Ever wondered how the Kingdom of Bahrain’s most successful and most prominent photographers got their start? They had to work their way up—just like you. Read on to find out how and what they did differently.
MOH’D YOUSEF, MOH’D FAKHRUDDIN, ALI SHARAF, & ALI ALRIFFAI
These four photographers are Bahrain’s masters of photography; the Kingdom’s most prominent professional & commercial photographers. Follow them on the web for more of their work & interests.
Today, we’d like to talk about the photography business in Bahrain: your experience in the field, how you got started, and the journey you went through. We’ll also talk about your opinions regarding the photography industry in Bahrain. Let’s start by getting to know everyone: please give us a little overview about who you are, what you do, and how you began in the field of photography.
Ali Alriffai: 15 years ago, I had a full-time job and left to pursue a career in photography. I mainly shoot advertising, lifestyle, and fashion.
Ali Sharaf: I specialize in fashion, beauty, and portraits for the editorial and advertising sectors; I’ve been doing this for the past five years.
Were you also working before starting your career in photography?
Ali Sharaf: Yes; I worked as a digital artist.
Were you working in a digital agency of some sort, or were you freelancing?
Ali Sharaf: I started as a graphic designer, then became a senior graphic designer. Then I got promoted to creative director, and handled big campaigns. Part of this involved photography. My first project/account was with Kubra Al-Qaseer. She wanted to rebrand her business. She was participating in a fashion show in London, and had to participate using her name, which is why we had to rebrand her business in this way. She went to Lebanon to do some photography of her work. When she came back with the photos, I was very impressed, and that was my trigger, my spark. I was very intrigued by the photography she had done. I had worked on the entire project—everything except the photography. I wished that I had done the photography, as well, but I didn’t get that opportunity. That’s when I got into it.
Mohammed Yousif: I’m mainly known in Bahrain as Mohammed Vivid. I started in photography three years ago, mainly specializing in portraits and beauty. Before my career in photography, I was a chemical engineer. I graduated from University with a degree in chemical engineering, then left all that behind for photography. I wanted to take my career into my own hands, and be responsible for my own future. This was clearly not going to happen as a chemical engineer. That was my starting point.
What was the spark? What got you into it? Do you have a story, or trigger?
Mohammed Yousif: My passion is humanitarian work. I was always called to photograph humanitarian-related events. The reactions I got from people when they were photographed made me feel good. People liked seeing themselves in the photographs I took. I’d say the spark happened when people kept asking me to come and take photos. That’s when I really got into it. My parents realized how serious it was, and suggested I open my own photography studio and do something about it.
Ali Alriffai: So, you had good support from the family?
Mohammed Yousif: Well, sort of. We had a deal. I actually had to lie to get where I am. I told them I’d start photography as a side business, and continue working as a chemical engineer. That was how I started. They weren’t too sure about it. They told me if it was something that I could take full responsibility for and make a good income from, then to pave my own path. I guess my motivation was my family.
Mohammed Fakhruddin: I specialize in motorsports photography. I also have a photography studio, and I shoot all sorts of events, parties, and press conferences. I have been photographing cars ever since I was 17. I was often asked what I liked about shooting cars, and how I found my passion there. I told people I saw something they didn’t. I wanted to show people what I saw. I always wanted to drive those fast cars. I never got that opportunity, so I decided to experience the same thing behind the lens. Thankfully, that worked out well. I became Bahrain’s first official F1 photographer, something I’m really proud of. I currently run Bahrain’s first photography agency recognized by the F1. It’s the first Arabic agency certified by the FIA.
That’s amazing. Were you a full-timer before? Do you mind telling us more about that?
Mohammed Fakhruddin: Yes, I was. The choice to move from my full-time job to professional photographer was a tough one. The person who really helped me was Ali Alriffai. I saw how hard he had worked to get to where he is now…
Mohammed Yousif: I can say the same.
It seems like Ali is the godfather of photography in Bahrain.
Mohammed Fakhruddin: No doubt. I watched how Ali made decisions, and that inspired me. Around the water cooler at my full-time job, people used to wonder aloud why I didn’t pursue photography professionally. They were impressed with my work. At the time, it seemed like a risky choice, because I had a family and kids. Making that decision was not easy, but I finally made it—during the economic crisis.
So that was a while back, right?
Mohammed Fakhruddin: It was around 2008. As soon as I started, the economy took a turn for the worst. I had a really tough first year or two, but thankfully, I got through it. I am so thankful to my friends and family for standing by me and helping me out when times were tough. It was a rough beginning. I cannot stress this enough.
Ali Alriffai: You guys already know everything about me! What else do I have to answer?
Would you guys mind talking about your first deal, or gig—that first job that gave you a kick start? When you had just left your full-time jobs and started doing this professionally, how exactly did it begin?
Ali Sharaf: I didn’t have any existing clients or contracts, but since I was a digital artist, I had a few clients already who were part of my network, and they needed photography from time to time. Back then, we offered graphic design services. I expanded this by offering our clients photography services. My first gig was with a spa business. They trusted me, and I was able to get them great results. I wasn’t super-confident at the time. I used to bother Ali Alriffai with waves of questions about photography: everything from what he used (Bowens, at the time) to installing lighting modifiers. It’s always like that in the beginning, though. You’re always over-promising and trying your best to deliver, but without confidence. In time, you learn.
How about you, Mohammed (Vivid)? Tell us more. You told us that you left your full-time job and made a deal with your family to get your start there. When you first decided to begin, I’m guessing that getting your first client wasn’t easy.
Mohammed Fakhruddin: Exactly. Those clients are not always around, and they’re not easy to find.
Mohammed Yousif: When I first started my photography career, I was pretty lucky. When I decided to stop being a full-timer and do this professionally, I felt that people were more accepting of my work because of the parliamentary elections at the time. I got a few candidates wanting photography for their campaigns, even though that really wasn’t my forte. Working with them, feeling involved, being a part of their team, seeing how things were printed and put up outdoors, really was worth a great deal. I’d say that was my first gig, elections and parliamentary elections.
How about you, Mohammed Fakhruddin?
Ali Alriffai: What gave you your head start? How did you start working with the F1?
What was your first gig?
Mohammed Fakhruddin: I mean, can I say how I started? Will it be okay for the interview?
Ali Alriffai: Yes, I think it’s worth it. Your story is a little more unique than the rest of ours.
Mohammed Fakhruddin: Well, as you already know, I love shooting cars. My first gig was around the time the F1 circuit in Bahrain was built. I watched them put this big project together. We got the circuit, but we also got an administration composed of expats. That was fine, but getting Bahrainis permission to help manage the project was very difficult at first. At the first race in 2004, I wasn’t able to cover anything properly. I just shot a few pictures from the vantage point of all the viewers and attendees. Right after the event was over, I decided to speak to management. At the time, they were mostly non-Arabs. I told them that I wanted to be involved with coverage, but I wasn’t taken seriously. Their reaction was almost condescending. “Fine,” they said, “You can continue taking pictures from the stands.” I refused. I asked them what this circuit was called. After some confusion, they answered, “Bahrain International Circuit.”
“Exactly,” I said. “I’m a Bahraini.”
After a bit of back and forth for a few months, I was able to get in. Month after month, I proved myself. Not during international races—just national ones, smaller ones, until my work started getting some recognition. Finally, they allowed me into the international races, but without payment. I was fine with that. That was my entry into my career shooting in F1. At the time, I accompanied five photographers; then it was three photographers plus two Bahrainis; then fewer and fewer, with more Bahrainis, until finally I led a whole team of Bahraini photographers. I started a club to recruit more members onto my team and cover more races. It was called the Bahrain Circuit Media Club.
So you started out without payment?
Mohammed Fakhruddin: At first, yes. When I first started getting paid, I began to take matters more seriously, leaving my side projects and focusing solely upon covering races.
Did you bother Ali Alriffai?
Mohammed Fakhruddin: Of course! Ali gave me the support I needed when it came to self-confidence. I always had issues with my confidence. I suffered, actually. I was terrified of taking on new events or new shoots.
Ali Alriffai: He did his best, and I saw it. He listened, and accepted criticism. He’s a friend more than a stranger. That’s why he listened, and that’s why I gave him my opinion.
Mohammed Fakhruddin: Whether you like hearing this or not, you were the one who put me under the spotlight and brought out the best in me. You helped my life take a big turn, and I couldn’t have done it without you.
Mohammed Yousif: When my family and I had arguments about my career, I always brought up Ali Alriffai as an example of where I’d like my career to go. He was a household name in our discussions. This continued until they stopped liking his name; but that was just a phase. If he could do this, I could, too. That’s what I kept telling them.
Ali Alriffai: I think one of the main factors that helped me advance my career and take my photography to another level was my confidence in my work. That, and trusting the job I’d do for people. It’s only a matter of believing that you can handle anything that comes by. Whether you’re ready for it or not, do it with confidence. That’s how you learn. It’s very important.
Mohammed Fakhruddin: Ali did very well when it came to photography. He had a good income and a great portfolio, and all of this made him a good example, a great role model for everyone here. We always thought of how Ali was able to leave a full-time job that paid very well, dive into photography, and excel. Why couldn’t we?
Ali Alriffai: Thank you. I did leave a great job, with a lot of security—probably more benefits than I get now. That was a risk I took. How many big risks are you going to take over the course of your life? So what? What’ll happen if you take one more?
I think this is important. If 20 aspiring photographers read this, your stories and experiences will probably
drive their careers, motivating and inspiring them to be photographers like you.
Ali Alriffai: Of course. And this, I think, applies to all jobs in all fields. Whatever you’re doing, if you feel that your passion lies somewhere else, or if you feel like you could be doing something else much better, then go for it. It’s not just about loving what you do, it’s about doing what’s right for you.
Mohammed Yousif: I’ve always told others to love what they do, so that it doesn’t become a burden. There’s nothing better than having clients pay you for something you enjoy doing.
Ali Alriffai: One more thing to note. I remember when these guys and others asked me questions or asked me for help. I never had ready answers for them. I remember always giving them leading answers without actually giving the answer. I wanted them to look for the answers themselves.
Mohammed Yousif: I remember this well. Ali wouldn’t explain things thoroughly. He’d guide me, instead.
Mohammed Fakhruddin: I think Mohammed hit on something really important. I cannot stress enough how valuable it is to do something you enjoy. I cannot explain the joy I feel when I look at a shot I took that others find amazing. That feeling is just great.
Ali Alriffai: We all do work for free from time to time, only because we love doing this. Others may not necessarily have this kind of privilege or luxury.
Mohammed Yousif: We sometimes fall into traps because of this. Some people like to abuse that fact.
Ali Sharaf: When we were starting out, it also helped that more and more people were beginning to cultivate an eye for good photography, and with that came a demand for new talent and new photographers. Fewer people were going abroad for talent, and instead looked for quality work locally. That was great for us back then, and even more so now.
Tell me, since you guys started, what has been your biggest challenge—something you’ve struggled with during your career?
Ali Sharaf: I don’t think I rushed my transition. I took my time moving from a full-time job to working as an established photographer. I had a clear understanding of where I wanted to go. Like Mohammed Yousif, I had a tough transition because of the economic crisis. It was a tough year, but I survived.
Were you able to get any support from your family, or was it something you did on your own?
Ali Sharaf: I had my savings at the time. That really helped. I did things on my own. I generally don’t like asking for help.
Did you have any commitments? A family?
Ali Sharaf: Yes; at the time, I just had a daughter. That made things tougher, but thankfully, it all turned out okay. Living with the parents really helped. That was very cost-effective for my career.
Mohammed Yousif: When I started shooting portraits and beauty, I found myself in a highly competitive market, surrounded with big players like Ali Alriffai and others. Trying to get an audience that appreciated my work was not easy. In the end, when it comes to photography, I want to show you something based upon the way I see it. Getting an audience that appreciates that is not easy. That’s what makes all of us here different. On a personal level, the biggest challenge was convincing my family that this was the career I want to pursue. I come from a family of doctors and engineers. I was a great student, academically, so in order to go against that wave, I had to fight back some challenges within myself first. Getting my family’s blessing and support was tough. I was also younger than most other photographers when I first started. That played a role in how I was perceived, professionally.
Mohammed Fakhruddin: My challenges were more technical, and had to do with the equipment I needed. My line of work requires very sophisticated gear that costs thousands of dollars. You need a different lens or camera when shooting a morning race, an afternoon race, or an evening race. At the time, I was chasing after innovation. My camera was good—until a new one was launched. That wasn’t easy to keep up with.
Ali Alriffai: That’s the thing. Most of the photographers in your line of work had the support—mostly financial—from agencies that took care of their needs. Mohammed didn’t have that kind of support.
Mohammed Fakhruddin: You’re absolutely right. I was in between all those photographers. The difference was that I had to manage getting support on my own for my equipment. For example, I started with a Nikon D3. A little after I started, the Nikon D3S came along. I didn’t have a chance to breathe, and all of a sudden a better camera was out there, and other photographers were able to get it. Also, don’t forget the circuit over here is the first in the Middle East, so when a media team from overseas passes by, it’s about 150-200 people, all non-Arabs. It was a little hard fighting the bias, impressions, and prejudgments they brought with them. “Don’t stand here! Don’t go there!” they kept yelling. I was always worried I might break or ruin something. I mean, sure, I understood where they were coming from. It was their race, they’d been doing this for a while. This was an F1 race, and with 500 million viewers, nothing could go wrong. One small mistake, and the whole world would know. It was tough—until I could walk in and receive confident greetings from colleagues who had once been worried about my presence. I mean, at one point, a red line was drawn far from a team’s garage entrance, banning me from walking past it. Now, they greet me in with a smile. This was a big achievement. I started getting permission to hold better positions for shooting—the pit, the starting line, the podium—and eventually was sent out to cover other races in other countries: Abu Dhabi, Australia, and Japan. Being treated like one of them was my biggest challenge. Today, I’m happy where I am. I have a team, and I’ve trained many people. I work with agencies abroad, I have worked for many publications, and this is all great, thank God.
Mohammed Yousif: How about you, Ali Alriffai? Tell us about your challenges.
Ali Alriffai: I think my biggest challenge was the fact that I had to approach agencies at a time when there were practically no professional photographers who met their needs and spoke Arabic—over here, I mean. There may have been one or two, from time to time, but the market was filled mostly with non-Arabs. It was all about relationships and connections: getting people to trust you and your work, and believe in you. Photographs can sell, but
you have to sell yourself more.
My question now is for all of you, as a group of Bahraini photographers with a common set of challenges and problems. Did you ever guys think of starting a photographers’ association, club, or union? Something that could be the voice of your problems, concerns, and challenges, a group that protects your rights and caters to your needs. Is there something like that here?
Ali Sharaf: We don’t have one, no; not like that.
Why don’t you guys start one? You could all go as a group to Tamkeen, and let them know what kind of support they can provide for photographers. Why not?
Ali Sharaf: Here’s an example of how that could be helpful. Internationally, all photographs are the property of the photographer—the author, if you will. A client can purchase a license from me to use photographs that I took for editorial purposes, for a month or two—or perhaps for advertising purposes, for a year or more—but a client cannot own my photographs unless he or she specially buys them from me. That’s another cost, for me: to transfer ownership. Over here, we don’t have any laws that protect these rights, unfortunately.
That’s awful, but if I may say, you guys are responsible for that.
Ali Alriffai: You’re right, but let’s be clear here. Advertising agencies, with all due respect, are destroying this industry. How? Well, their clients are not educated or informed enough about this field to know what they want and how to get it. Agencies make decisions based upon their self-interest, especially when it comes to costs or protecting their profit margins. When you do your part as a photographer to explain usage rights, usage duration, or copyrights, they run off. I fight back, but there isn’t much I can do. Agencies want to deal with photographers who cater to their interests. On that level, who is responsible for educating the client?
Exactly. You guys need an association to protect photographers. Agencies already have an association set up to protect their backs. What do you guys have?
Ali Alriffai: I fully agree. It’s also the case now that agencies tell clients something about you while telling you something else about their clients. They’re playing on two threads here. This is very important, and I think agencies need to realize that we know this.
How has social media helped your career? Did it get you more business?
Ali Sharaf: I market myself in different ways. Part of it is through social media. A bigger part is through word of mouth and referrals. I might not be as active as the other guys here. I mean, I’m active—just not as active.
Ali Alriffai: I think I can say something similar: mostly word of mouth, a little less social media.
Mohammed Yousif: Social media got me a great deal of work. My pride and joy, my best work came from social media. The celebrities I shot, I got from social media.
Mohammed Fakhruddin: For me, it’s all word of mouth. Social media doesn’t necessarily work well for me. A picture I shot that I posted might get 300 likes. The same picture sent out to publications or other agencies and posted on their social media might get thousands upon thousands of likes. Good for them—but not much for me. I’m not that active, either.
Has social media hurt you or your career in any way?
Mohammed Yousif: Yes, on a number of occasions.
Mohammed Fakhruddin: People steal my work when I post it. That has always worried me. It’s not something I like seeing. This made me stop posting anything.
Ali Sharaf: People on social media who offer free or super-cheap services really hurt us as established photographers, and devalue the industry as a whole.
Mohammed Yousif: Social media also distorts how I really am. People see me through a different lens on social media than in real life. I have to be a certain way for people now. I don’t like it. I can’t be myself.
Do you have any advice for beginning or aspiring photographers?
Ali Sharaf: Assistance is the best training for you.
Mohammed Yousif: Find your identity first. Try all kinds of photography, then pick something you like.
Mohammed Fakhruddin: Join our agency to be recognized as an official sports photographer.
Ali Alriffai: If you believe in and trust your work, go ahead.
Thank you guys, this has been a fantastic interview and discussion. All the best!