Having bought a camera in his mid-teens after saving up money from a bar job, British-Iranian photographer Aria Shahrokhshahi spent the next few years experimenting with approaches and styles before, as he tells us, “I started to come across work of people like Tim Hetherington, which had a profound effect on the way I saw photography, humanity within photography and storytelling as a whole.” That concept of visual storytelling remains integral to Aria’s practice today, in his emphasis on establishing meaningful connections with people, communities and cultures, and conveying collective and individual experiences through pictures.
With his project, Kalidou, Aria applies his storytelling abilities to the illumination of an individual narrative, going beyond passive photographic documentation with his intent to make a tangible change to the story he is telling and so avert a tragic loss. The series’ protagonist is Kalidou, a young Gambian man suffering from a degenerative eye condition called Keratoconus. As Aria describes their meeting: “I was travelling in The Gambia a few years ago and I met Kalidou, who was 23 at the time, and who is going blind. We became incredibly good friends so I decided I was going to make a series of images accompanied by a GoFundMe page to raise the money to send him to neighbouring Ghana. There they have the facilities that they don’t have in The Gambia to give him the surgery he needs.”
Keratoconus causes the cornea – the transparent layer that forms the rounded front of the eye – to thin and project outwards in a cone-like shape, leading to hyper photo-sensitivity, pain and distorted vision. The medical procedure that Kalidou’s condition requires involves a corneal transplant in each of his eyes to remove the damaged cornea and replace it with healthy tissue from the eye of a donor. For Aria: “The project has one objective, one purpose, and that is to get Kalidou the help he needs to correct his vision and start his life. He wants to go back to school, then hopefully on to university and beyond. I can’t imagine how frustrating it is wanting to learn but physically not being able to. He hopes to go into politics to eventually make changes for the communities in The Gambia where there has historically been a lot of governmental corruption.”
It is Aria’s use of framing that most powerfully connects with his subject matter. In one pair of photographs, the images of Kalidou are mediated by a handheld shard of mirror which reveals, in the first picture, a shut, out-of-focus eye, and in the second, an open, in-focus eye. A photograph shot through two holes in two brick walls reduces our vision of Kalidou to a nose and a single, peering eye. Another shows Kalidou’s face, half-obscured and blurred by leaves, his two eyes looking directly into the camera. By constricting and fragmenting the camera’s – and the viewer’s – own field of vision, undercutting and limiting the capacity of the photographic medium to see, Aria presents a grimly appropriate compositional analogue for his friend’s suffering.
Speaking of his methods, Aria tells us: “While planning the project, I thought long and hard about how I was going to visually represent something like blindness – how do you see the ‘unseen’? Losing sight is something that I think is very hard to portray, but I also wanted to stay away from making all the images out of focus or any other clichéd representations of blindness. I focused on things like, touch, reflections, contrast between light and dark, silhouettes, and having things obstructing the frame.” There is also a sustained emphasis throughout the series on the physical eyes, often gazing into the camera and pictured with excruciatingly sharp clarity, serving only to highlight the cruel fact that Kalidou’s own vision is anything but clear.
With the photographs and the accompanying GoFundMe page, Aria hopes to raise £7,500, a sum which would cover the total cost of both operations – one on each eye – as well as medicine, postoperative care and flights from The Gambia to Ghana for the corrective surgery.