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Interview: Aqib Anwar aka gibsterg

Aqib Anwar, popularly known as gibsterg (pronounced gibster-ji) on Instagram, is a photographer and filmmaker who's been making people look great since 2013. He's been a dear friend for over six years, and I first met him when he was selling mattresses in Chennai.

It's been incredibly inspiring to see how he's shaped his life and career purely based on his love for making images, and of course, seeing the work itself.

I decided to pick Aqib's brain on his journey so far:

When I first met you, you were selling mattresses for your father's company in Chennai. Was photography always something that interested you, or did that happen much later in your life?

Oh dear, the mattress days! Looking back at the grand scheme of things, those were strange/interesting times, to say the least. Growing up, I was more into the final product (ie a photograph or a home video) than the process. It wasn’t a fascination at all during the analog days. I don't remember ever wanting an analogue camera or my own camera. I merely enjoyed looking at a photograph for a long time, paying attention to everything in frame, and almost feeling like I was there at that moment.

But as digital cameras became more affordable, I remember taking the digi cam out to document moments. I was vlogging back in 2005. The first time I used a DSLR was in 2007 in Chennai when I took my older brother’s Canon Rebel out for a spin.

Here are some of my very first “photography” images:

That's quite a contrast from your current style. So did your approach change when you got an iPhone?

The iPhone (when I could finally get one sometime in 2013), along with my then private Instagram account, gave me an outlet to showcase some of the photographs that I’d been taking. I remember walking out on a Sunday afternoon in Chennai during spring and shooting the blossoms on the streets of Mogappair. I would say that was a defining moment.

Ooh, and I also remember always being heavily interested in editing pictures. I used to use Picasa back then. Sadly, I spent all my time only adding flares on Photoshop and never really learnt it – I’m still horrible at it and don’t use it.

After moving to Dubai, you discovered roof topping and shot some of the most stunning images of the urban landscapes of Dubai, including some extremely risky ones. Was safety ever a concern or is risk and being in the moment part of your process?

When I discovered roof topping, it was the thrill of being up there that trumped everything else. There was an adrenalin rush to everything about it, from sneaking in to the buildings to finding secret ways to access these rooftops to finally getting to shoot these incredible images. The risk of getting caught by security added to the thrill of it all. But I would obviously be very careful. My family did not like it one bit. Initially, I justified the risk because only a few of us would do it, and we were all hyper careful. However, when more people started attempting to rooftop, and with the risks and dangers involved with it, I chose to stop and not inspire more people to try it. Plus, the cops were cracking down on us.

I also realised that I couldn’t really turn my passion into a career by only being known for rooftop photography. So I shifted to ground level, and shooting people, lifestyle and nature.

I enjoy seeing your portraits and knowing that many of your subjects are strangers, which I'd have thought would be difficult in the Middle East. How do you approach your subjects? Does every human inspire you or is there something specific that attracts you to your subjects?

People are people everywhere. Some are okay with having their photograph taken; others are not. This is true whether you go to Riyadh or Los Angeles. I love photographing strangers. There is this very obvious vulnerability to it - they know nothing about me, and me nothing about them. And yet, the stranger allows me to take a photograph of their face, something that will remain forever. I think it's a very intimate level of human connection.

I approach strangers respectfully and get straight to the point. I tell them that I love the way they look and I’d want to photograph them. Some people say yes right off the bat. Some ask me why, and I’d explain to them I’m a photographer and this is what I do. I give them the chance to accept or refuse. If they refuse, I politely nod and move on. No fear of rejection, no awkwardness. If you don’t buy the ticket, you’re not going to win the lottery.

So how would you define your relationship with your subjects?

I simply view them as people. Raw, real people. I like shooting my friends/people I know – it’s not all strangers, haha. I do consider a couple of my friends to be my muses – I can shoot them in any scenario and we always create magic. It always works. It’s cute.

Let's talk about your videos. How did you transition from still photographs to filmmaking? Also, what is it about the short format that has you gripped? 

I still feel very inadequate because I have so much more to learn in the world of videos. I decided to learn filmmaking pretty soon after I started photography. Around the time I decided to quit my job in 2016, I saw video starting to appear everywhere online. I remember deciding to learn videography so I could have an edge in the field of content creation.

But mostly, it was because I saw this one Pakistani guy in New York, killing it with video. He was shooting videos for top fashion brands and he was extremely generous in sharing his tips and tricks with me. I was hooked. I remember looking at his work and his life and going “That is amazing, I think I can do that. I want that to be my career”. His Instagram is @atif and we are still friends, even got to meet each other in London randomly in 2107 and we kicked it off. It was cool meeting my mentor. He’s such a great guy and advocates for supporting the fellow brown creatives, like what you do. That was also super inspiring to see, because we always tend to get so competitive with each other. It made me realise that when I do make it, I want to be like him. I want to inspire other kids to do well and help support the young community of creatives budding from Dubai. I also knew I had to be realistic about my dream of making this my career. I knew I had to be fully equipped before I decided to quit a safe and secure job. So yeah, it was a mix of calculated steps + passion moving into video.

Are you allowed to talk about about the documentaries you've been working on for the UAE government?

I haven’t posted these documentaries online yet so most people are unaware still, but the Ministry of Culture here hit me up to create two documentaries for them. One was to prevent an old port town in Abu Dhabi from being torn down and converted into a destination hotel. The objective was to show that this quaint market port town deserved to be saved along with the livelihoods of thousands of people who live and work there. It was screened to the rulers of the country. The port and its local businesses and people still remain, so I’m hoping it worked.

The second was for the same Ministry, but we shot it in Bahrain as the UAE govt paid for the restoration and upkeep of two 5000+ year old houses in their soon to be declared UNESCO Heritage Site town called Muharraq. This was again shown to leaders from both countries. The event and parts of my documentary were aired on local news outlets of a number of GCC countries. That was cool.

Music plays a big role in your videos. Do you collaborate with musicians to create the soundscapes for your videos, dabble in production or just use songs you dig and credit the artist?

Music is potentially the sole inspiration for my videos. Collaborations with musicians AND dabbling in production are two things that I want to do more moving forward. For passion projects, I usually use songs that I really fuck with. These songs would spark an idea and I would go out and shoot. However, a lot of times, I shoot and then try to find music to match the mood of what I shot.

What's on your playlist at the moment?

My playlist right now is a mixed bag of James Blake, Santi, Lolo Zouaï, Tyler the Creator, Homeshake, HER and others. But you get the vibe.

Instagram has opened up new worlds and opportunities in completely organic ways for photographers like yourself. How would you describe your relationship with social media and the Internet viz-a-viz your work? Does it get overwhelming? 

It never was overwhelming, to be honest. The Internet, Instagram and instant feedback for my work gave me the drive to constantly create. I’m forever grateful for Instagram for everything it has done for me – the incredible people I’ve connected with, the amazing trips I’ve had the pleasure/privilege of going to and for my incredibly interesting career.. Yes, I did work hard to get noticed, but Instagram was the platform and the reason I was able to carve my own niche.

Sometimes, my relationship with it is strenuous because pretty often your work is copied or imitated by brands here. People are lazy, they just screenshot images from Instagram for their mood board. And then other photographers recreate it, and voila, it’s on a magazine now. No credit, no project for you. It’s annoying. But what do you do? If you don’t put your best work out there, you won't get noticed. It’s a catch 22.

What does your photography kit look like?

I’m very minimal when it comes to gear. Most shoots, I show up with one camera one lens: a Canon 5DM4 with a 24-70mm f2.8 lens – one of the best and most versatile glasses out there. Some shoots require more, so I carry my gimbal, a reflector, additional cameras and lenses. But for most part, it's just my camera and lens.

How do you strike a balance between life and work since you have to be on your phone for work so much?

My average time on Instagram up until a couple months ago used to be around 4.5 hours a day. Instagram alone, imagine! Even then, I wasn’t mindlessly scrolling and looking at other pages; I’d mainly spend it having conversations with people who were replying to my stories or engaging in multiple conversations throughout the day.

I find myself using my phone much less off late. In Dubai, it is normal to be in the presence of people and use your phone to have conversations with others, scroll Instagram, watch stories etc. When I was in the States this winter though, it almost felt embarrassing to take your phone out while hanging out with people. It’s something that I am consciously trying to reduce now. My daily average Instagram screen time has dropped to 1h41m!

Aqib's doodle

What does a (non-shoot) day in your life look like? 

I wake up earlyish (for freelance standards) by around 8 or 9 am. My ideal day, and I will put it here even though I haven’t started yet, starts with an hour-long workout. After which I either make breakfast or head out to a café to set up and eat there. I love craft coffee, so cravings for different coffees dictates which café I would work out for the day. I mostly set up in the design district in Dubai. I like being there as it’s one of the few places in Dubai that has a concentration of people working in design, photography, fashion and food. You get to meet fellow creatives and have interesting chats about the industry, the city, current projects and future ideas.

I feel it’s important to surround yourself with like-minded and more importantly, ambitious creatives because it's really easy to slip up and go into a state of mediocrity as a freelancer. At around sunset, we hang at spaces like General 3AM or Al Serkal Avenue. And then I’d probably watch YouTube at home after (laughs). I watch way too much YouTube. I’m not embarrassed though, it’s where I get most of my information on just about anything.

3 things you refuse to compromise on in your line of work?

My values – if something goes against my religious, cultural and regional values, I would politely decline the offer.

Shitty people - some clients are shitty towards photographers/freelancers. I can’t tolerate that. If you’re a shitty human, I’d rather not work with you.

Undervaluing my work. Again, people think photography is easy and they like to determine the worth of our end products. Sorry, but I have no time for people who disrespect my line of work. Oh you didn’t know? Do your research. Be nice about it. Be honest about it. Don’t get me wrong, I totally respect when people say when something is over their budget. But some people straight up stop replying once you name your price. As if they are offended that you are charging them “so much” for something “so simple”.

Any advice for young photographers who aspire to be the next gibstergs of the world?

I’m curious as to how you pronounce it. A lot of people think it’s gibsterg like Carlsberg. It’s actually gibster-g like Gandhi Ji.

Anywho, my advice would be: Make sure you are passionate about creating beautiful visuals. When you look at your photographs, it has to move you. If it doesn’t, keep practising and exploring your emotions until you are able to translate that into your work. Seek inspiration from lived experiences from your life. How did you feel when you broke up? How did you feel when you saw the most spectacular mountain you’ve ever seen? How did you feel when you felt inadequate? Try to bring out your honest, raw and very real emotions into your work. Don’t try to emulate anyone else. Don’t try to be the next gibsterg. Try to be the best you. If you are technically adept and honest to yourself, it will show in your work and people will notice.

How's 2019 looking for you?

2019 has been strange. This is the lowest amount of work I’ve had since I started photography. But I’ve also had some big changes in my life: moving out of my parent’s place among other personal experiences. I’ve also felt very inadequate this year. I constantly have the urge to make more work that means something – to either me or the community. I want to enter the art world. I want to dabble in music, illustration, graphic design. I want to be more than just a photographer/filmmaker. I want to publish photography zines, maybe even a coffee table book of photographs from my travels. It’s been a slow year, but I feel like I’m observing, learning and gearing myself for what is to come.

It is daunting though. The fear of not making enough to pay rent. The fear of not making enough to travel at will. The desire to constantly be creative and work on passion projects despite it all. It gives me anxiety sometimes. And yet, I’m excited. I love the process. I trust the process. You have to go through these lows to bring out the art in you. I can’t wait.

Follow Aqib's amazing work on Instagram:


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