Q#1: Are you a Bay Area Native? and if not, how long have you lived in the Bay?
Shadi: Yes I was born in Oakland and early on I was raised in Berkeley and Sunnyvale. My parents were consequential immigrants who’d been living in student housing at U.C. Berkeley. They hadn’t planned to stay. My dad was sent there with other students on scholarship from the Iranian government, at the time ruled by the US-installed Shah (king). Like many Iranians, my parents supported a revolution, which in 1979 took shape as an Islamic Revolution, but when it happened they became stranded in the U.S. So my dad started working a few jobs to finish school. My mom was pregnant with me. A few weeks after I was born, Iraq invaded Iran in another U.S.-backed war. That went on for eight years; my youngest uncle was killed.
I grew up in the Bay, while being told we were going back to Iran, soon. I was raised with a lens of “us” and “them,” the them being “Americans,” who early in life I experienced didn’t seem to like people like my family very much. I didn’t realize I was considered American too until I traveled abroad and people called me that. More importantly, I was raised knowing I had birth-blessed opportunities my cousins didn’t have, which I must embrace.
Q#2: When did you start on the creative path you are currently on?
Shadi: I’d wanted to be an international reporter since I was little. I used to “interview” friends using my hair brush. National Geographic had inspired me. I imagined being a war reporter later, but life directed me to be more locally based. I was never a fan of school and had some incidents; in my senior year of high school I attended this junior college and tried to take photos for the school newspaper. But all I had was my dad’s old Nikon with a broken meter. I tried using disposable cameras. The editor of the paper was in my English class and told me to write instead. I ended up pursuing writing, and came back to photography in recent years, out of necessity, when I had to sometimes take photos to accompany my stories.
I think I take photos like a journalist, photos that tell a story. I’m more interested in capturing the moment than my settings, which I know can be bad, at times. I was always touched by the power of photography; when I was little photos of animals being used for testing and fur made me really upset, I wrote letters and put posters up on my walls. In my creative path now I guess I try to invoke that same feeling, using photo and video to communicate big messages that move people to think or act. I truly experienced that for the first time in Egypt this past year. I lived there for seven months and it was the only time I’ve seen media and arts – online and in the streets – directly impacting current events.
I saw photos of police and soldier brutality convince the unconvinced to support the revolution movement. I saw graffiti “Wanted” murals for a police officer who was shooting people in the eyes help support a push for his arrest. I saw video testimonies from the injured projected on the sides of buildings in neighborhoods far from Tahrir Square, to effectively mobilize masses. Later, videos of the military’s brutality were projected also onto the state television building – the site of a massacre of Coptic Christians by the army and thugs, which was fueled by media propaganda. Those campaigns were part of a grassroots movement called, “Askar Kazeboon,’ or “Military Liars,” which counters the power of state-controlled media.
Q#3: Where do you find your inspiration?
Shadi: What I just described, those types of uses of arts + media + movement inspire me. In terms of “subjects,” I’m inspired by people and movements. What I loved most about reporting is being able to enter a new life each day, and see how people live, how they think, what has shaped them. Each person in turn is part of or is impacting a movement of some sort. When I witness an event or experience a person, what I’d like to capture is a moment I feel can take you into their world. I’m inspired by war photographers who are able to transport you – and make you cry, gasp, and act. I believe the most powerful skill a storyteller can have is to make you connect with another on an intrinsic level that provides understanding beyond the facade we present to each other. For me, I think photography allows me that space more than words do.
Q#4: What was the first piece of vinyl you ever purchased?
Shadi: I’m not that cool. I grew up listening to Iranian tapes and American radio. If I ever owned music back in the day it was given to me, and though I used to make little mix-tapes off the radio, the first record I remember getting was a Boyz II Men CD for my birthday (haha) by someone who didn’t know I was listening to Rage Against the Machine at the time.
Q#5: Anything else you’d like to share? a joke/quote?
Shadi: I love collecting quotes, a different one moves me every day. But a lasting one I’ve posted on my website describes what I try to embody on behalf of the lions:
“Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story.” -Ewe-mina proverb