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The New York Times Lens Blog Turning Point Series: Mustafah Abdulaziz on Richard Avedon

Finding Reality, Through a Lens
September 29, 2010, 3:23 pm

The Brooklyn-based photographer Mustafah Abdulaziz, 24, was born in New York City. Mr. Abdulaziz, who works as a contract photographer for The Wall Street Journal, has been a member of the photo collective MJR since 2008. His work focuses on people and cultures in transition. In 2009, Mr. Abdulaziz was named one of Magenta Foundation’s Emerging Photographers, and this year he was nominated for young photographer at the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Awards. His conversation with Amanda Rivkin has been edited and condensed for space.

Q. How was this picture taken?

A. The Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia commissioned me to do a series of portraits during the installation of a mural on the side of a methadone clinic in North Philadelphia. People who were on methadone worked on the mural — some contributing poetry and writing for the muralist, James Burns; others putting it together in the basement of the clinic.

This portrait of Peggy was taken in the alleyway outside the clinic, in front of paper taped to the wall where she had helped tell her own story of addiction and recovery. I ended up talking to Peggy for hours, shooting more Kodak film than I’d planned. I made this photograph after she had recounted how she once told her children to look away while she shot up. She began to cry and I asked her if I could give her a hug. Afterward, when she looked into the camera, the decision to press the button was involuntary — a reaction to that fraction of a moment she gave the viewer.

I don’t remember taking this picture because I wasn’t looking through the lens. I was looking over it, directly at her.

Q. How has this image changed the way you work?

A. This transformed my perception of the power of raw, minimalist portraiture using documentary-based storytelling. I’m now fascinated by the reality of what is photographed: its believability, and how close it comes to representing the reality of a moment while creating an undeniable bridge, through composition and form, between the moment it was created and the moment it’s viewed.

Refining this process, through self-awareness and a constant focus on how these tools can tell stories, is how I believe I will elevate my photographs to a new and far more dynamic level, both visually and intellectually.

Inspiration: Richard Avedon
Image: Clarence Lippard, Drifter, Interstate 80, Sparks, Nev., Aug. 29, 1983.

Q. When did you first come upon this image? How?
A. I came across this photograph in Mr. Avedon’s book “In The American West,” my first experience with photography and what started my interest in making pictures. I was in college for journalism and came across it by chance at a bookstore, just because it was bright and caught my attention. I kept going back to see it. To this day, I don’t have a copy. It is still magic and you can never really own that.

Q. What do you like about this image?
A. For me, this diptych illustrates what is truly unique and remarkable about photography. It has an ability to interact with reality while harnessing the camera to communicate a sensation. His clothes and worn skin are the real captions, while Avedon’s visual presentation breathes this moment into an immortal, frozen state. He is forever gesturing and looking at the viewer. Forever alive.

Q. How has it influenced your work?
A. It made me want to make pictures. Of anything. It really is what started me down this path. I was influenced by the clarity of using the glow of white and the images that can result when approaching an idea or subject matter with intimate, engaging portraits.

“Turning Point” is an occasional series featuring images by young photographers. The column was conceived by the 26-year-old photographer Amanda Rivkin.

Previous Turning Point Columns:

Wednesday, Aug. 4
Amanda Rivkin, 26.
Inspired by Dorothea Lange.

Wednesday, Aug. 11
Aga Luczakowska, 29.
Inspired by Stanley Greene.

Wednesday, Aug. 18
Robert Caplin, 27.
Inspired by David Alan Harvey.

Wednesday, Aug. 25
Yana Paskova, 28.
Inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Wednesday, Sept. 1
Ayman Oghanna, 25.
Inspired by Alex Webb.

Wednesday, Sept. 8
Newsha Tavakolian, 29.
Inspired by Naser al-Din, the shah of Iran (1848-96).

Wednesday, Sept. 15
Maja Hitij, 26.
Inspired by Kevin Carter.

Wednesday, Sept. 22
Ed Ou, 23.
Inspired by Finbarr O’Reilly