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Interview with Travel Photographer Mahnoor Malik

by Nat Kim

I met with travel photographer Mahnoor Malik to talk inspiration, challenges,
and direction. Mahnoor shoots in locations all over the globe, including
Indonesia, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and New York. Her current series, In Transit, has
been three years in the making. See her website,
Facebook Page, and her page for In Transit.

Mahnoor is a third year environmental science student from Washington, DC.

What does travel mean to you? How do you choose the places you go? 

Travel has been a large component of my childhood growing up. It’s something
that’s pretty vital to my art. I think being dropped in unfamiliar environments is
what has inspired me the most. In general, I like to go places that are off the
beaten path - I feel I make better art when I’m in environments I’m not used to, it
really pushes me to take in every little thing I’m exposed to. 

What and who inspires your work? 

It depends on what series I’m working on, my current series is based on my travel
photography so the main stuff that really inspires me for that is other cultures
and languages, etc.
I had an art show, one of my first art shows in Montreal a few years ago. It was a
group art show at the Montreal Art Centre. I was standing in the room and
someone was asking me “Whose work is that?”, they were talking about my work
to me and they didn’t know it was mine. I said “Oh, it’s actually mine.”. He was an
artist as well from Berlin studying at Concordia in fine arts and he pulls out his
sketchbook, and inside his sketchbook he had a quote written from my artist
statement. That was a moment where I was like “wow, this is why I take photos”.
This is so inspiring that I’m inspiring this other guy that’s older than me, that’s
also an amazing artist. He does drawings and incredible films. I can’t believe I
inspired him. 

Who is your favourite artist? 

One of my favourite artists is an environmentalist photographer, Yann Arthus
Bertand. I really like him because that’s basically everything I’m doing. He did
shots of earth from above and that’s pretty inspiring. I email photographers that I
really like and say I like “this and this” about them and they sometimes email
back and say “I’d like to see your work”, they help critique my work. It’s always
nice to get feedback, it’s always important. 

Would you say your studies and your work are related to each other? 

I feel like that’s an end goal I would like to have. I have a passion for landscapes
and travel photography and I’m studying environmental science, so it’s all about
environment in my photos. I really like to capture backgrounds, my work is very
background oriented. 

How has your practice changed over time? 

When I was first introduced to photography in a high school intro class I actually
hated it. I thought “This is so stupid. Why is my teacher making me study the
history of these boring people”. I didn’t care, I just wanted to look cool and take
photos of trees or something. Everyone wants to do that when you’re a teenager.
After I took that class, I took part two. That’s when I realized that you should
always know the rules of photography before you venture out into your own
perspective. It’s important to know the basics. You should definitely know how a
camera works, shutter speed and everything, how you make a camera really. I
learned to appreciate the basics. That really changes my work.
It’s also changed as I’ve moved around and traveled. I used to only like
landscapes, now I really like portraits. It all changes all the time. 

What would you say about your direction from here? Do you see
yourself constantly changing? 

I feel like that’s a part of art, your own perspective. Sometimes I’m doing a series
and I start hating it. Some days I like a photo, other days I don’t. The most
important thing is to take your time. You might hate a photo for a few months.
I’ve had photos where I was about to delete it in the car, then I’d say “whatever,
I’ll keep it”. Then it ends up being my favourite photo a year later.
It’s good to be changing, you should always be taking in knowledge. It changes
your perspective. You should be seeing other artist’s work, talk to other artists.
Not only artists, anyone that’s good at what they do. Even a botanist, it’s good to
know what other people like, it helps you with your work. 

What challenges have you faced in your work? 

One of the series I was working on back in high school for my AP photography
portfolio, that was the hardest series I’ve ever done. I don’t know why I did this: I
took candid photos of strangers making eye contact with the camera. Basically I
would have to get random strangers to look at the camera without knowing they
were getting their photo taken. Their eye contact would show different emotions,
it was very complex. I think that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It
really helped me work on my other series. It helped me interact with people, it’s
really important to interact with your subjects. For my eye contact series I never
asked them, it was supposed to be candid. It’s really important to talk to your
subjects, or if you don’t want to talk to your subjects at least show a sense of
place, don’t have them out of place. That’s what I often dislike about my work, I
get really into one subject then I find it really hard to stick with it. It’s hard to
stick with a series, the only series I’m still doing in In Transit. Obviously I get sick
of it at times. 

Tell me specifically about In Transit. 

It is photos of strangers across cultures in transit. It’s based on how people
usually focus on the end goal of things, they never take notice of the journey that
got them there. This series represents that journey. 

Where is the most photogenic place in Montreal? 

Carre Saint-Louis during autumn. 

What is your camera brand? 

Nikon d50.

Craziest thing you’ve eaten on your travels? 

This isn’t really crazy – but the coffee in Ethiopia is the best in the whole world –
I mean it was invented there! I didn’t even like coffee until I went there. 

And where would you always go back to? 

Indonesia. It’s one of my favourite places in the whole world I’ve ever been to. 

Thanks Mahnoor! 

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