Creative Spotlight: Hassan Raja on photographing the small, everyday moments
‘Life rewards you when you make the effort to go and seek out those moments’
Hassan Raja is a third year history student at Fitzwilliam who has been learning about and developing his skills in photography since he was in Year 10. Since then, he has done a range of exciting projects, from doing a daily photo diary, to creating a portrait series highlighting “Pakistani Men of Cambridge”, which was featured on several national news outlets, and getting to meet and photograph AJ Tracey.
We spoke to Hassan about his time doing photography, what it means to him personally, and and how he hopes to continue to connect with others who love it too.
‘I could just push it to its limits’
Hassan told us about how he started photography when he was in Year 10 or 11 by just taking photos on the “really basic Android phone” he had at the time: “It wasn’t advanced at all, but I kind of liked that because I could just push it to its limits and see what I could come up with, whether it was buildings or sunsets or just taking pictures of my friends.”
He loved taking, editing and posting pictures, and using that to create a “really nice Instagram feed”, so at the end of sixth form he bought his first camera, and “the rest is history!”
‘Capturing the human element right here in Cambridge, the small, little, everyday moments’
Hassan is very inspired by the famous documentary photographer Steve McCurry: “He’s travelled all over the world and he’s really good at capturing the human element wherever he goes […] when I’m abroad, a lot of my work mimics his style, even though I try and put my own spin on it.”
He also is a big fan of Martin Bond, a Cambridge-based photographer who has been doing a daily photo diary for 10 years: “He’s really good at street photography and again, capturing the human element right here in Cambridge, the small, little, everyday moments that take place, and he focuses on life away from the students, more on the townspeople, which I really like.”
Not only has Hassan now been able to on a few occasions meet Martin Bond, who has given him “some encouraging words” which Hassan found “really valuable”, but Bond’s daily photo diary has also inspired Hassan to create his own, which has been “a really, really rewarding experience” for him.
‘Documenting what’s happening is so important’
Hassan adds that as a history student, he has really learnt to value photography’s role in historical documentation too: “For example, one period is the Vietnam War where the role of photographers in documenting what was happening over there and then alerting the public as to how bad it was played such an integral role in driving anti-war activism.”
As Hassan notes, this kind of documentation of what is happening continues to be “so important” as “we’re living through our own period of turmoil during the pandemic”.
He loves capturing the “small, everyday moments”, just “people living their lives” or “contributing to the makeup of the city”, but believes he has been forced to develop his style and look out for new things to photograph amid the pandemic-related challenges of the last year.
He explains how his style has changed in this time: “The time we spend outdoors is a lot more precious, so when I’m out, I’m more focused on the world I’m living in, and what’s happening. There were times when all the shops were closed, all the restaurants were closed, so it was so bare, so you really had to scrape the barrel to look for things going on.”
‘You have to be present to find things to take pictures of’
Hassan feels that photography has really helped him to “pay more attention” and “be more present”: “I think that a lot of people think that when you take photos you’re not present because you’re too focussed on taking the picture, but I feel like you have to be present to find things to take pictures of.”
He has noticed this particularly while doing his daily photo diary for the past six months, during which time he has been “really forcing [him]self to every day look around and find something to take a picture of”, a process that means you “really have to stop and disconnect from your routine and look around”, which has helped him remain present.
‘I have a visual record of where I’ve been and what I’ve done’
Hassan also really values photography for documenting his own personal life and memories. Indeed, as a finalist whose time at Cambridge has been so disrupted by the pandemic, Hassan wants to ensure he is leaving Cambridge with a “visual record of where I’ve been and what I’ve done” to have a way of remembering all the ways he has made the most of his university experience despite all that has happened.
He adds: “I really romanticise the idea of being old and surrounded by grandkids and whacking out all these old photo albums and showing them what a vivid life I’ve had.”
In fact, Hassan discusses one of his best memories from his time doing photography, which happened when he was a photographer at the Cambridge ACS Black History Month dinner: “They invited Ovie from Love Island to come and speak […] and I got loads of really cool pictures of him onstage talking, and then he followed me back on Twitter, and he still does to this day! He follows 277 people and I’m one of them, so I’m well proud of that!”
‘Life rewards you when you make the effort to go and seek out those moments’
When photographing Cambridge, he always aims to “take pictures that will show people a side of the city that they haven’t seen before”, “whether that involves scaling a building to access its rooftops, or getting up at 5am to go out and see the sunrise”.
Through those kinds of photos, he would love to encourage others to “try and seek out those moments for themselves”. Whether it is “pivotal moments”, like a protest, or “visually stunning moments”, like an especially beautiful sunset, Hassan has found that taking the action to be there is “always so worth the effort”: “One thing I’ve learnt is that life rewards you when you take the first step.”
“For example, that might be getting up at 5:30 in the morning to go and see the sunrise, or going to a tall point in the city and going to watch the sunset. It’s alright seeing a pink sky from your room but making the effort to go out and see it is a different feeling. It takes effort but life rewards you when you make the effort to go and seek out those moments.”
‘It means a lot to me’
Although it’s not a style he does a lot of work on now, Hassan gets the most satisfaction from doing portraits: “To me, there’s something so magical about capturing the human expression, and I love seeing people’s reactions to the photos I take. Sometimes I’ll take a really nice one of someone, and they’ll make it their profile picture, and that gives me a real buzz […] it means a lot to me.”
When he was a first year, Hassan created a whole series of portraits which he entitled “Pakistani Men of Cambridge”. He told us more about the reasoning behind creating it, a combination of “frustration” at the lack of positive representation of Pakistani people in the media, and a desire to acknowledge the “big part” his own Pakistani heritage and communities played in his own life.
He adds: “I was at a point in my life where I was exploring my own personal identity, because I don’t think I’d ever really considered my Pakistani heritage beforehand, but it was coming to Cambridge ironically and joining the Pakistani society here, and meeting so many people who I felt like I could relate to, and that I felt like weren’t represented in the characterisation of Pakistani people in the media at all.”
The series of 12 portraits ended up being featured in The Daily Mail, on the BBC, and on LBC, and were exhibited in the dining hall at Fitzwilliam, a result that Hassan describes as a “humbling” but “immensely rewarding experience”. Not everyone can say that they’ve had their work exhibited in the hall of a Cambridge college.
‘The main priority is for it to be a welcoming community’
Hassan recently started his own photography society, The Cambridge University Photo Club, which started because of a Camfess asking if there were any groups for photographers in Cambridge: “I saw that Camfess and then there were 36 comments and I was like, ‘Alright, someone needs to do this, it may as well be me!’”
As well as really enjoying the design and marketing work behind running the group’s Instagram’s page, Hassan has loved organising photo walks with the group. They’ve run two so far, which both had a great turnout.
Hassan feels that taking photos in a group like this helps people feel less “self-conscious” when they’re out with their camera because they’re all doing it together so “all feel emboldened by each other”. He also says it’s been great for “learning”, “meeting new people”, and “just having a chat”, especially with the difficulties of socialising in a pandemic year.
He really wants to create a “welcoming community” at The Cambridge University Photo Club, where photography is made to feel “accessible” rather than “pretentious”, so people can feel “emboldened” to take it up as a hobby without being required to buy lots of expensive equipment.
‘I’m always happiest when I’m creating’
Hassan thinks about the advice he would give his younger self when just starting out doing photography: “Just take more, because there’s never any harm in taking more photos, it’s only going to make you better and because […] I’m always happiest when I’m creating, and when I’ve got nice photos to show for it.”
Although he doesn’t see himself becoming a professional photographer any time soon (“I really enjoy it being something I do for fun”), Hassan believes he will “always benefit from having that creative eye” and “from understanding social media” and “the digital world through photography”. Whatever happens, photography will “always play a really big role” in Hassan’s everyday life.
Well, I, for one, can’t wait to see more amazing pictures.
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Cover image: Hassan Raja