An Interview With Saddi Khali
By Joy Tippens
“There are still some artists left who do it for love, whose voices speak to so many because they take the time to listen. Unbound by conventions of beauty and being, Saddi Khali is one such artist.”
The Sophisticated Life recently had the pleasure of interviewing renowned artist and “Photovangelist,” Saddi Khali. Specializing in nudes, and in “bringing out the beauty most folks don’t see in themselves,” we wanted to know more about him and his work.
TSL: This quote was taken from your site:
“In this time of glitz and glamour, Spanx® and plastic surgery, we seem to have really forgotten how to love ourselves, how to celebrate what we have and to express who we truly are. The media’s stranglehold on our image has us adhering to a standard of beauty that does not consider us. Our mirrors have become joyless places. And, we even use this standard to oppress each other now. But…what will we do? Who will speak up? How will we combat this mess other than with the defiance of loving who we are, in our own skin and bodies, the way we were created?”
You also use the hashtag #decolonizingbeauty. When did you gain this awareness and figure out that you wanted to do something about these images of us?
Saddi: The work and the concept built themselves. I was a writer. I had been published in anthologies and I also did poetry and toured as a performer. You can find my Def Poetry footage on YouTube. I just stopped enjoying the direction the writing scene was heading, and started looking for another creative outlet. I mentioned to a mentor that I was interested in photography. He had a really old camera on the shelf behind him that he reached back and handed to me. I started shooting everything. Then I came across two books. One is a book by a photographer named Thierry Le Gouès. His images are in DMX’s house on the movie “Belly.” I saw these images and they are really stunning, but they are like supermodels. Then there was another book called, “Black Ladies” by Owe Ommer, and it had nude African models. As somebody who was exploring different forms of photography, I was like, “I want to try that.” I started talking to people I knew about letting me shoot them, but I don’t hang with supermodels. They were just regular folks. Although my first attempts weren’t so great, what I got to see was how regular people responded to seeing themselves being held up as beautiful. It became loud to me that many folks who weren’t models never saw anyone who looked like them being held up as beautiful. So then I started sharing my work on Myspace. People started sharing the work and responding to it saying, “She looks like me, except you made her look beautiful.” It became loud and clear to me that I was on to something. So I started based on people’s responses.
TSL: I’m sure a lot of people are like me. They want to do it, but they are not fearless and uninhibited. When they get on the scene with you, how do you make them feel at ease?
Saddi: None of the people you see are all out there and uninhibited. Everybody you see is crazy nervous. They have different body image issues. They have different issues in their lives that they are using this to challenge. People are nervous, 1- because they don’t know me, 2- because they usually have philosophies like, “I don’t know someone.” “I don’t trust easily.” “There’s danger looming and you have to protect yourself.” All of these things are philosophies that keep them from walking through their greatness.
Before I shoot anybody I have a crazy in-depth conversation with them. I ask them questions about their lives, and I actually listen to the answers. And I respond to the answers, and ask other questions, and basically work to pinpoint the stories or the narratives that created this practice of protecting and guarding and fear- all the stuff. Usually, when you help people see where they got this thing from, where they created it, or what it’s a response to, they begin to feel safer. They begin to feel more open, because most of the stuff is just a response to something, some trauma. Usually, you don’t talk about it, so you’ve created, on autopilot, these philosophies. Once you talk about it, once you open up, opening up feels good. If it feels good a little bit, you want to open up more because you want to feel better.
The scariest part is usually people’s drive over to wherever I am shooting. They’re in their own heads. They’re creating all the worst possible outcomes. They’re projecting I don’t even know what they judge to be there. And then they get there, and then they finally take off their clothes, and then they are like, “oh, it’s okay.” Then they see the first couple images of themselves in the back of the camera. Then you start feeling yourself once you start seeing yourself look good. It’s really just the bravery of doing it in spite of the fear. Once you get started, and the music’s playing, and the mood is sensuous or cool or whatever, all those fears subside. And usually by the end I have to make people put their clothes on.
TSL: Natural beauty only? No glam shots?
Saddi: When I started there were a lot of photographers who would argue with me that you have to give the people what they want, meaning I needed to do glam. I needed to do all of these things that every other photographer does. And if I’m doing that, then there’s nothing about me that stands out.
So, because all of them doing those things, it made space for me to do something else, and have all the people who were interested in something else come to me. I’m not good at photo shopping. That’s not my talent, and I think it’s an insult, 1- to the photographer, who, because they haven’t developed their photography, will go and try to clean everything up post production. 2- If I’m saying you’re beautiful, and then I take an image of you and I totally change it and I cinch your waist and I elongate your neck and I change your nose and I spread your eyes a bit, and I show you picture of someone who doesn’t look anything like you- maybe the picture looks good, but it doesn’t look anything like you – I’m not saying you’re beautiful. I’m like, if you’re made in the image of the Creator, you have to be beautiful. It’s up to me to be able to access that beauty, and accessing it is just you allowing me in. You being comfortable, there’s nothing more beautiful than that. If I’m taking care of my side of the effort as far as being adept at using my camera and being vulnerable enough that I can see the beauty wherever it shows up, then we win. So, regardless of body type, or regardless of how people come in, they always leave with beautiful images, because it’s not about your body.
TSL: Why you vs. my photographer friend?
Saddi: Often people come to my page and tag the photographer they know, like, “I’m talking about stuff like this.” Nothing against them, but I’ve been specializing in something. There is a method and a recognition of some of the things you are holding inside you, and understanding of ways to let them go. My work has sustained me because my personality and my personal gifts are in them. It usually takes people 2-3 years of looking at my stuff and being scared to finally say, “Okay, move forward.”
TSL: I see your gift in every photo. They are just gorgeous, imperfections and all.
Saddi: I don’t believe in imperfections. I believe the flaws are in our beliefs, in our perspectives, not in our realities. Things are just the way they are, and how you look at them makes them either bad or good or not good enough or perfect or whatever.
TSL: Amen, It seems like a true passion and you definitely are gifted. All of this has allowed you to travel all over the world with your work. How did you combine the passion for photography and your passion for travel?
Saddi: The travel built itself as well. When I first started doing this, I was touring with a theater show.
When I was in town I would mention I’d be in certain areas and I would do the show and sneak in a shoot or two with somebody who was like, “I want to book with you while you’re here.” When the show ended, there was someone from Chicago who wanted to book with me, but she couldn’t afford to bring me there. She said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll start a group on Facebook and find all the people who might be interested in shooting with you, and we’ll all bring you.” She did that and it worked great. It was “Bring Saddi to Chicago,” and I shot 14 or maybe 20 people on that trip. It worked so well that anybody else who mentioned that they wanted to shoot with me somewhere, I just suggested that they form a group. Whoever formed the group, I’d let them schedule the people, and I’d give them a discount for their work. There ended up being groups all over the world. These people basically manage themselves. They talk to me, we choose a date. I set the dates up back to back, and then I just go from city to city.
TSL: It seems like you’re living a dream.
Saddi: It can be exhausting as well. It’s not always a balanced relationship, because I am putting all of this energy out. I haven’t always been as good at reminding myself to take some time for myself. I’m in that space now, where I’m much more interested in making room for my own life.
TSL: There’s something to be said for being your own boss and being able to say that, “I need the time, and I’m going to take time for myself.” Have you ever had a 9-5?
Saddi: A long time ago. I’m from New Orleans and I went through Katrina. Maybe 4 or 5 years or more before Katrina I decided I was never going to work for somebody else again. My last real job in New Orleans, I created and piloted curriculums around teen mental health. It was a cool job as jobs go. I just don’t like reporting to people. I left the job without a plan and winged it with my art for those few years. Then Katrina happened and I was displaced to Brooklyn. I ended up getting a job as a teaching artist, teaching playwriting to middle school students a couple hours a day. I did that for about 6 months or so and then touring jumped off. But it’s been since around 2000 that I’ve had a 9-5.
TSL: You knew you didn’t want to work for someone else anymore, and you set off and followed your dream. What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs or other people with a dream?
Saddi: Find ways not to talk yourself out of your dreams. There is what you want, and on average most people start telling themselves why they can’t get what they want. When, truthfully, what you want, I think, is some voice inside of you telling you what you are built for, and that it’s out there waiting for you. So, tell yourself, “why not?” Then you just go for what you want. And what you want may be unconventional. What you want may be something that you’ve never heard of anybody else doing. What you want may be something your friends don’t understand. Maybe they don’t understand because it’s made specifically for you. If you go get it, then you’ve tailored a life for yourself that nobody else can claim. I travel the world with naked women handing me money. I couldn’t have made this up!
The difference is, it’s so much easier logistically to have a boss, because they do all of the organizing. That check makes you come back when you don’t have a boss. The money is on you to get, and the mistakes are on you. But for me, I choose that freedom over anything else.
TSL: Yes! I am so inspired by what you do and what you have shared. Thank you!
View more of Saddi’s beautiful images. Book a session & Connect with him on social media.
Thank you Joy for this enlightening and inspiring interview with Saddi Khali! I am so moved by his love and passion to portray beauty in all its form!
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