Mark Abouzeid is a remarkable storyteller. Ever since we had our first conversation in Piazza Santo Spirito, he never ceased to captivate my attention with his fascinating stories about life, travelling and fatherhood. Mark is not your regular artist, in fact he doesn’t fit any category really well, but his work is amazing and speaks for itself. He is truely a source of inspiration and I hope his interview for The human behind the artist will inspire you too.
As a fine art photographer, Abouzeid applies the same empathic, provoking eye to MidEast Peace (My Enemy My Brother, 2002), Blues Musicians (A Year of Blues, 2010), Bedouin Tribes (Being Bedouin, 2008 – 2010), Renaissance portraits reinterpreted (The New New World, 2012), Italian Racism & Integration (Non Sono Clandestino, 2012) Fashion & Performance Culture (Liquid Silk, 2013), the North South Cultural Divide (Slave Mind, 2013) and War (History Repeats).
Abouzeid’s fine art collections have been or are currently exhibited in numerous museums including Palazzo Vecchio, Accademia della Crusca, Museu de Valencia d’Etnologia, Pitti Uomo, Bedouin Heritage Foundation and Museu Maritima, Barcelona. For his work and humanitarian initiatives, Mark has received important recognition including that of the Italian National Association of Professional Photographers in 2008 and an Award for Peace by the Region of Puglia for the exhibit “My Enemy My Brother”.
Me: Who is Mark Abouzeid?
Mark A.: I am a fine art photographer, but also a living heritage, visual documentarian. I am the father of two children, Lucia and Allegra, probably the most important thing to me, and I am an idealist, a humanitarian.
Me: Where are you from?
Mark A. : I was born in New Jersey, I left when I was ten months old; born to a Lebanese father and an American-Irish mother, moved to Europe, grew up there and I have been traveling ever since.
Me: What was it like growing up while constantly moving?
Mark A.: When I was a child it was really hard, I didn’t like it. I loved the new worlds it brought me to and the people I met, but it meant regularly leaving, never getting to say goodbye. I had trouble fitting in everywhere.
I grew up privileged. My father was a very powerful and political individual, an international business man and everywhere we went, people expected us. My father actually convinced me that they would kick me off a plane if I didn’t wear a jacket and a tie, so I wore a jacket and tie every day of my life until I was thirteen years old.
We moved to Milan when I was 5 and they were the happiest days of my childhood. My parents weren’t around most of the time: we had a cook and a driver. I was this small, fat kid that spoke Italian and the cook loved me: on some weekends she would take me home with her. I became a part of a Napolitan family, and for those five years, my world was wonderful. Then one day, while at summer camp in Switzerland, I got a telegram saying: “We don’t live in Italy anymore, we live here (USA) and someone is going to come and pick you up.” So, I never got to say goodbye.
That is that part of my childhood that I hated: no goodbyes, no going back. Obviously there was a lot of it I loved because that’s what I still do; I never stop and that experience made me able to do what I do today.
Me: Have you always known you were an artist?
Mark A.: No, in fact I don’t consider myself one, now. I have always taken use of art to covey messages and to change the things I see that I don’t like, that are wrong. I was an economist for a while and thought to redress inefficiencies in the system, to make the world a better place.
I was an Internet technologist for ten years, and thought I could make the web a better, more beautiful resource. I had to learn design in order to do that, so I studied design on my own and integrated that into it all my work. When I became a photojournalist and started using this same visual sense, I found myself surrounded, especially here in Italy, by photographic artists and their work that to me was little more than visual masturbation.
So, from the outset of this career I stayed away from the word artist, in fact it kept me from doing fine art photography for a long time. I have always considered myself a photorealist…which in those early days meant what I now call movable scanning. It wasn’t until an initiative on racism and integration that I realized the only way I was going to be able to reach Florence was to speak in their language. So, I started with their art, since I knew that would trigger them and capture their attention.
This collection was the first time in my career that I created something that was not there prior. I knew what I had in mind and I knew it would be photo realistic, because that’s the only way I can shoot. However, in order to shoot the scene, I first I had to create costumes, scenes, backdrops, everything. After this success, I started experimenting, using art as a message. Now, I can actually say I am a fine art photographer in one aspect of my work, but it always starts with a message and then fine is used to affect the provocation. I don’t just go out and create art.
Me: Take me back on the path that led you to Florence.
Mark A.: When I got married and moved to Hong Kong, I was an investment banker. I had an exciting rich life but it almost killed me. I used to use alcohol, drugs and power to satisfy something that was missing.
Me: What was missing?
Mark A.: I think the only thing that was really missing is I knew that what I was doing was wrong. I kept trying to say I was helping but my soul knew that was a lie. So, the only way to deal with it was to quiet my soul with drugs, alcohol and money.
One day, I had to fire 2000 employees in person and saw for the first time in their eyes just how wrong I was. It destroyed me, crippled me. Shortly after, my first daughter was born. Despite being drunk when we got to the hospital, eighteen hours later I was completely sober, sitting in a chair behind a screen with this little bundle in my arms and felt emotions I had never experienced. In that moment, I realized that this is what counted in life; nothing else mattered as much.
I collapsed, lost my business and my wife got pregnant with our second child. By the seventh month, we had to choose between staying in Hong Kong for another two years and leaving. In three weeks, we sold everything, paid off our debts, and left. My family offered us a place to stay in Florida where I recovered and rediscovered my spirituality and myself. I got involved in the Internet in 1994 and realized I could live anywhere. We considered moving to San Francisco, Seattle, Santa Fe, until my wife asked why, if we could go six hours to the West, we couldn’t move six hours the other way and move to Italy. I had been there as a boy and she had studied there, so why not?
Me: How old were your daughters then?
Mark A.: One was eighteen months and the other was three years old. We first moved North of Italy, but eventually we settled in Tuscany in a tiny little village of two hundred people. We stayed there for ten years, Castelmuzio. That is where I became a photographer, where my wife left me, where I became a single father of two children.
By the time they had to go to high school I thought they needed an intermediary place before going into the real world and Florence was it.
Me: How did you become a photographer?
Mark A.: I became a photographer because we owned properties in Tuscany. At the time, my wife was a painter but wasn’t painting and I wanted her to be more active. So I built her a website called In Tuscany, the first Tuscan rental agency, to manage the two or three properties we owned. It wasn’t long before the business grew and my wife started finding more villas. Suddenly we need lots of good photos and what the owners supplied were, generally, crap.
I had never taken pictures in my life; I didn’t like film photography. So, I bought one of the first digital cameras ever made to take pictures of the houses for the website. Soon, we realized we needed ambience photos as well. A friend, who was a balloonist, asked me if I want to go up with him and take pictures. I was flying over Tuscany taking pictures with my balloonist friend and putting them up on the website.
At that time the New York Times was doing an article on renting villas in Tuscany, found our website, and asked if they could use some of our pictures. The Washington Post was doing a following piece and Arizona Republic wanted a cover. I was still just an amateur who was not paid, just glad to have my photos published.
This went on for years. I started traveling on my dime and would sell what I could from the photos, but still nothing too serious. When I got divorced, my wife and her lawyers decided that the best punishment they could exact was to leave me without any businesses. They made me sell everything, including the properties, websites, and land. I found myself having nothing but capital in the bank and two girls I had to raise. So, I decided to give photography a try. Fifteen years later I am still trying to see if it will work. hahaha
Me: Do you have any regrets or things you wish you would have done differently?
Mark A.: I don’t believe in regretting things in life, I take responsibility for everything I do and everything is a decision. Sometimes I may face two horrible options, but I choose one and never question that decision. If I consciously make a decision in the moment based on all the information I have in front of me, I have done the best one can. If that information changes in the future and I don’t make a change, then I should have a regret, but I shouldn’t regret my first decision because it was based on my best insight at the time.
Also, I love what I am doing, I love my family and where I am; this is the road it took, no other way to get here from there. I would never recommend to anybody to follow my path, not even to my daughters; I have probably lived one of the most traumatic and dynamic lives of any human being I know, but that’s what it took to get me here. I love the life I have lived, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. I think the childhood that I had, the father that I had, and some of the things I had to suffer as a child made me strong enough to survive this life and be a happy person, but I don’t think most people would. I think many would have been crushed.
Me: Let’s go back in time for a minute. What is the strongest memory from your childhood?
Mark A.: I think there are two, one of which is not my own memory, but has been recounted to me. It kind of demonstrates my world as a kid and my role in the family. When we first moved to Belgium we had a house with a small pond outside. I was around two years old. We had just moved in and my mother was talking to three or four women in our living room who had came to welcome her.
My sister goes running up to my mother and tries to get her attention, but my mother says: “Don’t interrupt, wait until the conversation has a pause.”, so my sister waits. After about thirty a minute my mother turns to her and asks what she wanted to say. My sister asks: “Can babies swim?” and when the answer came back negative she continued: “Then Mark is drowning!”
My first memory ever is of being three years old, sitting on the swing in the garden and waiting for my turn to be punished. In my family, punishment was corporal, meaning ritualized beating.
Me: What were you supposed to be punished for?
Mark A.: I have no idea. My father had this rule that if one of us did wrong, we all did wrong, and I am pretty sure that at three years old it wasn’t my fault. At 3, I did know the ritual already and I was going waiting my turn; no matter how long it took, I would wait to be called when it was time. I remember sitting on that swing for an hour and a half thinking that my brother was being killed.
What had, in fact, happened was that after about two strokes the riding crop broke on my brother’s ass. My father felt so bad that he took everybody out for ice cream, but they forgot about me. So, my first memory was of absolute terror and that didn’t stop until I was thirteen years old when I ended up in the emergency room for something else I had done wrong.
Me: You travel a lot. Do you see the world differently through your lenses?
Mark A.: No, it’s the opposite. I see the world differently because I have traveled my whole life, because I empathize with every culture. It helps me fit in and become like them in some small way. The lens only allows me to share that experience with other people and, hopefully, help them see that other people are just like them, not other species.
Me: Did you plan your next trip?
Mark A.: Yes, I am working on a documentary in Beirut: I need to go there for a month and probably will travel around the world for another month, conducting interviews on the recent cultural history of Beirut. You talk to anybody about Lebanon and all they ever reply is “pity about the war” or “it was great in the sixties”. The Lebanese have given us Nobel Prize laureates, actors, musicians, fashion designers, and more. You don’t get that from a bunch of parties and a little bit of war.
I am Lebanese; I wasn’t brought up Lebanese, but I am beginning to understand just how Lebanese I am. My father died last year in November and before he died, I interviewed about my own family’s history, something he had never spoken of before. That started a personal discovery. I went to Beirut and for the first time in my life I found people that have similar values to me, a sense of humor like mine, a way of looking at life like I do.
Lebanese say: “Life happens between wars.” They don’t focus on the war; it’s just a date on the timeline. They find a way to rise above everything that happens in life, to make life fun, to make it better. They expect life to be hard, but that’s just a part of life. But, you have to go find the fun, you have to create the joy, that’s what makes life worthwhile and I was amazed to find how Lebanese I was.
I’ve always considered myself international, with no roots and no specific culture. That’s why I want to do this documentary: it’s my own personal exploration and it’s for people around the world. Everyone thinks that Lebanon is an Arabic country and it’s not in any way. We aren’t Arabs; we were there before the Arabs. As did our ancestors we travel around the world, not on boats but on airplanes, we do business, we fit in anywhere, and we never lose our culture. We don’t need a piece of land to be Lebanese.
With everything that’s going on in this world, more people need that message. They are so afraid of losing their culture that they don’t realize that they’re actually throwing it away: they’ve stopped telling their kids the stories or who they are and where they come from.
Me: If you were in a Kevin Carter situation what would you have done?
Mark A.: I wouldn’t have taken the shot. I don’t shoot that. When I say I am an idealist it’s for that reason. I do not take pictures of suffering because we’ve got enough of that; we don’t need to be reminded of suffering, we need to be reminded of joy and anything that makes that possible. I do not shoot war; I do not shoot anything related to it. The humanitarian efforts of war validate war.
Me: So you don’t think he was supposed to be granted the Pulitzer Prize?
Mark A.: No, I didn’t say that. I believe there is a need for that also, but I believe that too many photographers take that road simply because it’s easier. To make you cry is a piece of cake, but to make you laugh is not so easy. I always choose the harder road.
I don’t judge anybody ever, probably because I am so egocentric that I don’t concentrate on what other people are doing or why. They don’t have my past; they don’t have my life. I choose what I do; I know it’s extreme. I know I’d be richer if I shot conflict, but I’ve suffered violence from the day I was born and I don’t intend to help promote that in any way.
Me: What is your dream project?
Mark A.: I was in Oman and went to see the boatyards in Sur, where they make the old sailing vessels, the Dhow, by hand. I realized that I had a book on my shelves by Alan Villiers, who, at the turn of the century witnessing the end of the age of sail, decided he wanted to sail on every vessel that still existed. He found himself in Sur, signed on to a trading vessel and sailed the entire Coast from Oman to Madagascar and back, stopping to observe and document every culture along the way. After rereading his book, I realized that I had an opportunity to do the same thing, go there, commission a boat, follow the entire building of it by hand and sail his route to document how these same cultures have changed. The Dhow would be equipped with an audiovisual lab to teach Omanis skills in safeguarding their cultural heritage while we follow the African coast. Villiers followed a route from the diary of an old Greek sailor, a unique opportunity to cover the same peoples over centuries of change.
Never going to happen! it would cost several million dollars and the people I pitched the idea to just don’t see the urgency in it. It was fun coming up with the idea and if someone would to do it I would definitely be on board for that. This is my dream project.
Me: So, Florence hasn’t imprisoned you for life?
Mark A.: No, definitely not. I don’t like Florence. Florence to me is one of the greatest examples about everything that’s wrong in our society today. It thinks it’s important, it thinks it’s proud, merely because six hundred years ago it did something, yet, has done nothing with it ever since. I think if Lorenzo De Medici was alive today he would be furious with them, “We spent three centuries putting this together and all you do is look backwards at it?”
I wanted to love Florence; I thought this is the place where somebody could really do something with Art and Culture. Yet, I am the first person to use Renaissance paintings, interpreting them in a modern way to address contemporary issues. Today, there’s a cover page from some stupid women magazine copying my Battiferi, because they couldn’t come up with an original idea. All my work is based on learning from the past to define the present and inspire the future. Florence is where it all should happen.
It’s not only that they won’t do it, but if you try they will impede you at any cost. It’s like a beautiful woman with an amazing self-esteem issue.
Me: Where can we see your work?
Mark A.: It depends; I have two bodies of work. I have the work I do on Living Heritage which is in certain museums. In 2015, we launch “Blood and Sacrifice” at the Seville Museum, then at Barcelona Museum and, ultimately, part of the permanent archives of the European Museum of the Seas in Marseilles. My Renaissance work is one of the most popular things online and my fine art work is mainly in the hands of collectors. This year is the first time that I have put together a catalog for international galleries; up until now I have never considered myself an artist.
Me: Do you promote yourself?
Mark A.: I have a very strong personality. People react to me one way or the other; they either love me or they hate me; there is no middle road. Therefore, when I am the person promoting myself, especially for galleries, museums, they usually feel challenged by me and, therefore, take three steps back. When I have somebody else do it for me, by Internet, or by example things go well. When I show what I do, people love it and they want to be part of it.
This year I am trying to professionalize the way I promote myself a bit. I’ve had some fun with the crazy artist thing, now I want to use my past professional skills to be to sell my work in a much more focused way. I have a catalog, an agent and have created my artist resume, an essential tool. In Florence, there is very little I can do that I haven’t already done, including the Palazzo Vecchio, including the Uffizzi. It’s a matter of letting people know in the right way: instead of answering every question they might ask in my materials, sometimes leaving questions to be asked is the best way to start a dialogue. So, right now for the first time in my life I am promoting my art which I never done before.
Me: Do you believe in the starving artist myth?
Mark A.: Yes I do, I am a starving artist and I think it’s necessary. I think it’s a must. Like I said before about Florence, there are a lot of people here that think they are artists, but they live with their families and they have things taken care of for them. They can say things like: “I won’t corrupt myself.” Wake up every morning knowing you need to feed two children no matter what and you don’t even understand the word corruption anymore. If I can go out and take a picture and be paid, I’ll do it and won’t think twice about it. In doing so, I can also do my art. I couldn’t have done the Renaissance series otherwise, or the stuff I am doing now. Often a client asks me to do something and only after I realize that I can use this in my art to greater effect. If I had the choice of waiting tables or shoot someone’s wedding, I would shoot the wedding. At least that way I am still doing something I love: making photos.
Me: So, how did you get to go from being privileged to a starving artist?
Mark A.: Really well, I do it with style because I love life. I am starving artist partially because I spent too much money in the early days financing myself to go around and because I chose to provide my daughters with a life that was not rich, but wasn’t poor either. I thought it was unfair that I would choose this career and that they might have to suffer for it. The apartments we have had in Florence over the past few years, I couldn’t afford.
I learned at a very young age growing up as I did that money doesn’t buy happiness; I don’t recall a single happy family from those days. The only time I feel discomfort about not having money is when an expedition is canceled because I didn’t have the necessary resources. I feel bad not for myself but for the people we could help. I learned a long time ago that life is what you make of it and I love my life, so why would I care if I am starving or not?
I have given the opportunity to the artists I am interviewing to ask a question that they can’t answer for themselves, to another artist of my choosing, involved in this project. I have chosen Laura Thompson‘s question, the painter whom I have interviewed here, for Mark’s interview.
Laura T.: What gets you up in the morning?
Mark A.: Coffee. Jokes aside, I understood a long time ago that if I am not doing this then I am doing something else; that everybody’s life is filled with things you have to do. There’s always more than you can possibly do. So I decided to make the most out of everything I do, even if it’s washing the dishes.
The worst day of my life was the day after I quit drinking. I had a pistol in my mouth the night before, I woke up not knowing anything and I went to work. When I finally collapsed, I gave myself one day on the couch and the next day my body said okay, that’s enough of that, get up and get moving. I don’t know if it’s because of my family’s background or just who I am, but it doesn’t matter what crisis I hit, I get up and go to work.
Me: A word about you as an artist, a word about you as a human.
Mark A.: As an artist it’s truth. Everything I do, whether as an artist or a human being, is to try and help people see the truth about one’s experiences and what the point of all this is, instead of getting caught in all the head games that they create around it. It’s really quite simple: you’re born, you die and in between you pass time. Wouldn’t it make sense to decide how best to pass this time?
As a human my word is father. I realized a while ago that being a father was the purpose of my life and it still is. That’s why I could die tomorrow and be happy in the knowledge that I helped create two great human beings. They made me do things that I wasn’t capable of doing, they made me choose a higher path, that I couldn’t have taken otherwise, because either I was too weak or I just didn’t believe in it. They saved my life. I would have pulled that trigger if it wasn’t for them; they helped me understand that I could not give up seeing them grow without having tried everything. I may do many other things, but the only thing I can very proudly say I have done well is to be a father.