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Groundbreaking Photographers: Fares Zaitoun

Fares Zaitoun
Photo Credits: Mohamed Hanafi

For the first feature interview of our inaugural blog, it was hard to choose from Photopia's long list of successful alumni. Of course there is no shortage of unique, talented, and driven artists that Photopia has helped shape on their paths through the field of photography. Yet when tasked with determining which one of them to model what Photopia is all about, we all knew that no one exemplifies the potential of Photopia, not just as a resource for honing the skill of photography but as a spiritual healing center, more than Fares Zaitoun.

With only one year left in his business degree, Fares dropped out to pursue his passion in photography instead of getting a 'practical' degree in something he has no interest in pursuing.

His story is a universal message of how our passions can form the basis of our salvation, giving us meaning, and empowering our faith. How something seemingly simple as photography can set us on the path of survival, discipline, and artistry. Working in Sabry Khaled's intermediate course, Fares produced a memorable series depicting his brief relapse back into drug abuse. To truly understand the power of the series, one has to get his backstory.

You're most known for this breakthrough series "Relapse" that you did as final project for the course with Sabry Khaled at Photopia. Can you tell us more about that?

I Probably need to tell you guys more than any one. It has been published in Mada Masr, made it to an exhibition in Darb 1718 with Karim El Hayawan, Vice Media bought it along with Cairo Scene and Ahram Hebdo.

Sabry asked us to photograph in our homes; he said the greatest photographers found inspiration in their intimate settings. To me in Intermediate course it wasn't what I was expecting, I was expecting more of let's work on a refugee story. Till the end of the workshop I didn't have anything, I was squeezing my brain for ideas and nothing. It was hard to shoot in your home, or yourself because you have to sit and look inside and know what to look for. I dug deeper and thought about my addiction and relapse experience, it was something people didn't know about me. Everybody is talking about addiction but nobody is talking about relapse, people think that just because you quit you won't ever do drugs again but the truth is that the recovering addict is exposed to relapse all his life. So I decided to document that.

How did people react to your project? Did you get controversial comments?

The feedback I got after I finished was very supportive. People started talking to me about their own psychological problems, I felt more connected. Although a person came up to me and asked, "how can you talk about this in public, aren't you ashamed?" I said "on the contrary, it's my journey, why would I be ashamed?"

What was you Family's reaction to the project?

First they were shocked, they asked why I took a nude picture of myself. I had to explain that the pain takes your eyes away from the nudity, after that they themselves got good comments and were supportive of it.

When did your addiction start?

It sarted at 13 years old, I got sober at 24 ,relapsed at 25 then started my recovery 9 months after. Now I am 28.

What was the hardest part about bringing this project to life?

To even start doing a project about relapse, I personally know how much it hurts to talk about. My goal was bigger, I wanted to raise awareness towards the whole subject, people in the Middle East have a very mistaken conception about addiction; it’s not lack of parental guidance, lack of morals, or a predisposition. Addiction is a disease. My goal was to raise awareness and help my subjects in their, and my own, abstinence. Especially that it was a major part of our recovery, to reach out and support each other. It was hard to relive this experience; the journey of being a recovering addict. I wasn't asking something easy of my subjects, I was asking them to recall exact feelings and emotions, and where they think is the best place to express them.

Why did you feel it was important to tell such a personal story?

A lot of my friends were dying, I felt like I shouldn't have been alive; seeing kids younger than me overdosing. I started the project not knowing exactly what to do, but when we dig deeper inside ourselves, we find the passion. There are many things that we're connected to and that's where real art comes from. When I started doing that it healed me, it made me a better person.

What lessons did this whole experience teach you?

It's normal to have doubts and think that you're worthless or a loser sometimes, everything passes eventually. I learned a lot, and matured, discovered how lucky I am, that God was supporting me all along. I felt God's love, so now I have more faith in him.

People say that some of our biggest life moments are changes that come from our lowest times. How do you think your lowest times defined and changed you?

This is exactly what relapse is for me. After leaving drugs for almost a year and then coming back to it I felt like this pain, isolation, grief, dissonance, denial, depression, apathy, worthlessness and thoughts of suicide needs to stop! I needed to change, so I took a decision, I went to the people who could help me change and I started from there. From that everything changed, my relationship with my family, with God, and with the people around me. I started seeing things differently; instead of everything turning into failure and disappointment, now I see success and I see myself as worthy. So relapse was definitely the turning point of my life.

Do you have any regrets?

No, if I can go back in time I wouldn't change a thing. Just maybe I would've started photography earlier.

Were your parents encouraging of you leaving college? or supporting your photography in general?

Very! I am always taking pictures of them and dragging them around the house for the perfect lighting. I think my dad was proud of that step I took of leaving college and taking photography more seriously.

Was your past important to your present?

Of course! A lot of people think their past isn't important, but I feel like you'll never be able to know your authentic self without looking at your past and learning from it. All the things I have now in my life are because of my past. We are here for a reason, to learn and move on, even if the past sometimes scares us.

Who are some of the artists who inspired you?

Roger Ballen, Bruce Gilden, Martin Par, Richard Avedon, Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso.

You have completed many workshops here at Photopia, how did Photopia/ Photopia's community help through your journey?

Honestly I feel like Photopia is my home! When Marwa, co-founder of Photopia, first saw me she believed in my ability to be a good photographer and made me a part of the D-Caf exhibition next to so many big names like Karim El-Hayawan, Nelly El-Sharkawy, Fathi Hawas and Mohamed Mahdy. People liked my work, and I was very grateful for that. The workshops as well was a great help. Marwa tries to get instructors that understand art, that aren't just doing it for the money, like Søren Pagter from DMJX - Denmark, people take scholarships just to be taught by him, and he was there watching my story! That was great! I took a whole week off from work to be a part of Cairo Photo Week. Photopia's community was so helpful, the instructors are always ready to help. Whenever I need anything I just call. I plan that even if I reach a point where I teach photography, I will continue to be a student throughout my life and take workshops here.

What do you do now?

I am a senior photographer at MO4 Network, I shoot food photography, fashion photography and studio work, I am also working on projects of my own.

Do you feel that photography might have saved your life in a way?

For sure! I actually feel like maybe my addiction has turned into an addiction of photography instead of substances, to the point that I never leave my house now without my camera. I see things clearer through my view finder. It's a hobby, passion, and a coping mechanism, art is a coping mechanism.

If you can give an advice to your past self what would it be?

Don't be afraid, God is with you!

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