— story by Rachel Misick @rachelmisick
“I’m a scattered person” says Shahrnaz Javid, but upon first sight this isn’t as apparent. She is poised with an air of cool confidence that is more enigmatic than anything. She is, however, an accumulation of many things; a photographer and a writer, Iranian and Indonesian, intellectual and approachable, progressive and nostalgic, here and everywhere.
Hustling by day in the agency life, Shahrnaz moonlights as a film photographer focusing on telling a range of human stories, from the mundane activity in public spaces to the familiar faces of her intentionally small circle. Having grown up both multicultural and international, she has an innate talent for capturing subtleties in culture and emotion. And it’s meant to be just that: subtle.
Below we spoke with Shahrnaz about her journey into storytelling, why she chooses film, and what inspires her work.
Sweet or savory for breakfast? I like to start my interviews with an ice breaker…
I go savory.
Most people know you as a photographer but you’re also a writer. Can you tell me about your journey into storytelling?
I guess if you go to the root of any individual, before anything there is yourself. I think with being myself I come from so many different backgrounds, and being in the middle of my mom and my dad’s cultures, you find this middle ground. I was always interested in relationships. I was extremely observant. I wasn’t a mute but I didn’t speak a lot, instead I observed everything. So when I was young and seeing everything around me I would make up stories in my head and give life and personality to inanimate objects or think about dialogue; just observe dialogue between people...it was that human form that interested me.
So you’re naturally curious?
Yeah I’m naturally curious, but I’m fortunate enough to have this relationship with my dad where I have this affinity for how he communicates and thinks. He’s extremely intellectual and was always the kind who would steal my textbooks at night because he would want to read my history book, so then I would be the kid who would go to class the next day and get in trouble because I didn’t have my book. He's just this distinguished man who can communicate using few words, so I think as a kid I was modeling after him and I found a lot of my storytelling and curiosity by observing my father.
Are you an introvert by nature?
I would say I’m both. I’m a warm person but just being open, I’m not good at that. I'm good at being welcoming but not good at being open.
So maybe you’re a social introvert? I’m an introvert through and through, but I can still socialize. I much prefer to observe a scene than take part in it. I see the same in you.
Yeah, because you will see me at things but then I’ll go several months where I’m hidden. My friends ask if I still live here but I’m just recharging.
Do you think that affinity for observing stories and characters led you down the path of studying journalism?
For sure. In high school I was a huge yearbook nerd. I always did yearbook [instead of] newspaper because I loved memories and creating that tangible object to look back on. So journalism started for me in high school because my yearbook advisor was this highly controversial woman that I didn’t always vibe with but I appreciated her...which is something I just value when you’re out in the world; you don't always have to be on the same page but you can learn to appreciate things that different people offer.
So I started as a staff writer and we would always pair off to go on assignment. The friend I paired with is the one who actually taught me how to shoot film. She would shoot a whole football game on film and it was phenomenal so I started thinking about how I could make these worlds merge, like how do i put the visuals to the words.
I was just going to ask you why film, but I kind of got my answer…
My initial camera was the first big gift my mom gave to my baba. It was a Pentax and after my friend Stefanie taught me how to use her film camera, my babba let me use the camera my mom gifted him. I remember my junior year everyone pitched in, family and friends, to get me a DSLR but something about it never felt the same as when I was shooting with film. It was way more satisfying and rewarding to see something get right the first time.
I also feel like you have a thing for nostalgia. Is that true?
I definitely do. I'm not a hoarder of things but I hoard memories.
You’re originally from Kentucky but grew up in an Iranian/Indonesian family of Muslim faith AND you’re a dual citizen of the US and the Netherlands. Did I get all of that right?
Yeah, you did. Impressive.
How does all of that show in your work?
I think it shows in my work because of my subjects. I don’t want to say my subjects are super diverse because in my mind my subjects are just people; in all settings, in all backgrounds, and it's never something that is ornament. Or at least I hope it comes across as such...as something genuine and authentic.
So not contrived?
I think it’s really great whenever you see photographers going into different communities but I don't think it needs to be spelled out like “this is really extraordinary because I’m not from this and this is where im going.” So my background comes off in my film with my subjects just being people, equally distributed. It’s not the emphasis ever, it’s just a moment.
We both speak other languages and know that the way we express emotion in various languages is different. The expressions hold different weight and have different references, so how is that emotion also nuanced in your photography given you have such a multicultural eye?
I think its nuanced because the phonetics of things are always different, there are different expressions and different ways to communicate things, but the bottom line is that people are all the same in their differences. So I think my photography really strips away those differences and just becomes blended.
It’s really subtle...
It’s very subtle. I'm not sure if it comes across as nuanced because I try to strip away differences while still capturing people.
What is the importance of the female lens?
It’s extremely important to have women in the field but I don't think that it always has to be so divided, as in “I’m going to do this bc it’s empowering.” I think the work is already empowering solely because you’re doing it. I also don't want to have someone look at my work and be able to tell if it's male or female, I just want them to be in that moment. I think if I can get them to forget about gender roles or different dynamics then I've done a good job. I also think that when you put “female” before everything then you’re only in that category as a “female” this or “female” that. You’re good as a female cinematographer, you're good as a female artist. It puts you in a box instead of just letting you be great at what you're doing.
Some would argue though that the female lens is more intuitive and we can pick up on subtleties of emotion better than men. Do you agree?
I do agree with that. I think that women are more intuitive than men, thats without a doubt. And I think that helps me when im capturing moments, but while I think the female lens is important that doesn't mean I necessarily always gravitate towards female stories...or male stories necessarily. I just gravitate towards human stories. Again, stripping differences and breaking that barrier in a different way.
Do you feel like you’re attaching a story to someone you photograph on the street?
Yes and I don't know what is really going on, but I’m naturally a dreamer so to me I'm creating a larger story around an image.
What are your favorite subjects to photograph or is there a particular story you want to tell through your body of work?
I don't have a website or a strong portfolio that I feel comfortable sharing, and when asked to share one I feel like I have a mental breakdown because I don’t know how to present my work [since] I shoot across the board. It's never always the same style. I have work in different forms. I’m scattered. So for me it's just a feeling. When im photographing subjects it's never one storyline, it's never one thing that im looking for. I'll set out some days and think I want to shoot the roll on people who are on smoke breaks so I’ll just go around the city, but when im looking for one thing is when I find everything else.
I feel like you focus a lot on the human condition. Even when you’re shooting inanimate objects or street-scenes it seems like there is a human element involved in all of it.
I'm really glad you get that.
Which would make sense given an affinity for story telling and a background that is very diverse; hearing stories from different languages and different cultures, it makes you interested in humanity on a bigger scale.
On your Instagram bio you describe yourself as “analog.” Can you explain the significance of living analog in your life and photography?
I never know how to write about myself so bios are hard for me. I don't even think “analog” sounds right in my bio but its the work I produce and I don't do anything in post-process unless its project based. As for my life, I’m good at meeting people but I'm not someone to spark up quick friendships. I’m analog in how I form and strengthen my relationships and I’m analog in the kind of respect I think people deserve and things I think get lost as we focus more on technology. I'm not very tech savvy, I’m not super caught up, and I’m really inconsistent with my social media so it's hard for me to engage the way I’m “supposed to” these days. I think I’m analog in being old school, not in an archaic way but just in a way of wanting to pick up fresh bread on the way home or use my senses and observe first hand. I want to hear and witness something.
Analog may not be the best way to describe myself in my bio but it works…
Well I think it coincides with film though because it’s a piece of nostalgia, so it all works and speaks to this idea of stepping away from the digital and experiencing these finite moments with our senses.
Yes to all that.
What other mediums inspire you?
Outside of film: video, sound, and not even just music but sound in general inspires me a lot. Food is inspiring. Honestly, I think anything someone has to focus on is inspiring. I find pleasure in watching someone be completely engulfed in whatever their craft is.
Do you foresee yourself experimenting with any other mediums?
Definitely. In the future I would like to combine my words and visuals into some kind of motion picture, like a short film or mini-doc, though I don’t always know what the subject would be or if it would be an abstract piece. I lean more towards the abstract, kind of like Man Ray-esque old cinema though...
Do you have a favorite image from your collection?
No. Everytime I shoot something I only like it for 72 hours and then I get really hard on myself about how I don't like any of my work.
So you’re self critical?
I'm self critical but also I'll look back and none of it appeals to me anymore. I love these images but i don't look back and think “this is really strong.” I’m not always photographing for strength though, I’m not always like “this is a great shot.” It's not how I compose my images.
Well I think in efforts to capture human condition you oftentimes have to capture the mundane…
And when talking about the human condition I don't have a favorite because I don't want to make a spectacle of it either. So it's just a guy or a woman or a child or a dog doing it’s thing so why is it my favorite? Or I'll see myself in all of them, so not one of those images represents me more than the other.
Do you feel like your taste is always evolving?
Yeah, definitely! That’s so important: evolution, where your interests are heading, and what you're digesting.
What's your process for that?
I like to go see art and travel and experience as much as I can. And my experience doesn't have to be extravagant, it's just getting out of my normal surroundings. I go to a lot of museums which I think is the best way to learn those lines: through art. Whether or not it’s the kind of art I create or fancy, it's so necessary to learn all of the languages in order to pick up on the dialogues.
Do you ever feel like there are stories you could tell better via writing than you could with photography?
It's not a better or worse, just different. I naturally gravitate towards abstract thought, like Yoko Ono’s writings, even though you don’t know what the hell she’s talking about, or Marcel Duchamp’s “Readymades”. So when I’m doing my own storytelling it can mirror the abstract while still recognizing that some ideas suit certain mediums.
Do you have a favorite writer?
I don’t. It’s really embarrassing but I don’t have a favorite writer or photographer. I don't like create lists. I want to educate myself and be aware, but at the same time I want to be in my own world and find my own door.
I’m not highly impressionable either, so when I find someone I admire I feel like, “well that's them and this is me.” There are some people who have a passion for an artist and know all of their work which is great. I love when people are passionate because I love “love”, but for me I don't have that type of passion for one artist.
I don’t think that’s embarrassing, I just think you’re self-assured.
Yeah, maybe that’s it. And I never want to use it as an excuse, like “that’s them and I can’t do it like them” but I guess I just want to create my own lane somehow.
So when it’s all said and done what do you want your legacy to be as an artist?
Oh man, legacy. That’s tough. But what I like about my work and what I want to move forward with is this merge of documentary and impressionism because my photos are not always super crispy, there's a lot of blur, a lot of motion, they could be tighter. But in a way it almost looks like impressionism in the modern day so if I can find a way to really evolve and hone in on that marriage I would want that to be a trademark of style. Something I created.
So as for my legacy as an artist: I want to be known for having an opinion and being abstract, but I never want to be put in a category or a box.