As I said yesterday I am going to be posting different interviews with photographers who are working as visual peacemakers.
Today’s interview is with my friend Mario Mattei, who is the Co-Founder, President and Creative Director of The International Guild of Visual Peacemakers. I am member of the IGVP and it is a privilege to have the opportunity to interview Mario.
I also wanted to let you know that Matt Brandon’s interview with Mario Mattei and Logan McAdams is a great one as well. Click here to listen to that interview.
When and how did you get your start in photography?
It was in 1998, my senior year in high school, when I was taking a Photo 1-2 class. I quickly dropped study hall and enrolled in Photo 3-4 simultaneously. My dad tossed me his old Minolta X700, some lenses, a strobe, and a tattered Domke bag. I spent hours in the darkroom after school and graduated with a Letter in visual arts.
Over the years, photography became an on-and-off way to express my creativity. About 2 1/2 years ago I realized just how fitting it was for me and things started to take off for me in Arizona. I moved to Turkey shortly after to pursue my dreams. I now enjoy cultural photography and visual peacemaking on a weekly or monthly basis.
My first advocacy project happened in my home state, Arizona. In 2008, we were caught in a ravaging flood while camping inside the Grand Canyon, and then helicopter-rescued out. Shortly afterwards, I put on a fund-raising exhibition at Arizona State University with the help of a vice provost to support the Havasupai Native American tribe. Their livelihood was negatively affected by the devastation.
I sold prints of the muddy waterfalls, the wreckage, and of the previously pristine Havasu Falls. CNN interviewed us on our way home, and later a local Arizona news station interviewed me live on their morning edition. There was some good momentum going. The concept for visual peacemaking had already birthed in my mind, but this first advocacy project really fired me up. It was the first time I saw my images making a positive difference.
What are the humanitarian issues you are most passionate about, photographically speaking and why?
Photographically speaking, the issue closest to my heart is breaking down false stereotypes about Muslims. I’ve lived in Kashmir, India and now Turkey. I have a good handful of Muslim friends from these countries as well as in the US. So with all the media covering shocking news stories from around the world, I’m eager to tell alternative stories that bring a balance to what the world is visually digesting. My experience with Muslims is fantastic 99% of the time! Their hospitality isn’t a myth; it’s a positive stereotype that’s often true.
Anytime I’m exposed to racism or sweeping generalizations about any group, I get pretty worked up inside. My justice-fire ignites and I just want to do something about it. As a photographer this has brought me to visual peacemaking.
Why? Honestly before 2002 I cared very little about this or most justice issues. I was aggressively pursuing the American Dream and partying, more worried about promoting my band. Then in 2002 God changed my life dramatically. It’s hard to explain… but I’ll try to with a story. Jesus healed a blind man. This angered religious authorities. They interrogated the blind man. He answered the same over and over and in his exasperation said, “Look! I was blind, but now I see. That’s all I know!”
How have you seen your visual advocacy bring real change to the peoples or issues you are passionate about capturing photographically?
In several ways, but I’m hungry to see a lot more over the years. I recently published two photography books about Turkey that focus on our Shared Humanity. As I’m currently traveling the US, I’m showing these books to friends and colleagues. It’s a joy to watch them smile as they flip through the pages & to answer their honest questions. The images provide a space for them to open up to fresh perspectives about Turkey and Muslims in general.
Being on the frontlines of communication with the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers (IGVP) I have the privilege of receiving “love mail,” which is the opposite of hate mail. So while there’s a lot of positive, encouraging chatter on the site itself, I get special emails from photographers and viewers who are moved by the goal to display the beauty and dignity of cultures around the world. Everyone seems to see the huge need for images that ease fears, challenge our mistrust, and break down negative stereotypes.
What are some future humanitarian photography projects you are excited about and why?
I’ve been invited to Saudi Arabia to document the everyday life of a Wahhabi Muslim family. The logistics are being worked out, so it may or may not happen. But I’m praying it does. Osama Bin Laden has brought much negativity and shame to the Wahhabi. Seems obvious to say, but not all Wahhabi are Bin Ladens!
I’m genuinely excited to see the work of the photographers who will attend our two IGVP photo workshops in Turkey this May 2011–one to the Black Sea northeast region, Trabzon, and one to the Syria-bordering Şanlı Urfa (shawn-luh oorfa) . Guild members Matt Brandon & Matt Powell are two humanitarian photographers who have influenced me and who I deeply respect. They will lead the tour and include visual peacemaking values into the workshops. I love Turkish people. So I’m excited to see what happens when Turks and these visual peacemakers collide into a multitude of photographer-subject exchanges. And by the way, these tours are priced to sell!
What is it that drives you personally to use photography to advocate on behalf of others?
I believe God’s design for humanity is perfect, that He can and is healing us, and will restore all things. In the final two chapters of the Bible there is a picture of “the end”, which is really a new era: it’s all ethnicities and nations bringing their best into a new creation. They’re celebrating God and each others diversity–no more injustice, no more brokeness, simply perfect unity amidst diversity. I want my personal and professional life to be a signpost that points toward that total beauty and wholeness by practically living to that end–without having unrealistic expectations that I, or anyone can do this 100% of the time. Nor do I believe we can accomplish total wholeness without the final help from the Creator Himself. I’m motivated to get involved with him now on this project of realizing total beauty, peace, reconciliation, redemption and restoration.
Check your heart. Are you motivated by your portfolio or by meaningful interactions with people and making images for their good as much as for your own good. Think about your portfolio and business while behind the computer at the proper time. These are very important. But once out shooting, forget about it. Focus on the people, the story, the advocacy issue, possibly your client’s needs if on assignment; think about the message you and the photographic subjects want and need to tell!
Secondly, prepare yourself as a person so that you’re the right kind of photographer for the job. Research the people and area. Hang out. Slow down. Ask friendly questions. Read up on working cross-culturally. Hold back judgments for much longer than you would in your own culture—both value judgments and judgments about everyday stuff like cooking, traffic law, parenting, gestures, etc.
Finally, don’t do it alone. Learn from others. Share resources. Teach others. Collaborate. Be open to constructive criticism. Invest in your creative work, meaning time and money. Get mentored, get a portfolio review , attend workshops to refine yourself and network with others. It really is worth it. Practice at home and locally. Evaluate, adjust, rinse repeat.