Multi-award winning Bahraini photo-journalist Ghada Khunji travels the world documenting ordinary people and their ordinary lives. We recently caught up with her as she prepares for an exhibition in Bahrain; looking at her work and asking why she does what she does?
It is hard to imagine someone as diminutive, timid, sweet-looking and modest as Ghada Khunji venturing into some of the most difficult places on the planet chronicling and documenting people and places most of us would never meet, or ever see.
But Ghada is a paradox, she is indeed bold and brave and fearless, and her images both amaze and shock; they greet you with a smile and kick you in the teeth at the same time and Ghada has a personality to match her images. Although she freely discloses she is often shy and an introvert, she is thoughtful and articulate, and knows exactly what she wants to achieve; professionally, artistically and personally. Her portfolios from Hindustan won awards and worldwide accolades, her images from Cuba and the Dominican Republic prompted humanitarian appeals and fund-raising events, and her extraordinarily sad, haunting and unforgettable images from care homes around the USA made us all reflect upon our own fragility and destiny.
It is hard not to appreciate Ghada's images; their composition and colour, and the remarkable and undeniably simple way they bring dignity and respect to the human soul, despite the conditions and situations some of these human souls live in. When looking at her images we can't help but ask; 'who are these people, and what sort of lives do they lead?' But what drives her to take these sorts of images and document people in the way she does? “My goal, as a documentary photographer, is to show people's dignity and their pride and self-respect. The most important thing for me is to record these people in their own private places; I want to show things to the world in a way that the world never really gets to see them.”
Born on 27 August 1967, Ghada grew up in Bahrain. When she was just eight years old, a family member gave her an old camera and, snapping away at almost everything and everyone she saw, the people, places and the diversity of cultures in Bahrain during the '70s and '80s became her inspiration and guidance. “I remember fondly the people, music, laughter and arts, but also a sense of prayer and good deeds that surrounded me. My father was a devout Muslim yet quite contemporary in his thinking. I witnessed love, respect and devotion all around. Bahrain, being preciously small, brought a church, temple and mosque within walking distance of each other, co-existing in harmony.” This introduced her at an early age to the world; a world of tolerance, diversity and variety, and a world that she could capture on film and make immortal. And Ghada has been taking photographs of her environment and the people in it almost everyday since.
Education was very important to Ghada's family and so, as a teenager, Ghada went to study at Harlaxton College, in Evansville, England. She then moved to New York where she graduated at two of New York's premier arts institutions; the Parsons School of Design, a private art and design college based in Greenwich Village, and at the nearby International Centre of Photography's photojournalism and documentary program, which focuses specifically on the investigative skills and technical knowledge necessary in the complex and constantly changing world of visual journalism.
After graduating, 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. Ghada also spent two years as a research assistant for photo agencies including the prestigious Black Star and Magnum, and almost eight years as a printer and print manager for a large number of world-renowned photographers including Annie Leibovitz, Greg Kadel, Pamela Hanson, Steve Meisel, Brigitte Lacombe and Richard Burbridge. However, it wasn't long before she realised that her passion was not in documenting the glamourous or beautiful, the rich or famous, but real people leading real lives and so, in her spare time, she searched for those images and places that would provoke thought and feeling, and prompt discussion and discourse.
“For me, I like to take pictures of just one or two people, rather than groups. I single people out, specific people who look interesting or who look as though they have an interesting story to tell. I don't try to stage things too much, I just see an image, look at that person, look at their surroundings and then take a picture. Simple. Every picture has to tell a personal story and, for me, this story is the most important thing.”
Ghada still often uses her 20 year-old Mamiya medium-format camera and rolls of film. "There is something about not being able to see the images until I get into the darkroom that really interests me. Just having a few images per roll of film makes me think harder about the image. Digital cameras can often make people lazy and so, as long as film is available, I will still be using it for much of my work."
In 2006 Ghada 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. In 2007 she then went onto win the Grand Prize in the fist ever American Photo magazine's Image of the Year competition, as well as the Golden Lights Award for Travel. She has exhibited widely in the US and Europe and, in recent years, in Bahrain, Dubai, London and in Spain as the recipient of the Julia Margaret Cameron Award (2012), where she won the first prize in the category of portraiture. One of her recent works was acquired by the Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives (ALJCI) in 2013. In the same year, she was nominated for the Prix Pictet, the global award in photography and sustainability, aiming to uncover outstanding photography applied to confront the most pressing social and environmental challenges of today. Ghada has won many other awards and accolades; she is one of the very few Master Photographers to come out from the Gulf region and in 2014 she was an Honoree in the field of Visual Arts & Photography representing the Kingdom of Bahrain in an awards ceremony for Honorees from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) held by the National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature in Kuwait.
Ghada divides her time between New York and her beloved Bahrain. Her heart, her soul and her roots remain in Bahrain and, when she is not there, she misses it terribly, but she realises that there are far fewer opportunities for professional photographers on the island than in the US and so is resigned to spending at least some of her life back in the Big Apple.
Ghada understands the power of photography and photojournalism, and how a single still image can often come to life and be both incredibly moving and extraordinarily powerful. She often holds masterclasses in photography and her heart leaps when, through her images, others take up the craft and start chronicling the world through their own eyes. “I want my images to inspire other photographers. I want to empower Arab women, as well as women everywhere, to pick up a camera and start taking pictures. The world is truly full of visual splendour.”
Wording © COPYRIGHT 2016, ROBIN BARRATT
Images © COPYRIGHT by Ghada Khunji
Abridged version 1st published in Time Out, Bahrain, 2011
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