Fuad Alakbarov is a Glasgow-based artist, photojournalist, political commentator and human rights activist. He speaks to Sophie Breitsameter about his upcoming photography exhibition, his Azerbaijani roots and their influence on his work – and what it was like to represent Scotland at the Chess Championships
Photographer Fuad Alakbarov’s work seeks to capture beautiful ordinary moments that are actually filled with meaning. Fuad is, in his own words “particularly passionate about street photography, the urban landscape and conceptual photography”.
The artist was born in Baku but moved to Glasgow for secondary school, and the city will host his upcoming exhibition, “When East Meets West”. The Old Hairdresser’s is the venue for his photographic exploration of the ways in which people have been represented as subjects in stills, from contemporary portraiture to journalism. Here, we find out more.
What is your first memory of the city of Baku?
I have a pretty eclectic cultural background. I belong to the generation born during the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Nevertheless, warm memories light up in my mind when I remember Baku.
My life can be separated into various different time periods: my childhood growing up in Baku, the Nagorno-Karabakh war, my time living in London, the new millennium and my days living on the main streets of Glasgow. But with television and the internet, little by little, my cultural borders have become more transparent. Over the years I’ve learned to recognise myself as a mix of both cultures. But isn’t that what every artist needs?
How does your Azerbaijani background influence your work?
I think my Azerbaijani roots influence my work ethic and approach to work. I’m serious about what I do and love creating a positive atmosphere during photoshoots.
Your eye is definitely shaped by what you’re around and what you’re always seeing. So, in saying that, I think growing up in Baku is my biggest asset as a photographer.
What was your first experience of photography?
I received my first camera from my father at the age of 13. When I realized what I was looking for in a photograph, I started taking pictures of my city. Glasgow has always been a diverse and inspirational backdrop for my photography. My first project was called City of the Bridges and is a portrait of Glasgow, its history, and the people who live or have lived there. The images show how it’s changed, how it became an art capital and, in a way, I can say that its history is somehow similar to Baku’s history.
What influences your style?
I’m drawn to street photography, the urban landscape and conceptual photography. Through my work I am seeking to preserve those often missed, and seemingly insignificant, fleeting moments that make life special and a joy to behold.
I rarely use bright colours except perhaps as an accent colour. I love capturing the melancholic atmosphere that surrounds the cityscapes during autumn. Taking portraits for me is not just releasing the shutter. It is about connecting with the subject.
How has your passion for politics, activism and environmentalism shaped your photography?
I chose to transform my life in an attempt to transform my art; for me, it was a major decision. Being able to travel enriched my creativity. I travel to the places that interest me the most — in between the countryside and cities, industrial areas, hidden lanes, documenting my encounters. Now my work has become quite autobiographical.
Tell us about your upcoming exhibition.
I hope to appeal to the world about the importance of the natural environment and how some of it is disappearing. After all, the natural landscape is greatly connected to the spiritual wealth of human beings.
That’s why we are using a set of different terrains for our photoshoots. I will be working with incredibly talented photographer Yuliya Chystaya and make-up artist Laura McGowan. Laura will be using unconventional products like clays and moss, as well as specialised materials like plains dust, to create atmospheric photos. We will be working with models from several different nations all over the world, including Azerbaijan.
What is your favourite piece in the exhibition?
The Ocean terrain. I like it because it feels quite powerful. With every drop of water we drink, every breath we take, we’re connected to the sea or the ocean. A huge part of the oxygen in the atmosphere is generated by the sea. I hope humanity will protect our oceans in ways that will restore the health of humankind and create a brighter future.
Who are your favourite photographers?
Pieter Hugo – I absolutely loved his “Nollywood” project, which is now a book. Hugo’s interpretation of hallucinatory and unsettling images creates a fictional world where mundane and unreal elements intertwine.
I’m also a huge fan of Platon’s portrait photography. He is one of the best storytellers in modern photography and fantastic at getting emotion from subjects. The same can be said about Martin Schoeller. I love his close-up portrait work. In fact, anyone who worked as an assistant to Annie Leibovitz has a great future ahead of them.
A spice stall in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, 2018
Like Humans of New York, your photography helps to share intimate stories and voices from within a community. How important is a human connection to your photography?
As humans, we subconsciously try to connect with other people, whether they are friends, family or complete strangers. When you listen well to others, you start to pick up more on the stylistic components related to how people present arguments and information. Basically, it’s the basis for trust and respect.
I always try to remember how important it is to listen attentively and empathetically. I try to remember how difficult it is to talk to someone who is interrupting or continually focused on what they want to express in the conversation.
Who are your favourite five people to follow on Instagram?
@oprisco (Oleg Oprisco)
@ivareythorsson (Ivar Eythorsson)
@chrishenry (Chris Henry)
@georgiarosehardy (Rosie Hardy)
@renaeffendiphoto (Rena Effendi)
You represent Scotland at chess championships. Many say that “Generation Z” are pursuing “portfolio careers”, would you agree?
It’s a debatable question, and I’m not sure I can answer. It requires proper analysis!
All I can tell that if you want to succeed with photography as your career, you need to have greater passion than anyone else you know. You must be so ahead of everyone else that they look tiny in your rear view mirror.
To be honest, we are drowning in a sea of photographs, and photographers are a dime a dozen. The only way to succeed and differentiate yourself is to apply this principle to all of the parts of your photographic life.
Small is great. To succeed as a photographer, don’t become just another wedding photographer. Instead, identify a small niche, and build your empire upwards. If the niche doesn’t exist (yet) — you should be the one to build it.
Two Roma men dressed in Native American attire, Glasgow, 2014
Do you think that digital sharing platforms have democratised photography?
Digital photography has democratised the medium, making it accessible to more people. For many photographers, including me, the digital camera made our jobs simpler, quicker, and cost-effective.
With more people snapping photos than before, everyone’s visual literacy has widened. For the casual photographer, it’s become a lot simpler to take an unbelievable image, to really preserve a moment as it was experienced. For the experienced photographer, new tools and technology are coming which will really help the artist push the bounds of the medium. Overall, it’s a very exciting time for anyone who captures photography.
What are you working on for the rest of the year?
I am working on a new series about Glasgow cafes. They’re a massive part of what makes our city great. For many people, cafes are second homes, places where it doesn’t matter who you are. They’re pure comfort, in the form of milky cups of tea and fried bread.
The series will be made up of 40 photographs taken in various cafes, featuring owners and all the customers that stop by the cafe to get a cup of drink.
I am also hoping to have more exhibitions in England, Scotland, France, Spain and Russia.
Images courtesy of Fuad Alakbarov
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