Interview // Photographer Mahtab Hussain

Interview by Nina Manandhar 

Nine years in the making, Mahtab Hussain‘s latest exhibition ‘You Get Me?’ is both a testimony to the amount of time required to create a body of work of this breadth but also to his own artistic commitment to a line of enquiry. What began as series of chance encounters on the streets of his hometown of Birmingham in 2008 evolved into a journey across the UK on a mission to create a fuller picture of what it means to be a British muslim working class man today.

Hussain sees his work as firmly rooted in a tradition of British portraiture, citing his time working at the National Portrait Gallery and his MA at Goldsmiths in Art History where he specialised in Post Colonial studies as equally influential in shaping his understanding of transformative possibilities in art, but also enabling him to experience first hand the lack of work reflecting the British – Asian experience. Seen together, they explain his drive to pursue projects which create a place for his subjects in visual history, to fill a gap where representation is either missing or a product of misinformation.

With his subjects now immortalised in an upcoming book published by Mack alongside the exhibition this May at Autograph ABP, his term long-term engagement with the community and empathy with his sitters has clearly paid off, ‘I don’t think work can be made any other way, it is about getting to know one another, sharing stories’ he tells me. Ahead of the show, we spoke to Hussain about the enduring power of fine art portraiture, masculinity in the 21st Century and the complex relationship between identity, heritage and displacement, themes which his work navigates.

The release for the exhibition describes the portraits as exploring the identity of young ‘Working class’ – rather than just ‘Asian’ men. Can you talk a little about the idea of ‘class’, ‘working class’ and why it’s an important factor in the work?

I believe class plays a critical role in understanding the work. In general, the working class communities of Britain have had to go through real change, essentially from the 80’s onwards which itself was an incredibly destructive time for British society as a whole. Margaret Thatcher and her government purposely broke down community and fostered the idea that there is no such thing as society, livelihoods were destroyed and the unions were dismantled. We were told we should embrace the individual in Britain and the self-made man and woman, which was in direct conflict with the working class concept of community, sisterhood, brotherhood and family. From a migrant perspective, this notion of individualism crushed one of the defining pillars of their culture too, one that advocated for a strong, supportive, collective society, so this era jarred with them considerably as they eventually experienced the same loss of community and society, alongside harbouring feelings of alienation.


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James Nachtwey: The Journey of Hope

From the wine-dark waters of the Aegean Sea to the back roads of the Balkans, James Nachtwey documents the dangerous passage

Their journey began in war, poverty and oppression. They are fleeing, by the hundreds of thousands, from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, from Somalia, Iran, Pakistan and Eritrea, a ceaseless flow of humanity driven by fear, insecurity and lack of opportunity, their desperation matched only by their fortitude and sense of hope.

Somehow they make it to Turkey, within sight of the Greek island of Lesbos, and embark in a flotilla of frail rubber rafts to the refuge of Europe. Entire families, old folks, young children and infants brave the perilous crossing outfitted with flimsy “life preservers” or inflated inner tubes. Most of them make it across, but some have perished at sea.



The Faces of Food Stamps by Jeff Riedel

text by By Maya Rhodan 

The bipartisan Farm Bill that President Obama signed into law on Feb. 7 will cut $8 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the next 10 years. The cut is more like a snip when compared to the nearly $40 billion decrease in funding proposed by Republican lawmakers during the four years it took lawmakers to come to an agreement. For the subjects of this LightBox feature, however, and for the millions like them who depend on SNAP, every little bit that gets chipped away hurts. New York-based photographer Jeff Riedel spent days with each subject, capturing a glimpse into the lives of the 47 million people who depend on government assistance for food.

“When you see that these are really beautiful people, good people doing as much as they can to get by and it’s still not enough,” Riedel said, “you realize that it is easy for the government in all of their callousness to look at things as statistics and as numbers. But when you get in and see the real life humans dealing with real life problems . . . it’s a different sort of process.”


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