Kiana Hayeri graduated from Ryerson in 2011. Since leaving the Photography program, she has gone on to win several awards including the National Geographic Award and the Chris Hondros Fund Award. She has been selected for an Iranian Alliances Across Borders fellowship, an International Women’s Media Foundation fellowship, and is currently a TED fellow. Her work has been shown in exhibitions across the world, has appeared in numerous publications, and in 2014 she was named one of Photo District News’ Top 30 under 30 Emerging Photojournalists. We tracked her down (in Berlin, where she is currently working) to ask her questions about her life as a documentary photographer.
Function: How did your time at Ryerson help prepare you for your career?
Kiana Hayeri: All of the technical stuff in the first two years was amazing. Going into Ryerson, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Dominic Nahr, who is now a friend, was a great inspiration. I went into Ryerson’s program because of him, because of what he was doing, and now we’re colleagues, which is amazing. So Ryerson didn’t help me with figuring that out, but having professors like Iain Cameron was very critical to my studies, because, in the most positive and constructive way, he was always talking to me about what I could do better. I’m also a good printer thanks to Ryerson because of working at PIC with Michelle.
FN: How long after graduating did it take to dive in to your career?
Hayeri: I dove in immediately. In my last semester at Ryerson, I moved to Argentina and I did everything long distance. My elective courses I did ahead of time, and I talked to all of my Image Arts professors from a distance. Becoming a documentary photographer, you don’t say, “oh I’m going to work today and that’s it.” I continued my projects after I graduated but always allowed myself to make mistakes and learn from the industry.
FN: Some students that are currently working in the documentary field at our school like to take a complete outsider stance in the work that they do, whereas I know that you have talked about completely immersing yourself. Can you talk about the difference?
Hayeri: I think it’s very different, and I’m not a big fan of being an outsider because, especially within complex societies and countries, it’s very easy to make mistakes and make the wrong judgment. First of all, I truly believe objective documentary doesn’t exist, so it’s very subjective, but the more time you spend with that culture, that society, that community, then the more you get to know them and the more you can make better decisions to help to represent them. Talking to you right now, I’m here in Berlin for my second trip working with the Syrian refugees here. On my first trip, I photographed a bunch of people but I didn’t call the work finished. I came back again and now I realize that some of the stories that I documented are not the true representation of what I’m trying to say. So I think it’s important to go back, give it time, spend time with your subject, even if that means drinking one night with them without taking photos.
FN: How do you find the balance between working for publications, working for yourself on personal projects, and then just living life?
Hayeri: That’s a golden question. I started up by doing my own projects only, no assignments, and working odd jobs. When you invest time into your personal projects you start developing your style of photography, then people recognize your work and it gets to a point where you get to do what you want to do. I had enough experience and expertise in a place, like in Afghanistan, that you permit yourself to argue with the editor saying that what you’re asking me to do is wrong. That being said, I always, always, always, have at least one, maybe two, personal projects on the side going long term – one year, maybe two years, some of them four or five. And I do assignments for magazines and NGOs to make money and put that money into my personal projects. So personal projects keep me happy, keep me motivated, allow me to grow and become a better person and a better photographer, but then the assignments pay. Personal life, that is something that has been changing. There was a time where I spent 2 or 3 years just working, working, working, and then I met somebody that I really like and now I’m slowing down because I think before, work was the only drive for me to live my life, but now I’m experiencing things where I’m like, “oh, it’s not all about work”. But that part I’m still learning about, it’s been a struggle. I just recently, for the past year, moved to the same country as my partner, so I moved back to Iran, and in Iran I’m not allowed to work, so it’s been challenge to live in a place where you can’t work and then do all the work while you’re away from your personal life. It’s still something that I’m learning.
FN: What do you think is the future of photojournalism and documentary photography?
Hayeri: I’m actually very optimistic because the traditional media is changing, it’s not dying, it’s changing. As long as we can adapt and change the way we work, it’s going to be fine. Yes, there are now many platforms, but there also many photographers. For me, it’s better because I get to do the work that is important for me. And with the way the business is changing, there are other ways of making money where you can separate your work that makes you money, and the work that is important for you, so that is how I see photojournalism changing.
FN: As students are moving closer to leaving the safety net of school, there is a worry that pursuing a career in photojournalism is not going to be able to support them. Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for documentary photographers feeling like they can’t make any money doing what they love?
Hayeri: I don’t think anybody goes into documentary photography to become rich - that is a known fact. We all know there are going to be struggles, and being a freelancer anyhow is a struggle. The start is not going to be easy because you have to get your name out there, you have to work really hard to become known for what you do but once you get there, you have one skill that many other photographers don’t have, and that is making people very comfortable and at ease. Also, if you do your job right, you’re very trusted. You’re doing journalism work; you don’t manipulate anything, you don’t change the situation, so that makes you a very reliable person. For example, Dominic Nahr and Natalie McNamara had this idea initially so they are the cofounders, and then myself, and five other Canadian photographers, we founded this agency nearly a year ago, called Namara, and the idea is this; Natalie, who is our agent, she markets our work, markets us as photojournalists, for commercial work. So companies will come and hire you, you as a photojournalist. We still do what we do. There are also loads of grants and awards out there. If you’re really passionate about something, if you work really hard, it’s easy to apply and get it. I don’t think people should be worried… yes, there are many struggling photojournalists but there are also photojournalists who are living off of this money. One thing that I’m really worried about, which a lot of jobs rely on, is that some jobs rely on your physical health. Eventually with time you’re not going to be as capable as you used to be. That is one thing that I keep thinking about, so I try to grow my skills so that I can compensate for that, but that is not specific to documentary photography.
FN: With you having just mentioned the Namara agency, I was wondering how you felt about the crossover of documentary and commercial work in that aspect?
Hayeri: We’re still doing documentary work but we’re doing it for commercial clients. We actually had long extended conversations about what if we come across something that is unethical, what are we going to do about it? It’s still very much documentary work. If you think about it, even NGO work is still commercial, when you do work for MSF, UNICEF, Red Cross, it’s not that different.
FN: You were recently featured in a New York Times article, “Highlighting Women in Photojournalism”, how has being a woman in photojournalism affected your career both positively and negatively?
Hayeri: The part of the world that I work in, being a woman, gives me a lot of access that men don’t have. Also being a woman, it’s less threatening to people, somehow you can gain trust, take your time. At the same time, yes there are a lot of women who do embedded journalism, who do frontline. Sometimes there is discrimination, like one time myself and a Sunday Times magazine correspondent were trying to do embedded, and we were refused access. Later I found out we were refused access because we were the only women trying to access what was going on North of Afghanistan. It has obstructed my work, but it’s been mostly helpful. In regards to that article though, this is not something that happens in just photojournalism. In many, many jobs in careers, it is still very patriarchal, it is very male dominated. Male editors tend to hire male photographers, that is exactly why Daniella Zalcman started the website Women Photograph, and that collective of photographers. But overall being a woman has been helpful for me.
FN: Do you think with the creation of the website, it’s going to help boost women in photography?
Hayeri: Honestly, that I don’t know. In the past, the problem wasn’t that editors didn’t know any female photographers, it was more convenient for them to hire male photographers, but they would use the excuse of not knowing any female photographers. Now, this website stops editors from using that excuse, because it provides them with a database of female photographers, their locations, their work. So now if the problem continues, it’s more of a reflection of society.
FN: You cover work in regions that are dangerous, regardless of gender. What are some of the risks that you have encountered, and what advice do you have for students that are looking to work in potentially dangerous regions?
Hayeri: I’m a still a young photographer, so saying this I’m going to sound like a grandma, but many young and inexperienced photographers nowadays, they take their bags and head into war and conflicts and try to do journalism. And because you don’t have the skills, not only do you get yourself killed or in trouble, but you also get your fixers, your drivers, and the other people with you in danger. There are countless examples that I can use right now, unfortunately many young and talented photographers have been killed. Me going to Afghanistan, it was not an overnight decision, and was not me stepping right into the frontline. I had two trips to Afghanistan before that. Then I went and initially I started doing stories that were local, like in Kabul, or just safer. Then, over time, as you learn, I started taking more and more risks. Talking to other journalists, older journalists, who have done this before and are more experienced, is very important. Preparing for your trip is very important. Taking classes, taking courses that train you, get you ready for conflict zones, are very important and there are plenty of them out there. I just highly discourage anyone from walking into a warzone and thinking they can become a photojournalist overnight because there are little things, little details, very small things that you don’t think about unless somebody has told you about them or you have experienced them, that could seriously get you into danger or you could get yourself killed over. I don’t know if it’s interesting but I can use one example. There was one story that I did, where we were required to travel to very dangerous places that are basically governed by the Taliban and possibly, quote unquote ISIS, so we had to go through there. The amount of details that we had to put into our trip was crazy. Not only were we not allowed to talk to anyone about our trip, we had to use a trusted fixer and a trusted driver, but then there were little things that my roommates taught me the night before I left for that trip. I wore a burka, I was completely covered, so you think that you’re safe and they’re not going to see you as an outsider. The danger there was mostly getting kidnapped, so we wanted to avoid that. I thought, “I’m covered, I’m fine”. Turns out, if you get out of the car with your burka on, as soon as the Taliban looks at you, the way you are standing, the way you’re walking, they immediately can tell you’re not a local woman. So what we did, my roommates put henna in the palm of my hands, I put my fingernails into dirt the morning we were leaving, I wore shitty shoes, and I didn’t take a camera bag but just a shitty purse. When we were driving, one time we had to drive through a checkpoint, I thought because of my burka nobody was going to realize that I was a foreigner and I was looking outside, and then my driver yelled at me “Look down! An Afghan woman looks down!” So these are little details that you probably don’t know about until you have lived them or have been told about them.
FN: You mentioned fixers and drivers, how do you deal with the logistics of working as a photojournalist in foreign countries? How do you find fixers, drivers, and translators?
Hayeri: Working as a photojournalist, taking the photo is maybe 20% of the job you do. A lot of work goes into prepping, finding fixers, finding drivers, finding where you’re going to sleep, how you’re going to keep yourself safe, and how you’re going to find internet in the middle of nowhere. A lot of it comes with experience. I covered Nepal’s earthquake, and it was my very first time and I didn’t have a lot of time; the earthquake happened, 12 hours later I was catching a flight, 36 hours later I arrived in Katmandu. No experience of disaster whatsoever, so I had no idea where I was going to sleep, where I was going to get internet, and this is something that I learned from talking to other journalists - Wired, AFP, and Getty, those guys always have reliable internet, and colleagues always do favours for one another especially in disasters or conflict zones. As for finding the right fixer and driver, in both places that are dangerous and normal places, it is very important to do your research, because you don’t have a lot of time to waste, so if you don’t have the right person your assignment could fall apart. There are a few groups online to help, like Vulture Club, but also when working in a dangerous place, I wouldn’t recommend posting in such a public group. When you start working you start creating your peer group and your colleagues that you can always reach out to. So when you’re travelling to a place that you’ve never been, and you know a colleague has, you reach out to them for recommendations. If you’re starting off, for somebody who is just out of school, always reach out to other journalists and photojournalists who have either worked there or lived there to ask for recommendations. One thing, especially if you’re going into dangerous places, your gut is going to be trained over time, but do trust your gut, and there are some people out there who take unnecessary risks, but if you don’t feel safe, don’t do it.
FN: What would be your advice for students who do not know how, or are maybe too intimidated, to immerse themselves in an environment the way that you do?
Hayeri: Start with something that you’re comfortable with, start with your own backyard, start with documenting your own family, somewhere that you are comfortable. Then over time you develop skills to ease your way into a community or ease your way into immersing yourself. You don’t have to dive in immediately, like you don’t have to take your bag, go somewhere you’ve never been, where you don’t speak the language, you don’t know the culture, and you feel uncomfortable. Start with your own neighbours and then over time you learn about how to get friendly with people, what icebreakers to use.
FN: Multimedia, increasing demand for video – is that impacting your work or have you seen it impacting those around you?
Hayeri: Definitely! I get more and more video requests, I suck at it, so I turn them down, many of them, and I, to this day and this may change, but to this day, I very much enjoy taking photos over taking videos. At the same time two of my friends, Ed Ou and Kitra Cahana, both of them are also TED fellows and they made the switch completely. Now they are making documentary films, less and less I hear about them doing photos. I think it’s a choice. I don’t know if me not being interested in film and multimedia, if it’s going to damage my career, but for now I get hired to do stills. So far it has been fine.
FN: Besides photography, what do you do in your spare time? If you have any.
Hayeri: I swim. In places where swimming pools exist, I do serious swimming. Cooking is something that I enjoy that very much. It’s a difficult question because in different places I have access to different things, like in Afghanistan I don’t have access to a pool so the other thing that I do is yoga, but in Iran I have access to a pool so I swim. Here in Berlin, I go for walks. I’m also seriously thinking about starting to do carpentry; I’m just looking at the logistics of it right now.
FN: If you weren’t a photographer, what do you think you might have done career-wise?
Hayeri: Oh I’m still thinking about it. If photography turns out to be a failure, I want to become a paramedic. I also have this dream of buying a farm and just moving there, planting potatoes, baking pies, and having babies… if I leave photojournalism I might do that.
FN: Any final advice for a fresh graduate to get their start in photojournalism?
Hayeri: When you graduate, even if you have to work in a bar for a little bit to make money to live, start working on a personal project. Take your time and learn. I mean, if you could start doing that while you’re in school, even better, because when you’re in school you have the opportunity to make mistakes and nobody is going to hold it against you. Take your time, make a body of work, improve, and that is going to eventually lead you into photojournalism and being able to make money out of it because no editor is going to hire you fresh out of school, you need to have a solid body of work. One interest I had was youth, so I spent a lot of time doing stories on that. Also, do take criticism, that’s how you’re going to improve.