From Nepal To Lesbos: The Documentary Work Of Arif Nurhakim
By Cherrie - 7 min read
“My documentary work aims to fill in the gaps that were left behind by the mainstream media.”
Arif Nurhakim packed his bags and traveled to Nepal in 2015 to document the country’s catastrophic earthquake, despite the concerns of those around him. He was on a mission – to capture the devastation through the eyes of the people who lived it and to tell the story that was being overlooked by mainstream media. ASHAHARU: Hopes of Nepal was to become his first big documentary and photography project. Hakim – as he is best known – is now turning all of his attention to his next project: documenting the Syrian refugee crisis from the bottom up.
The soon-to-be 25 year old currently works in the civil service sector in Paris – and will soon be returning to his native Singapore where his love for photography was born. Has he set his sights on becoming a professional photographer? Absolutely. But there’s no rush: “I prefer to build a strong portfolio first.”
We spoke to Hakim about his photography journey – past, present and future:
How did you first get into photography?
I was 15 years old when I was praised for a photo taken during a school hiking trip. I felt a great sense of pride – but it was another 2 years before I bought my first film camera. Starting out with film felt natural. Fast forward 6 or 7 years, I made the jump to digital photography – and that was less than 2 years ago. I’m relatively new to this whole tech thing!
What lessons did you learn shooting analog that help you shoot digital?
Slowing down. When I shoot digital, I feel that everything is happening too fast, from the time photos are taken to them being posted. It’s so easy to forget the essential things in between. Why do you take a particular photograph? Do you shoot for yourself or for other reasons? Shooting film taught me to think through every step. And, at the end of the day, that only makes it more worthwhile.
How did this help you determine your next steps?
By the time I had switched back to digital photography, I was beyond the level of aesthetics – I needed my photos to do more than just look nice. I needed them to have weight and meaning. I started learning about visual storytelling and, sooner or later, this led me to documentary and journalistic photography.
My first serious documentary project took me to Nepal. I noticed how mainstream media covering the earthquake dealt mostly with national-level policies and country-wide damages. Very few reports discussed the personal tribulations of the Nepalese people or how they were coping in the wake of the deathly experiences. I flew to Nepal to document a bottom-up story – on the hopes of the survivors. The documentary was titled ASHAHARU: Hopes of Nepal. Ashaharu translates to hope.
I photographed earthquake survivors in front of their demolished homes. The setting represented what they had lost and what they had been through.
What’s your current focus?
My next big project will focus on the [Syrian] refugee crisis that is currently unfolding. Once again, there has been something lacking in the news coverage of the crisis. It often deals with politics and the interests of different parties. I do not want a crisis that is happening at an unprecedented scale to go down in history books as a political crisis. My documentary work aims to fill in the gaps that were left behind by the mainstream media.
We are forgetting that, at the heart of this issue, are the values of humanity. The values of those on Lesbos receiving the refugees, despite their own economic hardship – and the values of the anonymous volunteers who’ve traveled far, given as much as they can and asked for nothing in return. My hope, through this project, is to counter balance the mainstream media by proving that hospitality is more than just a political tool. It is an individual and collective value that we, as humans, possess.
How did your background in street photography help with your documentary work?
These two genres are complimentary to one another. They are very much intertwined and there are many things I’ve learned from shooting in the streets that I can apply to documentary projects. Street photographers, for example, have an intuition for something that is about to unfold, even before it actually happens.
This comes in handy when I try to convey a person’s emotions in the documentary format. A slight gaze downwards or a short pause between words, holding back tears – a strong intuition helps to foresee this. Street photography has also taught me to be non-intrusive. This helps me be discreet when I am observing subjects – then I can both respect and maintain the naturalness of the situation at the same time.
Who are your creative inspirations?
American photojournalist James Nachtwey* is my biggest source of inspiration, not only because of the quality of work that he produces but his dedication to his craft is extremely admirable. I don’t know if I could ever get close to his standards but I would really like to emulate his work ethics, determination and perseverance.
On EyeEm, I really like the work of Tavepong Pratoomwong. He has a keen eye for interesting moments happening on the streets around him. To be able to identify it, frame it and capture it on camera while still maintaining the compositions – I find this really amazing.
Thank you for talking to us Hakim! Follow him on EyeEm to see more of his incredible work.
The monthly Showcase Missions are all about uncovering new talent with the potential to take their photography further and reach a broader audience – and Hakim was the winner of Showcase: February! Meet former winners Audrey Kwok, Chris Caliman and Jasmin Kaemmerer. And keep your eye on the Missions tab in the EyeEm app (iOS and Android) or on the blog for the chance to get your work featured.
Header image by Arif Nurhakim.