A lot of people enjoy the spotlight that comes with being in front of the camera; posing, posting selfies, doing it for “the Gram”. But often times, it’s the person behind the lense who deserves the recognition. Meet Jama: a 23 year old street photographer from Seattle, Washington with serious skills. I met Jama by happenstance when I spotted him taking a photo of a guy’s beard in the middle of Time Square. What I soon learned was that this humble, ultra-talented Seattleite was also a poet, writer, and filmmaker with the goal to capture emotion in everything he puts his hands to. In this installment of One to Watch, we’ll learn how this LA Times published street photographer is using this talent to spread awareness for social justice, his plans to make New York his new home, and why it’s so important to follow your gut.
Aley Arion: Describe the moment when you picked up the camera and thought, “yeah, this is what I want to do”.
Jama Abdirahman: It’s funny because I was 17. At my high school, we weren’t allowed to have blank periods, and since my schedule was open during my sixth period, I had to take an extra class. I had a choice between a ceramics class and a filmmaking class and I chose ceramics.
AA: You did? I was expecting that to go a different way.
JA: Well, I signed up for the ceramics class and it was full, so they took me to the video production class. The first week we were learning how to edit and my teacher told me that I was a really fast learner when it came to editing. I found the process so fascinating; I would stay during lunch time and skip meals just to edit. During the third week, my professor told me that he was moving me to the advanced class. Even then I didn’t think it would be something I’d be doing in the future. But it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I made my first dollar.
AA: How was that?
JA: It was actually really cool. I ended up getting it from another teacher who wanted me to film his students on their experience in his class. I ended up creating a short documentary for him and he paid me! That had me thinking, ‘whoa, I could keep doing this’. I did that a few more times until I could get my own camera and started doing photography with a DSLR camera (which is for video), so instead of filming a scene, I would snap a photo instead, and I loved it. This was about two weeks before I graduated from high school, and from there my passion grew even more. I started to figure out ways I could do this for the rest of my life. And that’s how it began.
AA: So would you say it was fate?
JA: I mean yeah, I could be somewhere building statues right now.
AA: What exactly got you into street photography as opposed to editorial, celebrity or even being paparazzi?
JA: I really focus on creating emotion and a story behind everything I do, whether it be a short film, or taking a portrait of someone. I just chose to go with street photography as opposed to having a model in front of me, telling them how to pose, smile like this, chin up, and all that, it’s just not real to me. With street photography, you see how that person is at that moment. Part of it came from experimenting with my friends and taking candid photos. So instead of having them pose for a shot, I would be having a conversation with them, say something absurd, make them laugh, then I’d snap a photo. I thought, ‘this is pretty cool, let me try this with strangers’. I didn’t know how I was going to start it, but I used to get really inspired by the Instagram page, Humans of New York.
AA: I was just about to mention them!
JA: *laughs* Yeah, so I was going to Seattle Central College at the time and my friend and I created People of Seattle Central, or POSC. We would go and interview random people on campus, take their picture and I was able to get such compelling stories from them. I found out that this kind of photography had a name, and it was street photography. So I started doing research on street photography and found that a lot of the photography we’ve seen throughout history, is street photography. Now I can document history in 2016.
AA: When I met you in Time Square, you were taking a photo of a guy’s beard. So what is it about a person, your subject, that makes you think, “Yeah, I really want to capture them right now, at this moment”?
JA: It’s funny because that day, I decided that I was only going to be taking pictures of buildings. I was looking at all the buildings when all of a sudden, I saw this young looking guy with a grey beard and grey hair, who was dressed really nice. As he passed me, I asked him if I could take his picture and he agreed. I just look for things that pop out; things we don’t usually notice when we’re walking down the street. He was just so unique because I’ve never seen a grey beard on someone so young. But to hold me he dyes it, so it’s not because he’s aging. *laughs*
AA: As a street photographer, you spend a lot of your time walking up to random people, asking for their picture. With that, how important is it for you to practice stepping outside your comfort zone?
JA: I get out of my comfort zone every day. You would think that since I’ve taken so many photos of people that now it comes smooth, but I’m terrified before I ask every single person for a picture. But I’ve just gotten better at convincing myself to go and speak to them. At first, I would be like, ‘they’re going to say no’. But then I started thinking… so what?! I mean if they say no, I can always walk away and find another person. Normally, I don’t get a lot of no’s; most people are open to getting interviewed; so I just try to tell myself that.
AA: I saw on your Instagram that you have a lot of photos from Black Lives Matter demonstrations you’ve attended. How important is it for you to use your platform and talent as a photographer to document this place in history?
JA: I’m very passionate about Black liberation and I’ve always felt like everyone can contribute to the cause in some way. I believe that since I do photography, I can use that as a tool to share stories of marginalized groups. It’s a powerful tool. With Black Lives Matter and being a Black male, the best thing I can do is go out and document to show the world what’s going on. I go through the same procedure as I would with street photography: I go out, look to capture emotion, and share it with the rest of the world. Since I’m passionate about movements like BLM, I spend hours on the street with the protesters and show the demonstrations for how they are instead of trying to get a narrative out; like the media generally does. I also know a lot of the organizers and have organized a few myself. We can contribute in any way; not everyone has to be up on the megaphone, you can do a lot of work just by doing what you’re good at. Some people write, some people have blogs, if you want to come to a protest and bring apples for everybody, that’s cool too. Everyone has their way of contributing. You don’t have to be the face of anything; you can be behind the scenes and be powerful in your own sense.
AA: When it comes to activism, would you say that social media is a crutch or a tool?
JA: I would definitely say that it’s a tool. I know what you’re referring to is called Hashtag Activism. People think they can post #BlackLivesMatter and you’ve done your job, you’re an activist now. But let’s define activism: it’s going out and being active for a cause to spread awareness. The Black Lives Matter movement did start off as a hashtag, but now it’s building off of police reform, and changing so many things, but it started off as a hashtag. Going out and protesting on the street is valid, it’s a beautiful thing to do, but I wouldn’t say that it’s the most productive. I believe in going to legislature to change stuff. But social media allows for a lot of non-able bodied individuals to contribute too because not everybody can go out to a protest, not everyone has that resource and ability to contribute that way. I do suggest that people be more critical of things; maybe put your 2 cents in things instead of just resharing stuff. I remember I went to a BLM protest right after Michael Brown was shot and I was taking pictures the whole time. I posted the pictures online, and the Seattle Globalist hit me up telling me that they wanted to share my photos, after that, I was able to get my photos into the Seattle Times, which lead me to get into the LA Times. This all just started out with me sharing my photos online; social media is a powerful tool.
AA: As you know, the Presidential Election takes place this in November, and as a community, it’s a very dire time for us. How important do you think it is to have our generation, millennials… 20-somethings, to go out and exercise their right to vote?
JA: Going back to Facebook, a lot of people share stuff on how bad Donald Trump is and why they don’t want to vote for Hillary Clinton. And it’s in these cases that hashtag activism doesn’t make any sense. Sure, people know about different candidates, but we need to go out and actually vote. I don’t think people actually understand the power of voting; because if it didn’t have any power I don’t think they would have gone out of their way to cut people off from voting back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. When it comes to our generation, it doesn’t look like we’re going to be voting. I think that’s because a lot of us only see it from an individual level. We think, ‘oh, well my vote doesn’t make a difference’. And if so many people are thinking that, that makes 500,000 people that could be voting for, let’s say Bernie Sanders, who aren’t voting now because they feel like their vote won’t count. But there are a lot of people, conservatives mostly, who definitely believe that their vote matters and their out here voting.
AA: What advice would you give to other 20-somethings who are looking to get into street photography, filmmaking or any creative realm?
JA: I would say to follow your gut, 100 percent. Like I told you, I got into photography and filmmaking by accident. After I graduated from high school my gut told me to do film and photography, but I didn’t feel like I could. So when I started college, I enrolled in all the prerequisites for Pre- Engineering and did that for 3 whole years. I even got accepted in the engineering programs that I wanted to get into, but when I received my acceptance letters in the mail, I wasn’t excited. That got me to really start thinking about the future. So I decided to stay at school for another two years to do communications, and now I’m studying photography and filmmaking and I have one year left. When I graduate, I’m going to move to New York. So if your gut is telling you to apply for the school you’ve always wanted to go to, to apply for that dream job, or to get out of that city, follow it.
For more on Jama’s photography and more, follow him on Instagram: @jamawakawala.
Aley Arion – Your Millennial Mami