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Redefining Culture: Meditating on Space, Time and Family, Ismail Zaidy

Moroccan artist Ismail Zaidy’s photographs are enigmas that challenge social norms of family and culture. He has vouched to reinterpret Morocco through his own cellphone’s camera lens, straying away from the many typical aesthetics of the Middle East and choosing instead to make use of the resources most accessible to him. There is a charm in Zaidy’s aerial photography: from his humble approach of shooting with a camera phone on his rooftop, to using household items and flea market novelties to bring his familial sentiment to life.

Zaidy paints his own distinct image of the culture and heritage of his home country, finding a pulse of his own. Though cultural garments such as the djellaba are present in his work, he has no intention of promoting a stereotypical vision of his homeland. If anything, he gives North Africa fresh nuance, to the point where it becomes challenging to pinpoint the geography of his portraits.

We talk to Zaidy all things photography, how his faith and identity influences his creativity and creating a distinct visual style and language.

What interests you most about photography as a medium and how did you embark on a career as a photographer?

I reached a moment of my life when I said to myself, “I should make art to make my life worthy.” I draw my inspiration from my culture and family.

Your main studio is the rooftop of your family home, which you’ve named Studio Sa3ada (The Happiness Studio). The notion of family and your own siblings are a prominent feature in your work. Why is the idea of family important to you?

My art and the idea of my pictures is out of my love for my family. I started taking pictures of them at first, only to express our love and to show how connected we are.

There is a real charm in your aerial photography: from your approach of shooting with a camera phone on your rooftop, to using household items and flea market novelties to bring your familial sentiment to life. How did you create such a distinct style? Can you talk us through your creative process?

My creative process starts from finding ideas, getting props from the flea market and then composing the stage for the photo shoot and directing my accomplices to shoot the final visual. Nonetheless, the process also depends on my siblings, finding time between their school schedules.

All my pictures are taken on my phone, a Samsung Galaxy S5, and the accessibility of this tool is a great opportunity for many young photographers like me. Through its basic settings and low cost and the challenges and opportunities that come with it, I started to experiment with minimalist and abstract photography.

Does your identity, faith and Morrocan and North African heritage influence your work in terms of themes and aesthetics?

I don’t think that you can guess my identity through my pictures. People always ask me where I’m from, and they are shocked discovering that I live in North Africa, because they can’t see the Moroccan touch in my work. And I think that’s good, because I don’t want people to guess the location of my art. But it doesn’t mean that I hide my roots and heritage. I’m proud of my roots, and I try to show them in my art, but mixed with my imagination.

Although more often than not your subject’s faces are hidden, your work still evokes a sense of intimacy. Why do you choose to hide them sometimes?

Some people are really good at getting a certain emotion from people when photographing them. I’ve found that I can create the same effect without showing someone’s face. The image itself is the emotion. In my artwork, every detail is equal to the other.

You use a lot of strong colours that contrast with the pastel backgrounds and environments. How do you select the tones for your photos?

I love pastel colours but since we, unfortunately, can't see these in our daily lives, I try to transfer my love for those colours into my photos. I think playing with colours and tones is a way of communicating my family’s problems as well as what's been put in place for us as a society. I believe each colour has a story, meaning and reason behind it, and sometimes the colours are purely based on the beauty it gives off to the image itself.

At just 23 years old, you have already been featured on the pages of the Middle East editions of Vogue, GQ, Grazia and WIRED, which has led to you recieving of the Contemporary African Photography Prize. What does this recognition mean to you?

It means that I am in line to reach what I designed in my mind. I still haven’t achieved my goals, but this prize is an answer to the question that I ask myself sometimes, when I wonder if I am doing the right thing or not.

What does the future of Islamic art look like to you and what is the potential for photography?

I think that the Islamic art is a big word, and it’s a word that wronged the idiosyncrasies of each country. I would love to use the term Moroccan Islamic art due to my background because i have no legitimacy to speak about other Islamic countries’ art. I guess for my country's art, the future is bright, we should just shed light on this art and try to introduce it perfectly to the world. And to avoid the orientalist representation of it

To find out more about Ismail Zaidy, visit

The views of the interviewees who are featured in Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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