When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?
Photography came a bit early for me. I was 12 years old and bored during my summer break. I started browsing my father’s photography book collection and stumbled upon Michael Freeman’s 35mm Handbook. In that book I Saw my first photograph, a black and white of a man jumping over a puddle. That same afternoon I borrowed my dad’s Canon AE-1 and set about photographing chickens we had in the backyard. When the prints came back and I opened that envelope I was thrilled, I was hooked.
From then on I always carried that camera, on family vacations, on school fieldtrips, though I still didn’t think it was something I could make a career out of. But the idea of photography as a profession solidified in my later teens, photography class in high school introduced me to the magic of the darkroom, I assisted a couple of photographers during weekends and school holidays. We are an expat family, so we lived in a few countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. My backyard had expanded to fabulous markets, tropical landscapes and vibrant cities and a melting pot of cultures, all great subjects to practice to photography.
After graduation I had two acceptance letters, they actually came on the same day. One was for flight school in Florida and the other from Brooks in California. That was the fork in the road for me, I decided that photography was the way to go and haven’t looked back since.
Years later I was in Paris at the Henri Cartier-Bresson Center and stood for a very long time in front of his photograph of that man jumping into a puddle. That print made me pick up the camera for the first time, my personal version of the decisive moment.
Tell me about your project, Hijab On/Off – What inspired you to start this project and how did you find your subjects? Did the women who posed for you wear their hijabs daily?
The Hijab On/Off project came about because of the heated debate about the Islamic head scarf that was going on in Spain and western europe a few years ago. I was shocked and puzzled by the extremist opinions that were getting airtime on the news and in the press on both sides of the debate. Accusations were being thrown around from oppression of women to colonial imperialism. But as I watched the debate I realized that no one had thought to ask Muslim women for their opinion and when they were invited to panel discussions it became clear that the women they had invited were quite extremist in their views. Understandably it makes for better ratings.
So with this debate as a backdrop I found myself in Kuala Lumpur on assignment for a client. I had lived in Malaysia for a couple of year and that had given me a different perspective on Islam, Malaysia being a secular state with more moderate interpretations. I decided to try and shoot a personal project on Islam.
I got in touch with a stylist friend, Rina Matsui and pitched the idea. She also expressed her views of how frustrating it was to observe stereotyped attitudes towards Islam. But just to be clear neither Rina (she was raised in Malaysia and is of Chinese / Japanese parents) nor I (my parents are Filipino / Spanish) are Muslim. We wanted to approach the idea of the Hijab on/off in a very neutral and delicate manner. After much discussion we both agreed that we wanted to photograph middle -class Muslim women from as wide a gamut of views as possible and to see what their attitudes were with regards to the Hijab.
We had about 12 volunteers who were briefed on the concept, a photograph of them with and without the Hijab. We did not however force anyone to be photographed without it unless they wanted to, and in one case the subject chose to have hijab on for both photographs. The women ranged from stay at home moms, a TV news anchor, a heavy metal singer and a couple of graphic designers and artists.
We did interviews first, to determine how the women viewed the Hijab. The opinions were as varied as the women themselves. For most of them the Hijab was first and foremost a garment that they felt free to wear according to their own cultural and religious criteria. Most of the women did no wear the Hijab on a daily basis, but instead used it during religious or social gatherings as a sign of respect and cultural identity.
One of the women came with a Burka she had bought in Afghanistan. She was there as part of the UN peace mission, and at the time was forced to wear the Burka when out in public. She told us that at first she felt is was oppressive and even backward but that in time she actually found that the Burka, covering your body from head to toe, actually had a very practical application protecting you from the harsh weather and sun. The Taliban’s imposition of the Burka had transformed a very practical garment into a symbol of oppression. And this was her point, given the choice she would still wear the Burka when venturing outdoors, but wearing it because a Mulah mandates its was something she was against.
The youngest woman we photographed was a college student and part-time heavy metal musician. She chose to not remove her Hijab for the portraits but instead came to the set with her own interpretation of heavy metal meets Islam. She had a pair of Chucks, black jeans and button pins all topped off with her hijab. For her the Hijab was not a garment anchored in old Islamic traditions. Instead it was a modern symbol of her identity as a Muslim Woman that matched perfectly with her identity as a heavy metal rocker. She told us that most of her band perform on stage with the hijab.
What Rina and I came away with from the shoot is the basic idea that our identity is no longer singular, it is plural and fluid. These women never saw themselves as being identified by one thing, one belief. They have multiple identities that they mix and match as they see fit within their social, cultural and religious contexts. This is what empowerment for Muslim women seems to lead to, the ability to create a plural identity, and the Hijab is just another artifact that forms that collage.
Who would your dream subject be?
Tough one! But over the years, and I am starting to sound old here, the best shoots I have been on have had less to do with the subject and more to do with the people involved. My dream project would be one where I get to choose who I collaborate with, from the client, the creative, my crew, etc.
It’s a well worn clichÃ© but if you can choose the people you work for and the people you work with then you are successful in any field.
You travel a lot for work – what has been one of your favorite places tor visit?
The Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia is top of my list. Its far, its hard to get to and maybe that’s why its so special. The islands are truly wild and the landscape is breathtaking at every turn. The most magical thing about the islands are the people. Long under the influence of missionaries and other “civilizing” powers they are now in the process of rediscovering their own traditions form the rebirth of traditional tattooing to the understanding of the great societies that first populated the islands centuries ago.
But don’t get me wrong, you won’t find that traditional Polynesian savage as described in some of the text books on Anthropology I read while at university. Instead you find a proud and powerful people falling back in love with their culture after many years of being told that they were savages. As an example, my guide Tematai, had 70% of his body covered in traditional tattoos, he traces his lineage back to royal blood, and he is unbeatable at any playstation game you care to mention.
Any words of wisdom for the up and comers?
I have been getting this question quite a bit of late but I always feel rather awkward answering it because I still feel like a newcomer myself! I guess its two things really.
The first thing my instructors at Brooks told me was go shoot, and shoot a lot. Nothing can replace experience, the more you fire that shutter the more experience you start getting.
Second would be shoot personal projects. Commercial and editorial work is fantastic and its how we pay the bills, but don’t forget to shoot for yourself. The Hijab project is a good example, there was no client but my own curiosity. You don’t have to go far or spend a lot of money, you can find things in your own backyard, but photograph for yourself every now and then.
So I guess I would have to say go photograph chickens, never forget to go photograph chickens.
(Francisco is based in base in Madrid Spain and Manila Philippines. See more of his work, here.)