Keepin’ woke in vogue
A clichéd way to start really, but we couldn’t think of any other way to chronicle photographer Zacharie Rabehi’s love affair with India than to begin right at the start. He came, he experienced, and he’s on his way to conquering what started off as just a job, but soon metamorphosed into so much more. Rabehi is a full-time photographer, graphic artist on the side and perhaps one of the most woke millennials we’ve had the pleasure of interviewing.
The Juice: You’ve had a longstanding relationship with India. What drew you to it the first time around?
Zach: I arrived in India at 17 as a tourist along with an Indian friend from France. We stayed with his fam in Gujarat, and I just fell in love with the country and the easiness that came with.
The Juice: What made you move base here permanently?
Zach: Life in Paris was formatted and boring, and India was a place which wasn’t saturated and a place where you could get a lot of projects. Loved the easiness here.
The Juice: You’ve lived all over the world, but what do you consider home?
Zach: I have two homes – Paris where my fam and childhood friends are, and Delhi ‘cos this is where work is.
The Juice: Did you always want to be a photographer?
Zach: When I first moved here at 19, I was interning at a web design company as an Art director, but I got fired after 6 months (for raging too hard & its after-effects). I started freelancing as a graphic artist and eventually went into events where I would bring together visual artists+musicians from India and abroad.
The Juice: So, when did photography come into the picture?
Zach: I’d done this event for Corona called the ‘Monsoon project’, and had invited a photographer friend down from Paris for it, but he got busy with “other pursuits”. So, I just picked up the camera and started shooting.
The Juice: You’ve also shot a lot for images for a lot of fashion labels and magazines.
Zach: Yes, I did the first few campaigns for Raw Mango back in the day, and I still do shoots for labels like 11.11, among others. It’s interesting, but also helps me balance my passion with paying the bills.
The Juice: And, how did you start touring with Steve Aoki as his official photographer?
Zach: I was shooting gigs at clubs and events, and when Aoki came down his official photographer couldn’t get a visa, so I was asked to take pictures instead. Aoki asked if I’d like to tour with him and handed me his card. I went back to Europe soon after, and gave him a ring, and that’s how it took off.
The Juice: How was it working for him?
Zach: It was quite interesting, as we would travel to almost 2-3 countries each day, and we in fact ended up breaking the world record for travelling the most countries within a short amount of time.
The Juice: What made you decide to quit and get into photojournalism instead?
Zach: Frankly, I was quite burnt out given the crazy schedule, and I felt like I wanted to do something which would help me make a difference.
The Juice: You’ve been in the thick of things as can be seen in your visual reportage of the Syrian refugee crisis, the Rohingyas fleeing religious persecution in Myanmar, and of course the farmer suicides in Maharashtra. Can you give us an instance that affected you deeply?
Zach: One night at the border between Serbia and Croatia, there was a young Syrian girl who had a seizure and the medical team didn’t speak Arabic and there was no way for her family to communicate with them. Thankfully, there was someone present who spoke Urdu and with the lil broken Hindi that I knew, I somehow managed to help translate and thankfully she was was able to get the help she needed. The heartbreaking part was that her family had no idea if and when they would see her again, but thankfully she returned the next day.
The Juice: Being a photojournalist can’t be easy, what’s been the hardest part for you?
Zach: The fact that most refugees have so much talent to offer, and yet the host countries see them as a threat, and the cops are violent and racist with them. And to see unaccompanied young orphans living in the harshest of conditions in the refugee camps.
The Juice: Have there been any lighthearted/funny moments at all?
Zach: So, I would walk for weeks with groups of refugees passing through countries like Hungary, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Germany, and one morning while I was sleeping on the side of the road with a bunch of Syrian refugees, I snuck my head out of the covers and saw a photographer I’ve always admired, James Nachtwey taking a picture of us, and mistaking me as a refugee as well. I, of course went up to him and told him I wasn’t, and ended up having breakfast with him.
The Juice: How difficult was the transition from being Steve Aoki’s official photographer to taking photographs with a human-interest angle?
Zach: It was good touring with Steve, but I feel like I’m serving a greater good by shedding light on really heartbreaking situations. And, if nobody does it then nothing is going to change, so I definitely do feel like I have a sense of purpose now.
The Juice: The biggest lesson you’ve learnt in life?
Zach: If you’re not dead, then there’s still hope. When you’re alive anything at all is possible.
The Juice: What would you advise aspiring photographers?
Zach: To try and not let commercial pursuits get in the way of your passion, and to not do projects blindly just as a means to earn money, otherwise there’s no point.
The Juice: The best gig you’ve been to?
Zach: Recently, Wild City did a workshop in association with the British Council for aspiring women DJs and producers called ‘Women in Electronic’, and the after-party was held at the British Council. The vibe was just so incredible, I absolutely loved it.
The Juice: Fashion to you is?
Zach: To me it’s a well-made pair of jeans like Levi’s which last you for years on end instead of being traded in every season.
The Juice: What do you usually wear when out on assignments?
Zach: For gigs I usually wear a black t-shirt and jeans cos you can’t risk being seen on stage. For a fashion shoot, or when I’m out on the field reporting, I like jeans and a sturdy pair of shoes, and a shirt with two pockets for my things.
The Juice: What do you do to de-stress?
Zach: I like building stuff and cooking.
The Juice: What kind of impact do you hope to make in the next 10 years?
Zach: I hope I can bring some issues to the attention of the larger society, and to help those who have suffered. Like this one time I did a story about a young Kashmiri girl who lost vision in one eye after being hit by a pellet fired by the cops, and it was carried on Al Jazeera. As a result a lot of people got in touch with them to offer help to the family and a Canadian doctor even flew down to help restore her vision.
The Juice: How would you describe your work to someone who hasn’t seen it?
Zach: It’s very difficult to have a view on something so close to one, so I can’t really describe or comment on my own work. I prefer commenting on the work of others (chuckles as he says this).
The Juice: Can you tell us what your favourite image is from the ones you’ve taken?
Zach: I had heard a lot about this one salon in East Delhi where people’s hair were set on fire to give them a certain hairstyle. I was intrigued by how far people could go for the sake of style, and how the idiotic often becomes artistic, and ended up taking a picture of one such guy with his hair on fire.
The Juice: What are the best Instagram accounts to follow?
Zach: Mine (laughs as he says it). No, the Agence Le Journal account is pretty good, and it’s also the agency I’m currently attached with. Then there’s Blink, which gives you the geographical position for every photojournalist in the world so publications can find them. Also the accounts for Musee De Louvre and Nitch, which is a collection of black and white portraits of inspirational people.
The Juice: What are the mediums you like to explore?
Zach: I feel like I still have to become good at photography, as I’m still relatively new. I love watching mixed media stuff, but as an author I purely like photography.
The Juice: What’s next on the agenda?
Zach: I’m currently in the process of doing up my studio in Delhi’s Saidulajab, and once it’s complete, I look forward to collaborating with various painters and graphic artists. I’m also working on a magazine for kids that educates them on sexuality (something that I feel is sorely lacking in India), and it will be distributed for free in government schools and to NGOs. I am also working on an exhibit on India-specific women’s issues that I will be showcasing in Paris.