The digital world has created an endless buffet of content and it’s easier than ever before to find things that fascinate and inspire us. But, this is a double-edged sword. Without control, it’s also easier than ever to overeat, gluttonously gorging on junk food, and never savoring a bite. For most, rather than eating just what we need and feeling satisfied, we leave the table bloated and worn out.
At the buffet are our social media feeds, video streaming sites, podcasts, newsletters, and even traditional mediums such as magazines, museums, and television — the list, like the perpetual scroll, goes on. This relatively new phenomenon means that artists and creators need to ask themselves how they can design a diet that fuels their work without taking time and energy away from it. In other words, how does one indulge without becoming fruitlessly addicted to the instantly gratifying flavor of sugary snackable content?
Reference Point. is a series that grapples with this and much more by looking at contemporary artists, their inspirations, and their motivations. It’s not about who those we interview follow on Instagram or half a film they once watched; it’s about exploring their deepest, intrinsic motivations to create and the things that have most profoundly affected their work. The series is created in partnership with Tiger of Sweden who, since the appointment of creative director Christoffer Lundman, has taken a bold new approach to fashion, referencing everything from Swedish cinema to neoclassical design.
Our latest installment is a conversation with New Yorker and photographer Mustafah Abdulaziz. Now based in Berlin, Abdulaziz is in the midst of a long term project based around a simple yet all-encompassing theme: water. During my conversation with Abdulaziz, however, I come to find that water might not be the real focus at all and that the origins of true reference points run far deeper than the oceans.
Mustafah Abdulaziz got his first professional break as a photojournalist for the Wall Street Journal which, at the time, was aggressively hiring to keep up with competitors. Abdulaziz saw the opportunity as a cheat code, in the best sense of the term. “With this job, I could just learn all the things I wanted to learn really quickly and that’s always been something that I like to do,” he explains. “They thought they were hiring a contract photographer and what they were really hiring was a kid who was like, ‘I’m gonna learn everything you do, whether it relates to photography or not.’” Abdulaziz did just that and learned everything he could during his time with the publication but, ultimately, the pre-constructed narratives that neatly framed the work he was assigned conflicted with his own motivations.
But Abdulaziz’s desire to move away from photojournalism was not purely based on an aversion towards the field. Having learned everything he could, he longed to fulfill a potential more true to who he is: “I thought it important to pivot to what I really am.” To find out what that is, Abdulaziz did something he often does during moments of personal conflict, he looked to the experiences from his past that have most profoundly impacted him.
Abdulaziz’s obsession with photography started after he fortuitously came across In the American West by the lauded American photographer Richard Avedon. Even today, he describes the moment like an epiphany: “it took my life and it just pointed it like a laser that said, ‘you thought you were going there? No. You’re going there.’ These cylinders that I didn’t even know existed were suddenly firing full throttle.” At that moment, Abdulaziz became more than just intrigued by photography, he became completely obsessed. “Like a fiend, I was hooked. I spent my summer going to this bookstore three or four times a week, drinking coffee, going through entire shelves of books over and over again, and writing notes.”
Abdulaziz’s life has been punctuated by intense moments like this that have oriented his trajectory and left him with vivid memories. In 2017, he told It’s Nice That, “it is through feeling that we remember powerful experiences and moments in our lives,” and these moments have spurred the photographer during his highest and lowest points.
During family vacations as a child, for example, he describes wandering off, sitting in trees, and just watching his surroundings, his family unbeknownst to his whereabouts. In another childhood story, he lays under a model whale on display at New York’s American Museum of Natural History and considers himself at scale to others things for the first time as a thousand questions bounce between his ears. He remembers his first experiences in a photographer’s darkroom too, explaining, “it was so profound, this feeling of being in the dark with somebody whose face you can hardly see as you both try to make something.”
While these memories each point to Abdulaziz’s innate curiosity, desire to wander, get lost, and simply observe the universe, his insistence on retracing and referencing them is a testament to what truly drives him to photograph. Abdulaziz doesn’t just enjoy taking pictures, he is compelled to. Photography, he explains, “fulfills my curiosity towards existence. Photography plays such a crucial role for me in terms of how to be, what to look at, and what to do with my life, it helps me to understand the world while simultaneously ordering, reordering, and interpreting it while unfolding with it.”
These are the types of reference points that run most deeply within all of us, which brings us to Abdulaziz’s project Water. It’s easy to assume that Water is a project about climate change or poverty or cultures around the world but, as the British film critic Mark Kermode famously laments, Jaws is not a film about a shark. And, in much the same way, Water is not a project about water. Beyond its physical presence or lack thereof in what Abdulaziz chooses to frame, water’s role in the project is hard, even for him, to explain.
“What I’m trying to make is a large body of work that is a huge mirror reflecting human behavior and I’ve chosen water as the mirror to reflect back on society what they’re doing right now. If there were a more all-encompassing topic I would’ve selected it but water connects everyone, race, creed, culture. It goes everywhere and the topic continually offers me new ways to talk about other things. In one way, the project’s entirely about water. In another, it’s entirely about all these other unrelated events and behaviors that have either already happened or will happen. Why not use this one thing to say anything?”
As an aside, trying to give the project a definitive explanation and reasoning, he believes, is a problem in and of itself. “The need to box it in says more about people’s desire to contextualize the environment and information than it does about what I do. They need it to make sense for their own benefit.” Abdulaziz has given the project a 15-year timeline, which makes for a nice headline, but this too was just a tool to satisfy those who feel the need to understand what he’s doing, “it’s just a function to show someone that this has a beginning, middle, and end. The project doesn’t require it but they require it.”
Returning again to points of reference, paradoxically, Water isn’t about water at all. Rather, water is the mirror or lens through which he portrays his true objects of deeply ingrained fascination: life itself, what it is to exist, live, grow, die, and simply be, both as an individual and a community. “I always was attracted to other people’s experiences, their little bubbles, their little habits, their worlds, the bedrooms they design because they’re fascinated by one particular nerdy thing. Or the kids riding dirt bikes back behind a gas station. I was always interested in going into these worlds and seeing them. Coming close to them and experiencing them.”
In trying to capture such vast concepts, Abdulaziz hopes to recreate for the viewer the feeling he experienced when he looked up at the blue whale as a child. It’s a feeling of awe as one stands next to something so metaphysically large captured within the frame of a photograph or walls of a museum, being placed in relation to that idea and considering one’s place in the universe relative to it. “If they’re able to look at something I do and they’re able to experience some of these sensations that I have, then I will have contributed something transformative to someone I’ll never get to meet,” he explains.
When I ask Abdulaziz how he’ll know when Water is finished, it teases out another motivation, one universally innate: fear. To say goodbye to the project, like saying goodbye to a partner or child, is to lose a part of one’s identity and when that thing has been a part of one’s identity for so long, we forget what we were and can’t comprehend what we might be without it.
“Sometimes I self-sabotage myself because I don’t want it to end. I’m a human being. I have to understand these things. When it comes to this question of what is it going to be like when it ends, that scares the shit out of me more than continuing with this crazy idea because maybe when it’s done, maybe I’ll feel like I’m done with photography. I don’t want to be done with photography.”
To embody Tiger of Sweden's creative spirit, Mustafah Abdulaziz wears the brands's latest collection throughout our photo and video shoot above. You can shop the collection online now.