Mazelle Etessami first began making travel portraiture as a way of taking people’s stories back home with her after she traveled; she would share the images with friends and family, allowing the face in the photo to convey particular moments or memories. Over time, Mazelle began to realize how much portraiture actually shapes the way she interacts with and understands locals in the communities she ventures to, and offers glimpses into particular customs or cultural nuances. For Mazelle, making photos became more than just taking pieces of her travels home with her; it critically informed her experience on the ground.
Tell us a bit about yourself: Where are you from? What do you do?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California but little pieces of my heart can be found all around the world in the various places I have been fortunate enough to venture to. I’m a freshman at UC Berkeley who spends way too much time in the library. I hate being alone, so I always make sure to have people around me, no matter what I’m doing. When I’m not writing papers or studying for exams, I am usually watching documentaries, reading blogs, or doing anything else that allows me to escape my own world and venture to the far corners of the globe that, as of now, I can only hope I will one day be able to go to. I grew up listening to my father tell my sisters and I of his final game of barefooted soccer on the glass-strewn sidewalk, my mother about the last time she helped her grandmother sell nuts in the local bazaar. These last interactions with the people they knew are what my parents talk about the most when reminiscing about life in Iran. This life that they knew and loved seemed to be stripped away over night when they fled the country to avoid execution during the Revolution of 1979. Although they were forced to leave behind almost all their material positions, their experiences with the various individuals continue to define them until today. Perhaps it’s listening to these stories about the power of human connection and the uniqueness of each human’s experience that created the foundation upon which I have found my love for photography and travel.
Where have you traveled to and what drew you to those places?
My parents have always been avid travelers and made the decision early on that they wouldn’t let having kids stop them. So, I have been lucky enough to travel to numerous places, perhaps even before I was able to truly appreciate how incredible they were. When my parents split up a few years ago, our incredible family vacations no longer filled up my breaks and summers. After almost two years of not traveling, I decided I would go explore the world on my own. My favorite trips with my family had been the ones where we had volunteered. My dad is a dentist, so he would perform volunteer dental work in villages and makeshift clinics, and my sisters and I were his assistants, shining flashlights into his patients’ mouths to illuminate the teeth he would soon pull. I loved the rawness of these experiences, the adventure of traveling off the beaten path. I loved the interactions with the locals, who opened my eyes and mind to completely different ways of life. Most of all, I loved providing relief to people so desperate for it. So, when I was deciding where I wanted to travel it was crucial that there be some sort of service element to it. So I went to Israel, Haiti and Ghana to volunteer and experience the richness of each culture and people.
How did you become drawn to portraiture photography?
I first picked up a camera out of desperation. During the aforementioned trips with my family, I was seeing the tragic condition so many people were living in, yet, as a 12 year old, so incapable of actually changing. A photograph allowed me to let the people and their conditions speak for themselves, because no words or explanation could adequately convey their reality. A photograph allowed me to show people back home, people who had the capabilities to do something, what I was seeing and felt so badly needed changing. Portrait photography proved to be the best way to do this. I have found that peoples’ faces—their wrinkles, smiles, watery eyes—can truly tell you more about an individual than anything else. A simple portrait can pull at heartstrings unlike any other type of picture. You stop thinking about the statistics, the causes of the given situation, who is to blame, and focus on the human beings at hand.
How has making portraits shaped the way you interact with your subjects and/or others in the places you travel to?
Given how most of the people I am photographing don’t speak the same language as I do, portraiture allows me to interact in a truly unique way with the individuals I photograph. When a camera is pointed at someone’s face, one of two things happens: either walls go up and the individual tenses, or any barrier that was previously there crumbles and you can see into an individual’s core. To get a good portrait you really have to create an environment of trust and acceptance to cultivate the latter reaction. Thus, taking photographs has completely shaped the way I interact with my subjects and the others in the places I travel to. You can’t take portraits from the shadows or by blending into the environment. You have to approach total strangers and make them trust you within seconds. In order to take portraits, I have interacted with so many people that I would simply not have even encountered otherwise. For example, one day in Ghana I was walking to the school I was teaching at through a village and saw a mother and her child lighting a fire through an opening in the mud wall surrounding their makeshift house. If I wanted to just capture the artistry of the scene, I could have secretly done so through the gap in the wall. Yet, since I take portraits, I walked in and did my best to convey what I wanted to do despite the language barrier. I walked into a situation and met individuals that I would simply never have met if it wasn’t for portraiture.
Describe your process when making portraits. Are you always mindful to ask for permission? Do you share your photos with your subjects?
I usually walk towards the person I want to photograph and point to my camera to indicate that I want to take a picture. If they are hesitant at first, I quickly snap a photo and show them on the viewfinder so they can see what I want to do. After getting permission, I thank them, with my hands or a bow of the head, and then start snapping away. Showing people the photographs I take of them is perhaps my favorite part of the whole process. Children and the elderly both react with similes and laughs, some even criticizing the way they look or asking for more to be taken. It is these interactions that enlighten the moments in which I am shooting in truly unthinkable conditions.
Typically, how do people respond to you when you take their photograph? How do you think their culture or circumstances or environment shape that response, if at all?
For the most part, the people from most of the places I have traveled to have been incredibly receptive and enthusiastic about my desire to take pictures. They often call their friends over to show them what is happening and have them partake in the experience. That being said, though, it was particularly difficult to take portraits in Haiti. Haitian culture is heavily influenced by voodoo and some people believe that when photos are taken of them, their souls are captured in that image. Conversely, since the earthquake in 2010, many people refuse to allow you to take their pictures to avoid the possibility of being exploited. I encountered a lot of people who were hesitant for both these reasons, and it made my acutely aware of the fact that one’s culture, circumstance, or environment absolutely shapes their response to photography.
Do you have long-term goal for your photography? What do you intend to do with all these beautiful portraits?
As for now, I show them to as many people as I can as a way of exposing them to other places and showing them how people live in other parts of the world. My dream is to pursue this as a career; to have a gallery and distribute the images more widely in some way. To be completely honest though, I make portraits more in and for the moment than anything else. I think it’s idealistic and perhaps naive to think someday, somehow the photographs will bring some good, but I continue to hope that it may.