Fetish on Film: Mustafa Sabbagh’s Tantalizing Photography
Fashion and art photographer Mustafa Sabbagh describes photography as his faithful companion, a loyal and constant means through which he is able to express himself in search of a sacred beauty. Offering an unflinching view of the human body through images that highlight the contours, sensuality and grace of our naked flesh, he manages to capture a subtle beauty that liberates bodies of imperfections without straying into the erotic. Born in Amman, Jordan, Sabbagh split his time growing up between Europe and the Middle East and describes himself as “a hybrid with a cosmopolitan imprinting and an irreducible attitude towards nomadism.” Today, his work has appeared in numerous publications including Vogue Italia, L’Uomo Vogue and The Face. The WILD recently spoke with Sabbagh about his background, his vision and the power of photographs.
How did you get into photography?
I was six, and at an aunt’s home, I found a Polaroid camera in a drawer. In classical Greek tragedy, the term “agnition” refers to a key moment, unique and topical, which revolutionizes the characters in the scenes’ existence. Right on cue, opening that drawer, I had my agnition.
From where do you draw your inspiration?
Generally speaking, my inspiration originates from hungering, from an insuppressible and vivified urge. A trepidation that leads me to keep my thresholds of curiosity and attention outward constantly high, to quieten an inward craving. What really matters to me, in any case, is that “it’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.” — Jean-Luc Godard.
Your photos are very bold and evocative, with your subjects being nude in a style that’s resolute and provocative, holding nothing back. What do you hope to stir up in your viewer?
I have never been so pretentious to demand a specific reaction in those who get a load of my works. My non plus ultra wouldn’t be as much in leading to provocation, but rather in leading to reflection. Entering the loop of provocation is a mechanism I’ve always found sterile and sneaky as well as useless — speaking from a strictly creative point of view. Sure, I’d love if my works would all be trenchant, but I don’t mind what personal level they hit. Everyone deserves to be considered as a freestanding person. This is my biggest creed, and photography being a form of religion to me, I never ever depart from this dogma. After all, my photos spring from an inner need of mine, placated—but never soothed—in the very moment of shooting; if they should also move the observer, this would transform my creative act not only in a personal therapy, but furthermore in a shared empathy.
The female nude is a long-standing subject of art, depicted across all mediums and through art movements over thousands of years. What draws you to the male nude instead?
Simply a greater degree of familiarity and awareness of the male body, but to me “masculine” and “feminine” are nothing more than categorizations that I always aim to reject. I’m not trying to eclipse their congenital peculiarities but definitively I deeply believe that “gender” as a concept and as a key to interpretation is all but mystifying.
Most of your photographs feature only one person; traditionally we think of these images as portraits, yet your works seem to be telling not of their subject but of a broader culture. What messages are you conveying through your models? What is their role in revealing these messages?
By means of a portrait, the message conveyed can be much more powerful than any verbal claim. I’m thinking about Caravaggio, in my opinion the greatest photographer ever. In my pictures, I pour an obsessive attention to the planning hidden behind the final snapshot, to such a point that the right moment of shooting becomes the acme of a pleasure protracted for a long time, because the most crucial point at issue is that every single work of mine could enshrine a precise meaning.
The models I choose are often formally perfect messengers that I decide to contaminate by means of damaging, disturbing, dark elements, or to the contrary aesthetically imperfect subjects – for which I caress through light every flaw, trying to magnify it. I choose perfection to desecrate it, and imperfection to glorify it. Only in this way of bringing to light the forcedly dark side of the individual, I feel able to make him authentic, to portray him complete; because to me real beauty hurts. Always.
Your images seem motivated by fantasy or even at times, fetishism; what constructions of masculinity and femininity do you play into or embed in your work?
Absolutely no gender’s construction. If anything, just the reverse is true; I struggle to erase any kind of preconceived and limiting clustering because what truly involves me is definitely the authenticity of an individual as a person. That’s why I wipe the postproduction as much as I can and — trying to reinterpret the Dadaist rut known as the aesthetics of the prop-man — I overturn the dress codes conveyed by the mainstream fashion photography: In my pictures, every dress loses its massive gender-identity to become a metrosexual warning, and each scenographical mask worn by the models, instead of hiding, reveals what otherwise — because of bigotry, obscurantism, moralism, or thirst for social acquiescence — would remain unknown.
Do you see yourself engaging with the concept of the female gaze — if you think it exists?
I don’t mind if it is a male gaze, or a female gaze. I just tremble to be engaged with a speculative gaze.
I read that you were Richard Avedon’s assistant. What was that experience like? What was one of the lessons you learned from him?
Avedon is the God of Photography, to the point that talking about him seems to me disrespectful. The phrase that marked my (too little) time spent with him is, “the power of one click lies in its intimacy.”
What makes a photograph powerful in your eyes? What makes one beautiful?
First answer: the truth. Second answer: the truth.
Finally, what is your WILD Wish?
My wishes are all wild! “A man must dream a long time, in order to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness,” as Jean Genet wrote. I myself am deeply fascinated by the myth of the noble savage described by Rousseau, by Mary Shelley, by Walt Whitman (fascinated, truly, but I still don’t know if I am equally convinced). My last wild desire? A solo exhibition curated by a repented former nun. Wild enough?