© Fiona Aboud Photographs 2008
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A documentary portrait photographer finds her signature style amid the chaos of Carnival.
Like many professional photographers, Fiona Aboud's interest in making pictures began long before she considered it a viable career. As a child she was the designated documentarian of her family's frequent travels, and later she wandered Asia for a few months, photographing everything around her. Along the way she picked up a degree in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia University, but for Aboud the allure of travel was always about taking pictures.
"Travel is at the center of my photography whether or not I am shooting a travel story," she says. "The way one looks at the world as a traveler is what I strive for in my daily life shooting: the wonderment, curiosity, and total absorption in one's surroundings."
Aboud's first big trip as a photographer was to Rio de Janeiro in February 2001 to make photos of Carnival. Born in Brazil but raised mostly in Boston, she'd never been able to attend the monthlong celebration, so it was with nervous excitement that she packed her Nikon F100 and headed south.
That first trip was a learning experience on many levels: Not only was Aboud teaching herself photography amid the chaos of hundreds of thousands of revelers but she also danced in the parade and got to know her extended family. While the keen observational skills of a photographer helped her absorb information about the place she was born, the slice-of-life Carnival images she came home with left her feeling unsatisfied.
Four years later, while Aboud was working as a photo assistant and building her own fashion portfolio, she became interested in costumes and how they change the wearer's projected personality. "I thought that shooting people during Carnival against backdrops would make the perfect merger between fashion and portrait photography," she says. In 2005 she returned to Brazil to do just that.
This time Aboud traveled with a clunky large-format camera, a seamless, and her husband, who served as her assistant (plus cousins in Rio who helped translate). Three nights in a row the small crew set up along the side of the parade route, arriving early (around 8 or 9 p.m.) to stake out their spot among the small vendor stalls. While Aboud's husband and cousins plucked people from the crowd, she had a few minutes with each subject to create a portrait, usually on Polaroid Type 55 P/N so she could give them the positive and throw the negative in a water bath. Around 1 a.m. they would return to Aboud's uncle's apartment, where she would wash negatives for several hours, sleep until noon, then get up and do it all over again.
Despite losing chunks of a few negatives to the brutal Brazilian heat, Aboud ended up with a large body of dynamic portraits. "Something just clicked during [that] shoot, a feeling that this is what I was meant to be shooting: people in their environments but set apart by a backdrop," she says.
By merging documentary and portrait photography, Aboud got to know Brazil through its people, a technique that gratified her anthropologically inclined mind.
"The most important thing is that I like to interact with people as opposed to just take their picture and walk away," she says. And she found the two- to three-minute connections she formed with her subjects just as exhilarating as dancing in the parade.
Aboud's Carnival portraits not only helped her connect with the country where she was born but they also marked a turning point in her career. The work landed her a spot at the Eddie Adams Workshop, got her published in Photographer's Forum magazine, and led to several other "on the scene" portrait assignments -- now her trademark. For one Sports Illustrated piece, Aboud set up a portable studio in Central Park during the New York Marathon and photographed runners just after they crossed the finish line.
Now 31, Aboud is an accomplished editorial portraitist who collaborates with Time, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Times. Despite cutting back her travel time since having twins in 2006, Aboud is hardly immune to the travel bug. Not three months after she brought her babies home from the hospital, she was in Sierra Leone creating portraits of amputee soccer players.
"I feel like travel makes me a better person," Aboud says. "It opens your eyes and makes you see the world from a fresh, childlike perspective."
-- Miki Johnson