Introducing “Behind the Camera,” a new longform Q&A series with current Ryerson photographers and alumni. The first in the series is Alia Youssef, a photography studies graduate from 2017. Youssef shares advice on the entrepreneurial aspect of photography and speaks about her current projects, her gear, how she shoots and more.
Toronto-based photographer Alia Youssef graduated last year from Ryerson’s photography studies program, and quickly made a name for herself in Toronto.
Her final thesis, The Sisters Project, which she continues to work on, focused on fighting stereotypes about Muslim women and sharing their diverse stories. She shot women of various ages and backgrounds from all across Canada, with unique captions where they opened up about themselves. This project, which was shared over social media every week, received a great deal of press coverage from Toronto Life, the Globe and Mail and Buzzfeed, among others.
Youssef has just finished another photography project, Like a Sister, which she started at the beginning of this year. It will be shown at the Ryerson Artspace inside the Gladstone Hotel until April 6th.
Let’s talk about your experience at Ryerson. How did you find the photography program here?
Alia Youssef: I really enjoyed the photography program. I felt like it fit my personality type, that balance between theory and practice. And also the balance of technical knowledge and project support. So it personally fit really well with how I learn, but what’s most memorable to me was my final year, because I loved the thesis project and making a thesis project, and having the teachers there as mentors and supporters.
What made you pick Ryerson when you were applying?
I grew up in Vancouver and in Vancouver there’s only really Emily Carr [University], and I really wanted to completely jump into photography. Most art colleges and universities you have to do a year of painting and drawing, not a specialized year, and Ryerson was just known for being a great photography school in Canada. So it just seemed like an obvious choice.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in photography?
Well, I started photography when I was 14, so I don’t know if I necessarily picked it. It kind of just the only thing that I really cared about. I was making money as a photographer at 14, so for me it was really just my path in life. When I went to Ryerson, I actually I grew so much more as a fine artist, whereas in high school I was much more of a commercial photographer.
Because, as you said, Ryerson helped you understand the fine arts aspect of photography better, would you recommend going to school? Or would you say that photographers don’t necessarily have to?
I think there are lots of photographers who have become really successful, and I’m speaking about fine art photographers, despite not going to school. But I think it really makes a difference being able to approach a project with historical knowledge, and the knowledge of how to make conceptual projects and how to research for those projects. I know how to create a project from beginning to end, and I think that’s really important. I would recommend it to someone who was asking me for advice.
Because you started photography at 14, which is relatively young, why did you start? What drew you towards it?
It was kind of a fluke. I have two younger sisters, who are 5 and 7 years younger than me. I kind of got brought along with my mom to a birthday party. My mom had just bought a point-and-shoot and she was playing with it, and she said to me, “Why don’t you go play with it and see what you do?” I ended up falling in love with the assignment and spent the entire two hours completely documenting this birthday party. And then when we got home and looked at the pictures, my mom saw a talent in what I had done and was very impressed. So they ended up fostering that within me and helped me get a DSLR camera. I ended up taking photos of the neighbourhood kids, and before I knew it, I was getting hired to do birthday parties and getting hired to do family shoots, just because I was sharing my work on Flickr and Facebook.
What was your first camera?
So my first camera was a Canon T2i, and for a couple months I used that kit lens, but then I quickly got my 50mm f1.4 lens. My camera changed once I went to school but that 50mm portrait lens has been my saving grace for the last ten years.
What is your typical set up like then?
For these pictures [Like a Sister], I shot it on a Sony a7R II, a mirrorless camera, which I’ve been having fun playing with. Most of my photos these days I’ll use a 24-70mm lens, but keep it on 35mm. I’m so used to shooting on 50mm, but pulling back a little bit has been really nice for these group shots. For most of my portrait sessions, especially shooting on assignment, I’ll still use my Canon 6D and my 50mm lens because I think now that camera has become an extension of me. I don’t even have to think about what the picture will look like, I know what the picture looks like. I’ve just shot so much on it that my eyes will just start seeing the photos beforehand.
Your gallery focused on sisterhood and the community formed behind this idea. So what inspired you to do this project?
I knew I had this space for International Women’s Month, so I was thinking about what projects would be meaningful during that time. I had been thinking about sisterhood in my own personal life a lot. Do I have sisterhood? What does sisterhood mean to me? What movies show sisterhood? Sex and the City, for instance, is a show I’ve always loved, and I was always like “Who are my Sex and the City members?” I don’t think I’ve ever had that typical image of sisterhood, so when I got this exhibition, I just decided to look into what sisterhood actually looked like. I just wanted to see and be a part of these relationships, so that’s what these photographs really focus on.
With all these beautiful women in your project, who are the women in your life who inspire you?
Throughout the project I saw how beautiful it can be to have sisterhood outside of your family. But I think for me the strongest sense of sisterhood is still within my family ties, and my little sisters are always my muses. I love photographing them, I love hanging out with them and my mother has always been my North Star. So I think it’ll always be them for me.
How would you say social media has helped you as a photographer?
For my other project, I use social media [to] share images. That’s where the audience is, and that’s how I get publicity for a project. Whenever someone interviews me or someone profiles me, it all exists on social media and links back to my social media. I really think that’s where majority of people see my work — online.
I’m just wondering, how long do you spend with these people to take your pictures and get what you need?
It really depends. I think a majority of these photographs I only spent an hour with each person, but it goes up to around three hours. A lot of my shoots happen within an hour just because I’m really sensitive about taking too much of their time.
What helped you find your style in photography?
What I continuously get excited about just happens to be what has evolved into my style. You’ll find that my portraits always have an environmental feel to them: the people are usually looking at the camera, it’s natural light normally, I hardly ever use additional strobe lighting or flash lighting. My style is very adaptive to the situation and I try to keep it very clean at the same time.
What makes you continue photography? What do you love about it?
I think I’m just addicted to making good photographs. The pursuit of becoming a better artist and a better portrait photographer is really exciting to me, and the vision of becoming the next Annie Leibovitz is something that keeps me going. I love the art of it, I love connecting with people, I love being able to capture something more intimate about someone. But I also love the idea of getting better, and every shoot I go into, I think, ‘How am I going to make this better than the last shoot I did?’ I think I’m very competitive with myself.
You just mentioned Annie Leibovitz — who are your other photography role models or idols?
For a long time, I really loved Sue Bryce just because she is a posing extraordinaire. I think a lot of the way that I now pose people is influenced by her. You’ll see within a lot of these photographs, just in the way women are touching each other, where they’re placing their arms, how they’re all connecting, that’s something I’ve picked up from how Sue Bryce photographs families.
When it comes to careers in the arts, a lot of people kind of romanticize the idea of struggling. I was just wondering, is there any truth to that? Do you feel like that?
No, I think people who romanticize the idea of a struggling artist don’t become successful artists. I know this because I’ve met a bunch of people who have romanticized that idea and I’ve never seen them exhibit work. I think it’s really important to be entrepreneurial because when you have money, you can make more work. There’s nothing easy about making work if you don’t have the funds to make it.
What kind of tips would you recommend for a photographer to be more business-minded?
The past project I did, I was sending out press releases, continuously contacting photo editors at this place or this place and getting coffee dates with people who are at newspapers or any media publications. As if my work were a business, I was reaching out to people to try and get people to share it, and to bring more awareness to the project. I think a lot of people think once the work’s done, it’s up to other people to help it get seen, but I think it’s really important for you to [view] your work as a product, and it’s your job to share it.
What is your dream shoot? Where are you? Who are you shooting?
I think my dream shoot would be for a media publication I really respect, because my dream has always been to be an editorial photographer. I would love for Vogue or W magazine or Elle or whatever, to knock on my door to ask me to shoot. I just want my publication to ask me to do what I do — to shoot in the sunset light and create a very Alia Youssef photograph for them. If it’s a celebrity, great. If it’s an amazing business owner, great.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.