Photographs as Experiences about Looking


Zaki has an ongoing interest in the rhetoric of authenticity, as it is associated with photography as an indexical media. Simultaneously, he is deeply invested in exploring digital technology’s transformative potential to disrupt that assumed authenticity. However, his interest is not in utilizing digital trickery as illustration to undermine a photograph’s veracity. In fact, Zaki often creates hybridized photographs that carefully use the vocabulary of the documentary style so that the viewer’s belief in its veracity remains intact, at least initially.  He constructs scenes that are somewhat off-register, ‘out of key’, and ever so slightly faux. He often uses the architectural and organic landscape of California as a subject, as it seems particularly appropriate to his process. This is largely because, either through media myth, reality or a combination of the two, the architecture and surrounding landscape in California is itself an evolving bastardization of styles and forms, in other words a pastiche. California is home to a collision of high modernist ideals, suburban McMansions, high-rise density, endless asphalt grids, deserts, mountains, beaches, Los Angeles urbanism, Inland Empire sprawl, Orange Curtain conservatism, the Crystal Cathedral, and the Integratron. It should be made clear that although Zaki is fascinated and inspired by this architectural and cultural entropy, his intention is not to record, replicate or simply document a preexisting postmodern pastiche. More precisely, his work begins with the familiar, by looking at objects, structures and locations that are often pedestrian and banal. And by capitalizing on the presumed veracity that photographs continue to command, along with the transformative, yet invisible digital alterations he employs, his images depict structures that that aspire to be added to the list of the hodge-podge built landscape that creates the California mythology.

Empty Vessel
Empty Vessel
Spring through Winter
Spring through Winter


What prompts your interest in specific urban landscapes as per example your latest project 'Empty Vessel’?

A few reasons. I’ve been photographing the built and natural landscape for about 20 years. I’ve been interested in the look of concrete skateparks for many years. I grew up skateboarding in a rural town in the 1980s and we had backyard wooden ramps, but nothing like these elaborate concrete skateparks. I still skate occasionally as an adult and I have skated in some of these parks. So, I’m coming at it from two perspectives. One as an artist interested in the architectural and natural environment, land use, sculpture, the monumental, etc. And, two, as a person who has an intimate and bodily relationship with these spaces as someone who skateboards and surfs.

How do you approach the photographing of our built environment? What draws you to specific architectural artefacts?

I am very interested in finding elements of the landscape that are often overlooked and/or ignored. I’ve always been very interested in how photography can, in a sense, create its own world that can be much more interesting than normal everyday observation. But, observation is the key. I think that what I have cultivated is a way of observing the environment very carefully and knowing when a subject has the potential to become an interesting photograph. I often find ways to make the subjects I photograph look monumental, iconic, and isolated. I try to make photographs of the world I desire.

How are these carefully framed and constructed?

Each of the photographs in this series of skateparks is a composite. I use a high end digital DLR camera mounted onto a Gigapan motorized tripod head. This allows me to take anywhere between about a dozen to several dozen individual images of a scene and then stitch them together later in my studio using software. The resulting gigapixel images are incredibly high resolution, usually several gigabytes in size, and can be printed as large as 60”x75” with tack sharpness. The resulting look of images that utilize this technology is unusual. The lens I use is somewhat telephoto, which flattens the space in each individual frame, yet the overall angle of view is often quite wide, which exaggerates spatial depth. So, there is a visual push and pull, a subtle contradiction, and peculiarity in how space is rendered using this technology. This process also allows me to photograph in certain tight areas and from difficult positions that would be impossible to capture otherwise. Another unique quality that results from this process is that a substantial amount of time passes (somewhere between 5-10 minutes) during the making of each photographic composite. This means that the light can and does change, the wind comes and goes, and moving objects come in and out of frame (sometimes getting captured and sometimes in a blur). Therefore, ultimately what the viewer sees are not decisive ‘moments’ in time, but images that are a blending of an extended temporal experience which allude to an expansive sense of time.

What is the ultimate objective when capturing a specific moment?

As I mentioned above, the photographs I capture are not precise moments, but longer experiences about looking, observing, contemplating a scene. I find it meditative. My objective is to make images that arrest a viewer so that they are invited to stop for a while and contemplate the spaces too. I try to find a balance between familiar environments and alien looking ones. This makes people curious. True curiosity is one of the most important qualities in life to have, in my opinion.

From analogue to digital, how do you explore digital technology's transformative potential?

I have been using digital technology for 20 years. I am of a generation of photographers who learned analog processes (and love them), but have embraced digital technology’s potential. I don’t discriminate between the two. I’ll start by saying that I am completely uninterested in pure fantasy and make believe. I don’t want to use digital technology to make a world that looks fake or silly or absurd. I want to use the technology, invisibly, with different degrees of subtlety, so that I can alter the built and natural landscape in ways that transform it in unusual ways, but maintain the power of the veracity that photography holds. This is a fine balance and something that I constantly negotiate.

What role has the image acquired and how has it changed with the proliferation of visual online and social media platforms?

This is a tough one. I don’t have a clear answer. Images are everywhere. In a way, answering this question is speculation because we are literally INSIDE this cultural moment. We can’t see from the outside what profound changes are taking place, how these affect us psychologically, etc. All I can say is that digital images seem to be both incredibly powerful and simultaneously interchangeable, momentary, and sometimes meaningless.

What is your opinion on the sharing and consumption of photographic imagery through the screens of our mobile phones, computers and so on?

I do it myself. I love photography. I love images. I love sharing. That said, there is both an intuition and growing evidence that the time spent on social media platforms is psychologically detrimental. It’s the time we live in and an unavoidable force. My tendency is to not fight too hard against a force that is much stronger than I am. But, rather, to be mindful and thoughtful about how I engage and what kind of images I can be proud of sharing with the world.
Also, I am strongly dedicated to making actual objects to behold in real space. My photographs are distributed digitally, which I’m happy with, but my heart lies in the photographic print. I’ve attached a few installation shots of my current work. I take a lot of care in presenting photographic objects. I use many different sizes, juxtapositions, and presentation techniques that really emphasize the photograph as an object. I don’t cover my photographs with any glass or plexiglass. The viewer can put their nose right up to the print and see every detail and surface. This is very important to me.

How and to what extent has this exposed us to an overly saturated representation of what is effectively our built environment?

I guess that more people are aware of what more parts of the world look like than ever before, but through a lens, not a pair of eyes. What I mean is that people are getting very sophisticated about how they ‘represent’ what they see through the lens of a smart phone. This representation then stands in for real experience. Yes, we are oversaturated with images. I guess I remain somewhat ambivalent about what that means.

How and to what extent has this defined a new visual language?

I don’t see it this way, like a new language. Language is a dynamic, evolving phenomenon and always has been. All languages have evolved from the same simple noises our ancestors made. Visual language is the same. It’s a changing thing. We can only really understand the quality of those changes in hindsight.