Anna Boyiazis let herself be guided through a child’s world in Uganda as a way to picture what it feels like to be a kid in the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic. Additionally, her plan to give underwear to every girl in Uganda, in partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute, now enables girls to attend school during their menstrual cycles — changing the trajectory of lives through education.
“Going inside my subjects’ lives and entering their physical and emotional worlds has transformed and refined my ability to see,” says Boyiazis about the effect of this work. “The village was welcoming from the get-go — and very curious,” she adds. “Curious as to why I didn’t melt on my way there, having flown so close to the sun.”
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ASMP: How long have you been in business?
Anna Boyiazis: I’ve been in business since 2011, upon receiving the City of Los Angeles Individual Artist Fellowship to support my work.
ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP in 2012?
AB: I was a student at the 2012 Eddie Adams Workshop XXV, where each participant was extended an invitation to become an ASMP Merit member.
ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?
AB: The Webinars. I attended ASMP’s inaugural Business as unUsual webinar with Mary Virginia Swanson, which was excellent.
ASMP: What’s the most important relationship you’ve formed through your ASMP membership?
AB: Receiving an invitation from the Los Angeles ASMP Board of Directors to participate in MOPLA 2013: Month of Photography Los Angeles.
ASMP: Which ASMP education/advocacy tools do you find most helpful to your day-to-day business?
AB: The ASMP Copyright Tutorial “How to Register” podcast recently helped me to streamline the online copyright registration of more than 20,000 published and unpublished photographs.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
AB: Documentary photography.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?
AB: My heart.
ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
AB: How quickly and deeply I connect with my subjects.
ASMP: How did you first learn about the more than 20 million AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa? When did you begin photographing this issue, and how much time have you dedicated to this project to date?
AB: In 2006, I read that sub-Saharan Africa would soon be home to more than 20 million AIDS orphans. Then I met a family of children in a remote paradisiacal village in the Rakai district of Uganda. I’ve returned to this village for three periods of two months, and have allowed these children to guide me through their world. Documenting what it feels like to be a kid in the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic, I’ve attended school, gardened, “swam,” and foraged with them for both fruit and insects.
ASMP: What was your relationship with other people in the village? Were they welcoming to you initially or did it take time to gain their trust? What steps did you take to integrate yourself into the village?
AB: The village was welcoming from the get-go. And very curious. Curious as to why I didn’t melt on my way there, having flown so close to the sun. Days before my second visit, one of the villagers dreamt that I was coming. So nobody was really all that surprised to see me. In 2010, I had the honor of meeting Rose Boyiazis, a two-year-old who was born in the village shortly after my second visit.
ASMP: Please talk about your process in connecting with the children and joining in their games and activities. How did you go about introducing yourself into their world? What language do they speak and what steps do you take to build rapport when you don’t share a common language?
AB: I simply jumped right in. While English is the official language of Uganda, these children speak Luganda, Uganda’s most widely spoken language. That said, communication has never been an issue. I’m pretty good at reading their eyes and body language, and because they’re completely present (and not preoccupied by modern gadgetry), they’re excellent at reading mine.
ASMP: Did you find it challenging to reintegrate in Los Angeles after spending time so fully immersed in Uganda and the worlds of these children? Do you have any strategies or tips for easing the transition between the worlds you are documenting and your own home?
AB: I do find it challenging to reintegrate in Los Angeles after spending time fully immersed in Uganda and the worlds of these children. Since beginning this project, I’ve wished that I could simply walk around the corner and find myself in this alternate world. We share an incredible rapport and I find that I’m often seeing through their eyes when I return to California.
ASMP: Your images are arresting, informative and eye opening. What effects do you want these images to have on viewers? Do you feel that you’re succeeding with this?
AB: I view this work as an act of empathy. Going inside my subjects’ lives and entering their physical and emotional worlds has transformed and refined my ability to see. I’d like these photographs to elicit compassion and bring our shared humanity to the fore. Describing this work, Mischa Geracoulis writes, “Appropriately, her photographic work — her storytelling — suspends the illusions of human separation. We become the children, and they us.”
ASMP: What equipment did you work with for this project and why? Had the children seen this type of camera gear (or any type of camera) before and what was their reaction to it?
AB: Photographs for this project were made in natural light using a Nikon D700, Nikon D200, Nikkor 28-70mm lens and Nikkor 35mm lens. Since I am often running (or otherwise in motion) while making these pictures, I try to keep things as light as possible.
Although the camera never fails to engage (and yes, the children have seen cameras like these before), my audio recorder garners the most attention. They’ve seen pictures of themselves, but have never had the opportunity to hear their own voices.
ASMP: What was your experience traveling in Uganda while photographing this project? Did safety or comfort ever become an issue for you? What was the biggest challenge you encountered during your trips there and how did you resolve it?
AB: Comfort was never an issue for me while photographing this project — until my most recent trip, an anomaly that allowed me to foray more intimately into the insect world. I experienced what happens when venomous caterpillar hair penetrates human skin, got malaria for my birthday, sat in a nest of giant fire ants and had a worm pulled out of my leg.
ASMP: Did you use local contacts such as fixers, translators, drivers and/or security staff to assist when photographing and/or traveling in Uganda? If so, what resources did you use to find them?
AB: Yes, I’ve used local drivers who have been recommended by friends and NGO colleagues.
ASMP: Your bio says that you were born and raised in Los Angeles by your family from the Aegean Islands. In what ways has this background, upbringing and ethnic heritage informed your vision of the world and how you photograph humanity?
AB: All of my grandparents were born on the island of Symi. My paternal grandparents immigrated to Southern California because the climate and geography reminded them of Greece. As a native Angeleno, I’ve been invariably drawn to the natural world and have enjoyed being in the water, on the sand and exploring our canyons.
My maternal grandfather spent his adolescence in Port Said, Egypt. He was a vivid storyteller; I was his captive audience, thirsty for every detail. A story he often recounted was his journey with an Italian passport from Africa to Ellis Island, via Marseille and Paris during the 1920s. I have an undeniable affinity for the African continent and always feel close to my grandfather — and by extension, my grandmother — while I am there.
ASMP: You were an award-winning book designer before beginning a photography career. What was your primary inspiration in transitioning from design to photography? Are you still doing any design work?
AB: I remember being led into our junior high auditorium for an assembly, where black-and-white films were our initiation to the Holocaust. Stunned, I wondered why nobody had told us about this sooner. And more importantly, why didn’t anyone do anything to stop it. I’ve never been able to get those images out of my head. They inspire me.
My transition from design to photography was one I was committed to make before I became a designer. My drive to be out in the world — engaging with and documenting it, while using my voice for advocacy — has a very strong pull. It’s what I feel most alive doing.
When my mom was diagnosed with her first bout of breast cancer, I was hit with the reality that life is short and that we only get one chance at it. I have since directed all my creative energy toward photography.
ASMP: What processes did you go through in transitioning from your design career to photography? Did you have any mentors guiding you or influencing your process? If so, who are they?
AB: One of the first things I did was participate in a digital darkroom course at the Maine Media Workshops, with the lovely Jan Rosenbaum, who generously guided my technical transition.
Before attending the 2012 Eddie Adams Workshop XXV, I studied in New York under David Alan Harvey (Loft Workshop) and Antonin Kratochvil (VII Gallery Workshop), and participated in a Photojournalism Masterclass with Ron Haviv. I have since workshop assisted Ashley Gilbertson and Todd Hido, and served on the 2013 Eddie Adams Workshop XXVI Black Team.
I’m thankful for the insightful guidance of Ashley Gilbertson, David Alan Harvey, Elizabeth Krist and Sara Terry.
ASMP: In what ways, if at all, have your experiences as a designer influenced your image making? Do you feel that your experience of working on the other side of the image making process is an asset to your work? Do you ever find it to be a challenge or a hindrance?
AB: It’s a definite asset. I believe it’s influenced my aesthetic. My early handmade artist books were very personal, poignantly juxtaposing my writing and photography. These were limited-edition, hand-bound books. I began on the “other side” (this side) of the image making process. I never lost the desire and impulse to author the content contained within the publications I was designing. In fact, the desire snowballed over the years, calling me back.
ASMP: Your work has been widely published and you’ve received several awards, grants and mentions for your projects. Approximately how many grants and competitions do you enter annually? Are there particular honors or awards you’ve not yet achieved that top your goals for the future?
AB: I prepare approximately 40 award, fellowship and grant applications annually. While introducing my work to new audiences that share common interests, my main objective is to secure the necessary funding to create meaningful work.
ASMP: What kinds of criteria do you use in identifying and deciding which grants, competitions or calls to submit your projects? How much time do you spend researching these opportunities and preparing submissions?
AB: I confirm that our values align. I also consider the expense (if fees or prints are involved); the jurors; who’ll own copyright; and the potential funding, publication and/or exhibition opportunities. It’s an ongoing process.
ASMP: Are there requests you’ve made for funding or support that have been unsuccessful? If so, please share any strategies you’ve developed to continue moving forward with your work after receiving news about an unsuccessful grant request.
AB: Plenty. We all get knocked off the horse. It’s all about getting back into the saddle and trying again! Personally, going out on the sand and playing a couple hours of beach volleyball usually helps me to refocus.
ASMP: In addition to this image series, you started a partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute to supply underwear to girls in Uganda to prevent them from missing school during their menstrual cycle. How did your relationship with the Jane Goodall Institute begin? What steps did you take to initiate this partnership and what is your process for collaborating with them in this initiative?
AB: Actively advocating the urgent need for education and a girl’s right to it early in life, I established a partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute, to whom I proposed giving underwear to every girl in Uganda. It’s impossible to wear a sanitary pad without it, and girls with neither miss up to a week of school per month, contributing to their dropping out altogether. Championing the potential of girls, I’ve collected, then hand delivered, 10,000 pairs of underwear to Entebbe, Uganda — thus far — encouraging more than 2,000 girls to continue studying.
ASMP: Please talk about the results of this program to date. Is there one story that’s particularly memorable or illustrative of the project’s success? What are your future goals for the partnership?
AB: The impact of this effort has been nothing short of extraordinary, with primary school enrollment for girls now exceeding enrollment for boys in communities that have received underwear. The Jane Goodall Institute Uganda considers this their most important project. In addition to changing the trajectory of lives through education, we’re directly affecting population growth, the environment, the amount of remaining forest and the chimps.
ASMP: Your work has been exhibited worldwide, both in solo and group shows and can be seen in many prestigious corporate collections and museums. Do you have any strategies or advice for others about how to cultivate opportunities related to museum collections and exhibitions?
AB: Our work is important to curators; it’s requisite to their shows and publications. My advice is to value the work and recognize its significance to others.
ASMP: Are there any particular photographers, artists, writers, philosophers, activists and so on, whose work inspires you?
AB: Larry Towell, Marcus Bleasdale and Paolo Pellegrin have left an indelible impression.
ASMP: Where do you ideally see yourself in five years time? Have you set any major personal or professional goals for yourself in the years ahead?
AB: I’d like to spend more time living and working abroad covering global health, social justice, wildlife conservation and women’s issues.