This week, the Women’s Mobile Street Photography Collective (Streets Ahead) is pleased and honored to feature Allie Astell in our interview section.
I first noticed Allie’s work when she was featured in the ‘Adventures in Hipstaland’ series from the Hipstamatic team. She did one set of photographs of Dahab and the other of Morocco and I thought that she had a fantastic eye. I have been following her work ever since. And for this interview, we decided to feature photographs from her life in the middle east, where she is based for most of the year. Her ‘streets’ are often the beach and the dessert, and although this may not be considered as ‘street photography’ in the traditional sense of the word, I feel that they represent ‘streets’ in her part of the world.
Allie has a gift of connecting with her subject, and some of her work would be termed as ‘street portraiture’. Sometimes posed, and sometimes candid – either way, I think she has the ability to capture the true soul of her subject and her surroundings.
You can explore more of Allie’s work on her website, Flickr and Instagram. She is also one of the photographers featured in the blurb book ‘Street Expose’ and is also author of the book ‘Children of Dahab.’
~ Cara Gallardo Weil
Links to Allie Astell’s work:
© Allie Astell, “Self Portrait”
Please share a little bit about yourself…
© Allie Astell, “Abdallah, The Plumber (Dahab)”
Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where are you from? Have you always been interested in photography? Are you (or have you been) involved in any other art medium… such as painting, sculpture, writing, music?
I was born in Morocco to a Syrian mother and English father. As a child, I travelled much of the world with my parents as my Dad was a diplomat with the Foreign Office.
My web consultancy business allows me to work from anywhere that has an internet connection, which means I can indulge in my two real passions – travel and photography.
It was the iPhone, and particularly the Hipstamatic app, that got me into photography just over 2 years ago. Once I started taking the shots I was hooked.
My most recent trips have been to the Middle East (Syria, Morocco and Egypt), Norway and Las Vegas (for their Beard and Moustache Championships). It’s a long story but I have a strong connection with the world of facial hair and competitive facial hair growing and styling.
I’ve been based in Dahab, South Sinai, Egypt for about two years now and that’s where my passion for iPhoneography really began.
Which mobile device do you use?
© Allie Astell, “Ibrahim and the Shipwreck (Nabq)”
Which mobile device do you use to take (and process) your photographs?
I use an iPhone 4S and the associated camera and processing apps.
How did it all start?
© Allie Astell, “Spice Stall (Morocco)”
How did you get involved in mobile street photography? And is this a genre that you predominantly focus on in your work?
I guess it started when I began taking shots of the Bedouin kids in Dahab about two years ago. There was something about their innocence and joy that had a big impact on me. I found myself going out every day – bumping into little boys fishing or rolling car tyres down the road, girls selling their friendship bracelets and big groups of children just hanging out and having fun. I got to know them all by the end of that summer and then I decided to publish a book about them, with proceeds going to a young sick Egyptian boy.
When I was invited into a Facebook street photography group by my good friend (and mentor) Cara Gallardo Weil, I moved onto the more “classic” style and started to focus on the streets of the UK or other countries I found myself in. It took some practice but I started to really enjoy it.
I would say the two main areas I tend to enjoy are street photography (particularly in Egypt) and random portraits of the people I meet.
Street Photography Ethics…
© Allie Astell, “The Passenger (St. Catherine)
There is a general question among some people about the morals and ethics of taking pictures of strangers in a public environment. Many think that this is an infringement of an individual’s rights and privacy. What are your thoughts on this? Has the question about “privacy” been an issue for you in your work? Have you had any negative experiences taking street photographs in your home country or whilst traveling abroad? How did you handle them?
Privacy is an issue that I’ve thought about before. Sometimes I do feel a little guilty that I’ve taken a photo of an unsuspecting person on the street and posted it to Facebook or on my own website. However, the chances of that person seeing the photo are so slim that I’ve never really worried too much about it. I’m sure there are plenty of shots of me that I’ll never clap my eyes on and, to be honest, I would never want to.
I did have a problem when I brought my Children of Dahab book to South Sinai. A couple of the Bedouin families took offense that their children featured in the book in bare feet and wet or dirty clothes and called me to a meeting. Once I’d explained the translation of the text, and that the point of the book was to let the Western world know how happy these kids are and how well they’re brought up, the heads of the families relaxed a little and the whole thing blew over. It was a lesson learnt though – I should have consulted the families before publishing the book.
Personal guidelines while in the streets…
© Allie Astell, “Time Out (Dahab)”
Do you have any rules in place when you are on the street photographing? For example: are there certain “things” or situations that you personally feel are “off limits” in your photography? Can you explain why?
The main subject that is “off limits” for me is Bedouin women. I do take their photograph when they ask or allow me to but I never post or publish them as they should never become public. The reason is that in their culture they remain in the home, and are rarely seen by men who aren’t in their family. If they walk the streets they cover their faces and visit the local shops or family friends. Any photographs of these beautiful women are frowned upon as it makes them less enigmatic and gives them a lower chance of getting married. The more private they are before marriage, the better chance they have of finding a suitable and respectful husband.
Personal preferences while on a photo shoot…
© Allie Astell, “Nuwelba Beauty”
What kind of situations, characters, and/or environments appeal to you? Why?
My favorite situations, characters and environments are generally in South Sinai, Egypt. I’m particularly fascinated by the Bedouin who have an amazing mixture of grace, generosity, humor and eccentricity that I’m constantly drawn to. As they’re nomadic people by nature, their “streets” are the mountains, deserts and beaches, so when I shoot them in those environments the result can be truly beautiful.
I also enjoy shooting at the Beard and Moustache championships that I attend on a fairly regular basis. They’re full of quirky, very confident men from all over the world and the photo opportunities are endless.
Women’s perspective in street photography…
© Allie Astell, “Colours of Sinai”
Do you think that women bring to photography, especially street photography, a certain perspective that is not necessarily shared by many male photographers? If so, can you elaborate on your thoughts?
From my experience of “classic” street photography, I’ve observed that men seem to take more close ups of subjects and they’re more willing to take the risk of being caught out. The women I follow tend to take more arty shots from a distance – architecture, road crossings, signs or gatherings of people. I might be proved wrong, but this is what I’ve noticed within the various groups I’m involved with.
Women street photographers who have influenced you…
© Allie Astell, “Crouching Bedouin Hidden Dragon (Dahab)”
Are there any women street photographers/photo journalists who have inspired you in your work? If so, who are they? And what inspires you about their work?
Being honest I don’t know a lot of history regarding women and street photography, but the one person I would say has been a big influence for me is Cara Gallardo Weil. Her style is very different to mine, and I often tell her that she has style and class, whereas I’m all about humour, bright colours and perhaps a more eccentric and quirky approach at times. Seeing her work gives me real inspiration on a daily basis and there’s nothing I like more than going on a photo walk when we get together two or three times a year. It was Cara who gave me vital tips as regards how to take a good shot, which apps to use and how to process my images when I first started experimenting.
Role that mobile devices play with women and photography…
© Allie Astell, “The Horsemen (Syria)”
Do you think that more women are getting involved in this genre because of the democracy and immediacy of mobile devices? What are your thoughts on this?
I think that could well be the reason that more women are getting involved. The ease of use is fantastic, and mobile devices are light and discreet. I would feel very different if I was carrying a large SLR camera on the street and I know I would be less likely to take the amount of shots that I do. Perhaps there’s something threatening about holding a large camera up as it can make people feel uncomfortable.
Post processing images…
© Allie Astell, “View From The Top (Dahab)”
What are your thoughts on post-processing mobile street images? Do you post process your own images? Can you share with us an example of your workflow process?
I find processing my mobile street images extremely therapeutic as it’s a great way for me to switch off from my everyday work and life. I can sit there for hours at home, on a train, or on a plane and play with each photograph until it looks just right (in my eyes anyway). I’ll usually take the shot with the normal iPhone 4S camera, then go into Camera + to crop and edit it. From there I might add an extra effect by processing it through Pixelromatic + or Instagram. I have so many other apps that I use, it’s difficult to give you a classic example but I think this would be the closest. I also use Hipstamatic, Leme Cam, Snapseed and Filter Mania 2 on a regular basis.
Please share some images and what your thoughts about them are…
© Allie Astell, “Face To Face”
Can you share with us a few of your images that you feel give us good overview of your work… we’d love to hear what you were thinking or felt when you took these photographs. What moved you?
Face To Face: These two Bedouin girls are very close to my heart. I became friends with them nearly three years ago when I bought their handmade friendship bracelets. The shot was taken in Dahab, on the first day of the Eid festival (after Ramadan), when everyone dresses in the finest clothes and the celebrations go on for days. This was the last day the girls had a chance to go to the beach, as soon after there was an event that put a stop to many of the girls being allowed in public places. Since then, the only chance I get to see my younger friends is when I visit their houses for tea or dinner. It’s been interesting watching them growing up and learning about their culture. Their world is very far removed from young women in the West.
I used Snapseed first to tune the image, then the Camera + app with the clarity setting and then I brightened up the color a little.
© Allie Astell, “Coptic Priest”
(I used to go on photo walks early every morning in Dahab. Once day I came across a group of Coptic priests in the street and asked if I could photograph them. This priest was the only one to accept, and he posed for me in a beautiful dignified way that touched me greatly. I feel it’s very topical now. The current uprising in Egypt has led to several Coptic churches being burnt down, and Christian leaders have blamed supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood for the attacks, which are believed to have led to several deaths, including that of a teenage girl who was reportedly leaving Bible class in Cairo when she was shot dead. At least nine churches nationwide have been torched but numbers could be up to 20. I used Camera + by using the clarity setting and then the Contessa filter.)
Artistic goals and inspirations…
© Allie Astell, “Sheikh Ali and Mariam”
(A highly respected man in South Sinai, Sheikh Ali retreated from the hustle and bustle of Dahab some 15 years ago. He is now living a traditional life in the desert wadi. In the true spirit of Bedouin hospitality, he welcomes his visitors with tea, laughter, Bedouin lyrics and Rababah music. I took this shot on a visit with a Bedouin family that I am close friends with, who are related to the Sheikh. I’ll never forget my first visit to meet this charismatic and inspirational man. I used Snapseed for this one and then Camera + with the Contessa filter.)
What are your artistic goals and aspirations?
I would love to carry on developing my skills with street photography, particularly in the classic environment of towns and cities. I’ve spent so much time in Egypt that l’m more accustomed to landscapes being the streets rather than pavements, roads, billboards and skyscrapers. I guess that’s my real aspiration. To keep on learning and practicing!
Social Media platforms…
© Allie Astell, “Cheeky Girls”
(I came across these little girls on the beach about two years ago, and decided to take a photograph of them. They had so much energy and humour. I noticed how happy their childhoods were, playing in the sea, running in the streets and living a very innocent young life. Now they’ve grown up a little and I see them almost every day. They always run up to me, call my name and give me huge hugs. It’s been a joy to watch them develop since the day I took this shot. This was taken with Hipstamatic, John S and Ina’s 1935. I then brightened the colour (as if they weren’t in bright enough clothes already!)
Where do you show your work? What social networks are you on? On which platforms are you most involved?
Most of my work is shared on my photography website, Facebook and Instagram. I’ve actually only recently rediscovered Instagram as I took a break for a year or so. After a visit to see a good friend in London, I was re-inspired as he was using it and we chatted about the people we followed. When I logged back in I was hooked again!
© Allie Astell, “The Road Less Travelled”
(This was taken on a day trip with my father and his partner to the monastery at St Catherine. One of my Bedouin friends, Mohamed, was driving, and I snapped him on a rest break as we returned to Dahab. He had no idea I was taking this shot, which is something I really like. It reminds me of a still from a film. I used Camera + with the clarity setting and then the Silver Gelatin filter.)
Do you have any mobile street photography tips or tricks that you’d like to share with us?
My main tip is to be very quick when you take a shot. Don’t allow time for the person concerned to spot you and react, as the whole tone would change. But by the same token I do sometimes actually ask people for permission to take their photo, making it less candid. I usually do that when I can see that the person has an interesting personality which would come across more if they know I’m photographing them. Luckily Egyptians and Bedouin generally adore having their photograph taken so I rarely get turned down.
© Allie Astell, “Tea For Two (Nuwelba)”
Is there anything else that you would like to share with us?
The main thing on my mind right now is that Egypt is currently in turmoil after a second revolution. I’m based in the UK again for a while until things settle down, but I would like to ask anyone reading this article to send up a little prayer or thought for the Egyptian people as they’re suffering a great deal. I feel honored to have had the chance to live there for the past two years and get to know some of the kindest, most positive and inspirational people on the planet. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to say that, Cara.