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The World of Mustafah Abdulaziz

From chance encounters with cowboys, to the mean streets of Mexico City. Mustafah Abdulaziz is paving an impressive path in the world of photojournalism

Mustafah Abdulaziz is only 23 but has already done reportage photography for the likes of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek and won a few accolades for his sincere and visually stunning documentary work. Most recently, he was awarded the Nikon Emerging Professional Grant and will be embarking on the Missouri Photojournalism Workshop this coming September.

Dazed Digital: Firstly, congratulations on winning the Nikon Emerging Photographer Scholarship and getting accepted to MPW.61. That’s pretty amazing.

Mustafah Abdulaziz: Thank you. I took a bit of a chance and submitted an on-going, long term project on a methadone mother in North Philadelphia. These kind of things take time and while not complete, I’m fortunate the judges at Missouri saw fit to honor it.

DD: When did you first start taking pictures? Where you always interested in photojournalism?
Mustafah Abdulaziz: I first starting making pictures of my family when I was around 17. My initial interest in photography was intertwined with my interest in traveling. My mother would collect issues of National Geographic and I would scan them cover to cover for the pictures alone, then go back and read the stories.
The thing that really drove me into photojournalism occurred at a library at a community college I was attending for journalism. I came across two books that blew me away. The first was “In The American West” by the legendary portrait photographer Richard Avedon and the second was “Inferno” by war photographer James Nachtwey. This lethal combination lit a fire in my heels.

DD: You grew up in New York and the mountains of Pennsylvania. Big contrasts. Which would you say had more influence on your work?
Mustafah Abdulaziz: Definitely Pennsylvania. While finding form and composition among New York City architecture is by no means easy, finding it in rural areas, where the scenery tended to look the same from town to town proved to be a challenge. So a lot of times I relied on the human interest to make compositions and tell stories, rather than anything naturally dramatic about the subject. Growing up in two environments so drastically different from each other gave me a certain level of comfort in going to new places and trying to understand them.

DD: You shot the Inauguration of Barack Obama for the Wall Street Journal. How was that?
Mustafah Abdulaziz: Cold. I don’t think I’ve been colder and more excited at the same time in my entire life. The climate was brutal, but the collective sense of purpose permeated the air. When Obama took his oath people were huddled together, some weeping and others shivering and smiling. I’ve never seen anything like it.

DD: How do you choose your subjects?  What made you photograph the Patagonia Cowboys, or the Crime in Mexico City series?
Mustafah Abdulaziz: The desire to travel to Patagonia was planted when a friend recommended the Bruce Chatwin book, “In Patagonia.” I became enamored with the idea of the place, but I didn’t know exactly what my story would be until I got to the far southern Chilean/Argentinean border. One night I was hearing stories about these cowboys and the next I was in a back of a pick-up truck heading out to spend a few weeks photographing them.
As for Mexico, I was there for a photojournalism workshop and by chance met another photographer, Jared Moossy, who I shared a mutual friend. This led to us riding along with some local photographers who work the thankless job of covering crime in Mexico City. What they do takes courage and commitment and I was lucky to have them show me the ropes.

DD: Tell me about the photography collective MJR you are part of. How did you guys get together?
Mustafah Abdulaziz: I met one of the founders of MJR, Matt Craig, at a seminar in New York City in 2006 and over time became inspired by his passion for photography and the group’s potential as both a vehicle for displaying online content as well as a photo collective defined by it’s members and their personal vision. In a age of declining revenues and mounting challenges, MJR lets us present the exhibitions we want to show and provides a network of logistical support for photographers normally associated with the more established photo agencies.
In short, MJR was a way for us to take control of our careers.

DD: Who are your influences?
Mustafah Abdulaziz: In photojournalism, I’m drawn to the work of Christopher Anderson of Magnum Photos and Pep Bonet of NOOR Images. In fashion, photographers like Mario Testino and Bruce Weber are a big inspiration for their consistent style.

DD: What are you working on at the moment?
Mustafah Abdulaziz: I’m hoping to complete a year-long story on methadone pregnancy by the end of 2009 and begin another on the Maasai in Kenya. I’m interested in niche stories that can bring viewers into the lives of complete strangers in a very intimate way.

DD: What are you hoping for in the future?
Mustafah Abdulaziz: To keep telling stories that connect with people. It’s a privilege to be allowed to step into so many lives and document their endeavors.