World traveler, photographer, filmmaker, diver, environmentalist, citizen scientist, animal rights advocate.
So, what am I; what do I call myself? It's a question we've all struggled with at one time or another. Define yourself. Distil what you are, concisely. Clearly, I'm not your typical documentarian but something of a hybrid. I have passionately-held beliefs and these are an intrinsic part of whatever I do. This is the only way I know of that allows my prospective audience to experience the same emotions I felt when I took the picture or shot that film. My hope is to immerse my audience in those same emotions I had at that moment.
Underlying everything is a deep appreciation for nature, mingled with my own internal politics and with an insatiable curiosity about how the world works in all its spell-binding intricacy. I grew up, deep in the English countryside, surrounded by lush, green land and countless acres of wilderness to walk through. This led, inexorably and perhaps illogically, to my curiosity about the very structure of the Universe and how we even got to be here. To that end, I’m constantly looking around the next corner. You just never know what you’ll find and I’m haunted by the thought of what I might not see if I don’t look.
The late Irving Penn, who I revered almost above all other photographers, once said, “I can become obsessed with anything if I stare at it long enough. It’s the curse of being a photographer.” I think I know what he meant; I can gain inordinate pleasure just from observing - almost anything. I guess I’m a born voyeur. Seeing is everything in my world; the act of observing an end unto itself.
From the outset, I have looked at documentary as a passport into the lives of others, the camera as a tool, prying open doors that are simply closed to the majority of us. I realized that none of us wants to pass through life without having left some record of our time on this good Earth, proof, however scant, that we had an impact somehow. I think it’s ingrained in our DNA, at a minimum, to leave at least some mark of our passing. Therein lies the liberating ideal. Now you are granted license to do almost anything you desire, to capture the things you need.
Sticking a camera in someone’s face was the healthiest way I could think of whereby I could interact with the rest of humanity and gain the deeper understanding I was looking for. Once you realize that everyone wants to be remembered, even by a stranger who they may never see again, any trepidation disappears. They want the same thing you do, to verify their existence. As an incurably nosey individual, it seemed obvious to me that photography was the only logical course of life I could follow. I was satisfying two goals at the same time. I was forcing myself way, way outside my own comfort zone and I was gaining those insights I so desperately needed. Stress has a wonderful way of making you focus.
I’ve always loved shooting people in their work environments, fully aware that we’re so often defined by what we do. There’s a particular aura around someone doing what they know how to do with consummate ease. I’m not sure if it’s pride made visible but it’s certainly tangible. A future project will deal with the effects that mass automation is having on the working populace; what are we going to do with millions of non-working people as their vocations disappear, taken over by robots? Many will lose their sense of purpose without a viable job. What happens to them?
I am hyper-aware of the effects that mankind’s existence on Earth is having on the environment. I see them everywhere. We have entered the Anthropocene era for better or worse. Simultaneously, we're in the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction, where most of the world's biodiversity will just disappear. Mankind now has an inordinate, largely negative impact on the environment. How we will survive if we carry on polluting both the sea and atmosphere and depleting limited resources is a constant drum beat in my head and cause for real concern. It seems clear that we are headed for major problems in years to come unless we make radical, as yet unquantified changes. All my engagements with oceanographers and climatologists tell me the years ahead could be very difficult and make me fear for the coming generations. I am what you might term a citizen scientist; no PH.d but certainly informed.
Much of my own work, going forward, will delve into the gaping chasm between capitalist idealism around infinite, inexhaustible resources and the environment, at how corporations utilize everything, including people, in order to sustain the mantric neverending “growth” and what effect that will have on the planet.
I look at racism in much the same way; once you see it, you can’t unsee it. It’s everywhere. This too informs my work. I seek out people who certainly don’t look like me and particularly value those that don’t think like me. At my core, I’m a humanist, simply seeking to show others the world as I see it, with all it’s incredible beauty as well as it’s ugliest warts.
In trying to find ways to elucidate what motivates me to others, I’ve found that I enjoy writing as well. I’m hoping that I find an audience for my writing and photography.
Film (short) by Rayya Elias Cinematographer Biopic of Rayya's life as a junkie in the 1980's, Alphabet City, New York.