the amount I said….maybe $300? So we hopped in her car, went to Future Shop, and I got a camera.
If you look back into my archive, she’s heavy in it. She took me with her to shows, she allowed me to freely practice. You can see my “newness” in the beginning and she allowed me to grow and then it took on a life of its own.
What is the Invisible Majority?
Just those words alone…they came to me many years ago, basically when I started shooting the music scene in Toronto. Shi brought me in – I was in touch with it because my sister is a singer/songwriter and most of my friends are artists, but I saw a whole new set of people. I was amazed at how many people I have never seen before that were doing such beautiful things. So in my mind, I called us, “The Invisible Majority.”
I’ve been shooting for 6 years and I’ve never had a solo show. I was approached by Elle Alconcel (curator at Daniels Spectrum) and she said, “We want to do your first solo show. I thought they’d give me a wall or something. Then she said NO, we want you to have the entire first floor. And right away, I started panicking because you think about money when you’re an artist, you think how are you going to produce work to put on the walls. Although I’d love to have a show there, I can’t afford to.
The reason I thought, “Will I be able to afford this?” is because she wanted me to do 100 portraits. I have over 100 portraits of people, but they’re not printed. The content wasn’t the issue; it was manifesting and bringing it to life
Behind closed doors, people didn’t know that I was collaging – I was feeling stuck as photographer. After a point, pressing a button no longer made me feel satisfied or felt like I was making an impact.
I wanted to do something deeper that could really change feelings that were happening in the world. The way that people of colour, specifically black people have been made to feel – which is not proud of who you are.
It was very important that I did something that was a part of social change and art. This show was my opportunity to do that.
I said to my curator, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do 100 mixed media portraits. I don’t want to do photography alone. She thought I was crazy…and I was crazy, but I was excited about that craziness. I believed I could do it even though I never did anything like it before. She said, “Alright, Z, I support you.”
In 4 months, I made 150 mixed media portraits.
What did the show mean to you?
I created a timestamp for this moment in our lives. My mother always says to me, “Art represents the soul of a civilization. So when you look back at a time, and you look at art, you know what the people were thinking about, how they were feeling.”
The show ran from September 2016 – Oct 31, 2016, and was in to Harbourfront Centre in February 2017.
What inspires you to shoot?
The images I’m drawn to capture – it’s a moment to do something beautiful for someone else, also show the rest of the world who this beautiful person is. I really honour and appreciate the existence of “melaninated” beings and the beauty we bring to the world.
Is your photography for you?
It’s not for me. Well, in a way it is. It makes me feel good. So part of it is selfish. I need my community to make me feel good. My way of loving myself is loving them. I always say, nurture what nurtures you. This community nurtures me without even knowing it. It is me giving thanks.
The reason I’m even in front of a camera is for representation. I realize being from Pakistan, being queer, being in the arts…I never had anyone like me to look up to, and I had a lot of trouble in life. It probably would have saved me to have someone who kinda looked like me to look up to. It’s my responsibility to be there for young girls.
What would you like people to feel when they experience your photography?
Proud. Feel proud of YOU. Hope they see a reflection of themselves in the person that I captured and gain some strength and pride in their existence because that’s why I am taking the photos. If I met you and something about you made me want to create…. that’s huge.
Amazingly talented Andy Jouma is doing a short film about me. He felt very inspired by my words, and would like to tell my story.
We can totally see why someone would like to tell Zahra’s story, right? She is clearly a legend in the making and I am sure we will be discussing her work for years to come. Thanks for sharing your story with me, Zahra.
To find out more about Zahra, please visit the following sites: