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the story


Ghada Khunji

Written by Lisa Ball-Lechgar
Lisa Ball-Lechgar is the former editor of Clientele and a member of the International Association of Art Critics.

Ghada has been photographing the faces and places of the world for as long as she can remember.  Her innate instinct for photography matched by her tender character and creative eye has enabled her to look beyond convention and capture the enduring spirit of people and places with an aesthetic beauty that belies our stereotypical, modern-day values. From the mid-west of America to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, India, and most recently South Africa and Tanzania, her images of life leave a permanent imprint on the viewer.

In this age of consumerism, where one can snap an image in the blink of an eye, and where digital pictures can be taken and deleted in a matter of seconds, the fine art of photography can easily be overlooked. With her work, Ghada revitalises our appreciation of the beauty and craftsmanship of the traditional print. The sum of hours, days, and even weeks of intense study and research is captured in an act of spontaneity that a thousand words could not adequately describe. Such work stops us in our stride; bringing the world into perspective and inciting a torrent of emotion. They unlock the reality of existence and the rawness of humanity that we, in our isolated comfort, all too often ignore.

Rather than pursuing a career in the glamorous world of fashion photography or the celebrity-fuelled field of the paparazzi, Ghada turned her back on the drama of artificiality and chose the theatre of life as her preferred subject. The beauty of truth – with all its pain and joy – has become her ripe and infinite source of inspiration. 

Ghada has travelled to some of the most impoverished countries on the planet to capture the lives of those who live far removed from the bright lights of big cities. There is no doubt that there is a strong humanitarian context in her work. Hovering tentatively between documentary and art, it resonates with her personal mission of putting names and faces to voices that remain unheard by the wider society. “My aim is to look to the right or the left,” Ghada has said. “I want my work to say ‘Yes, life is a struggle, but life goes on’.” Even in the most destitute of locations, this eloquent photographer attempts to portray the hope that simmers beneath the surface. “My subjects have bigger smiles than the more fortunate. They are most giving of people.”

While some viewers may define these pictures as a social diatribe or even a political commentary, in truth, Ghada’s work rises above such restrictive classification. Each image ignites emotion. How one’s thought-process develops in response is down to the discretion of the individual viewer.

In her capacity as a global traveller, one wonders how a stranger in a strange land with such an intrusive instrument as a camera can reflect the souls of anonymous individuals. Ghada does not steal shots. She bridges the divide of language, class and culture and gives the same amount of respect to her subjects as they give her in return. Through this most human of connections, she celebrates the dignity of mankind.

Her work is testament to the fact that there is nothing quite like a negative and nothing as unique as a limited edition print. Denied of the extravagance that today’s technology affords, Ghada relies on the simple things in life - a handful of film, a keen eye and a steady hand. 

Born in 1967 in The Kingdom of Bahrain, Ghada’s lifelong exposure to foreign cultures means she has become a comfortable and confident photographer who creates portraits stunning in their honesty.

For Ghada, who speaks fluent English, Arabic, Farsi as well as some Urdu and Spanish, attending Bahrain’s international elementary and high schools with their multi-cultural student populations meant seeing the world - at least from the classroom. But desktop travel wasn’t enough. When it came time to university, she chose England’s Harlaxton College. Ghada then transferred to Indiana’s University of Evansville in the USA, where in addition to studying Public Relations, she became the most unlikely Homecoming Queen in college history. 
In 1991, Khunji relocated to New York City; four years later, she had a Bachelor degree in Photography from the renowned Parsons School of Design. Next, for good measure, she charged through the International Centre of Photography’s documentary program.

Then it was time to work. For the next several years, Khunji was a high-end photo printer. By day, she handled negatives for some of the most important names in fashion; by night, she planned trips to Cuba, the Dominican Republic and voyages deep into the American heartland. 

When digital photography forced studios to cut back, Khunji revisited her past projects, the images of which had been neglected in favour of full-time work. With just about every competition she entered, there was an award with her name on it. Having won the 2006 Lucie Discovery of the Year (the photography equivalent of the Oscars), the 2007 American Photo’s ‘Images of the Year in Photojournalism’ award, among many other commendations, Ghada’s success comes down to one simple principle; being true to oneself. 


Which work will you be exhibiting? What's the story behind this image?

This image was taken in Kerela, India in 2008.  It's part of the series I call HINDUSTAN, which is the ancient name for India. This particular image tells the story of a young boy living on the backwaters in Alleppey. It's one of many simple, fleeting moments that fits into the labyrinth of a jigsaw puzzle. 

My photo series, in general, including HINDUSTAN don't really have a story line per say, they don't necessarily need to be viewed as a whole to get a story. I like the images to stand out individually and to give the viewer a chance to focus on each one to tell them a unique story. 

In theory, life, colour, poverty, and richness might seem to be contradictory themes, or, somehow, poverty would result in a lack of colour and life while wealth would be naturally producing some type of visible vibrance.  However, in my work, and in particular in India, I have found this preconception to be entirely false.  In my work, the prevalent theme is of have-nots transcending material beauty, to which their access has been severed, and instead inventing beauty out of thin air.  One visiting the core of this population, the vast underclass, sees a population that, as a function of necessity, has unlocked the secret of cohabitation with the other.  The common thread of poverty ties together a closely-knit people with divergent spiritualities.  Elsewhere in the world this juxtaposition results in war and political infighting.  In contrast, a major byproduct of India's poverty is beauty in Technicolor.  It is this vibrance that I was attempting to capture on film.    With my work, I aim to represent the average, often mundane story that exists just beneath the surface. Above all, to represent my beautiful subjects with the dignity they deserve and to capture and share a moment with faces that might often be overlooked.

What is your charity or cause? Why did you select this? Where does community work fit in with your ethos as an artist?
Many to choose from but one of my first choices would be the Women's Refugee Commission : Women's Refugee Commission
Considering that my work has to do with the plight of the underdogs and nameless faces, it's the perfect vehicle that mirrors my beliefs.
It's integral to do community work. I can't just be a "silent" observer but I also think  it's important to physically aid a society in need. 

Edition One Hundred is founded with the idea of providing artists the opportunity to transform new technology into a tool to both produce affordable art while simultaneously connecting to non-traditional art collectors. What are your thoughts on Edition One Hundred?
Edition One Hundred is a fantastic idea.  It bridges the gap between the two. Also, Since it's available on the world wide web, it offers affordable art to a much bigger and wider audience, yet retaining it's exclusivity by limiting the editions to only 100.

One no longer has to be a rich collector to be able to purchase a very good piece of art.

What are your thoughts on Art in the Digital Age?
The Digital Age has brought many benefits to art. In example, it has changed photography in a very profound way. It has not only brought the cyber darkroom to the masses but also has gone beyond most things fathomable to be created in an actual darkroom.

Call me old school but i still use my old camera with film. I think Photoshop is sometimes overused. In example, celebrities and such in magazines these days are Shopped to the point where they look plastic. My own limit of using Photoshop is to create only what I can do in an actual darkroom.

There is nothing quite like a negative in your hand. With digital cameras, where one can take limitless shots and view them immedietly, the element of surprise is gone. With a few rolls of film, each containing 12 exposures, one is forced to be particular about what to photograph. You have to think, choose, and compose a lot more carefully.

As an artist, regularly producing work is a manifestation of your distinctive view. Also it has a lot to do with influence by the work of others. Do you collect art? If so, who do you collect? And if you had all the money in the world, who would you buy and why?
Yes, I have been influenced by some grand documentary masters of photography that I have studied and admired such as DIANE ARBUS, DOROTHEA LANGE, AUGUST SANDER and JACOB RIIS to name a few. 

I love collecting art of all mediums. I own quite a few pieces of famous artists but along side them are artwork from unknowns and friends that are equally as important. I collect pieces based on my love and attraction to it rather than it's face value. If I had all the money in the World, I would start by buying Diane Arbus's  Box of Ten Photographs ,a portfolio of selected 1963-1970 photographs in a clear Plexiglas box that was designed by Marvin Israel and that was to have been issued in a limited edition of 50. During her lifetime, however, Arbus completed only about 11 boxes and sold only 4 boxes two to Richard Avedon, one to Jasper Johns, and one to Bea Feitler. One copy that was printed by Neil Selkirk after Arbus's death sold for $553,600 in 2005, which was an auction record for Arbus.

Why should people buy art?
Imagining a wall with no art on it is like having a brain with no imagination.  Art is a reflection of one's soul, a best friend, a piece of history, an expression that can be translated in any language.




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