National Identity: Third Space

Continuing our season of themed content exploring National Identity, Kelly Bryan interviews Karim Skalli.

Interview by Kelly Bryan

Karim Skalli’s recent photographic series, Third Space, visually explores his personal narrative whilst discussing wider themes around belonging and ethnicity. Through a Post-Colonial lens, Karim examines his Moroccan and British heritage to visually narrate the impact these two locations have had on his identity. He intuitively responds to his two family homes located in Hull and Fez; the photographs work alongside archival material and video stills to question the similarities and conflicts between the two cultures.

Kelly Bryan interviewed Karim on his ideas behind Third Space and his experience with exploring such challenging themes. 

Kelly Bryan: How did Third Space originate; what encouraged you to visually explore your identity?

Karim Skalli: I’ve always struggled to express my identity verbally to people. I wanted to produce a body of work that would visually narrate how I see myself as someone of dual heritage. It was also something I wanted to explore for myself, growing up I found it difficult being in between identities and never fully felt British or Moroccan. 

From ‘Third Space’ ©Karim Skalli

KB: You mention that you struggled to express your identity verbally so you turned to photography to help with this expression. What is it about the photographic medium that allowed you to express your identity that you felt you could not verbally? 

KS: Photography allowed me to give the viewer an insight into my personal life, for example, images from home that show the Moroccan influence, the rugs, the patterns, the colours, all aspects that act as a reminder of my identity. Not everyone can see my family home or know what my family looks like, photography allows us to make the personal things and moments more accessible to a wider audience and visually tell a narrative that would otherwise be difficult to explain. 

KB: Did you seek any advice when creating the project; was there anything or anybody you found particularly inspiring?

KS: My biggest help during this project was my MA tutor at the time, James Russell Cant.  He was a major mentor, specifically for this project, and all round during my Masters. I also had help from photographer Fiona Yaron-field who helped me with the structuring of the project and discussing what images might resonate more with the audience. In terms of artists, photographers Larry Sultan (Pictures from home) and Diana Markosian (Inventing my father) were big influences, as were theorists, Edward Said and Homi Bhaba, who wrote pieces on the idea of being in between designations of identity. The project title Third Space was actually a theory by Bhaba and so is a homage to him and his influence on my work. 

From ‘Third Space’ ©Karim Skalli

KB: Although identity is an intangible concept, you have used the physicality of photography to create representations of your being. How did you find the right scene or object to explain a narrative so complex? 

KS: I photographed what I perceived to be important to my identity, the people, places and things that would help form a narrative of who I am and how I see myself. A lot of the photographs taken were in my English family home and a lot of the ‘things’ are the Moroccan influences within it. 

KB: You explained that you photographed what you perceived to be important to your identity; do you have a photograph you feel is particularly significant to the series and why? 

KS: The image of my mother sunbathing on the rooftop is a really important image, I think it’s one that describes Third Space the best. We have a visual representation of my English heritage with my mother, who is sunbathing, relaxing, a very western trait whilst on holiday. The Moroccan identity in the image comes from her surroundings, the aerials on top of the roof, the decaying walls, the mountains behind her, these all represent a different world to her own but one she has adopted, just as my father has adopted England. 

From ‘Third Space’ ©Karim Skalli

KB: In your series you combine photographs, archival material and video stills. What is the significance of each element and was it important that they were used together? 

KS: All materials play an equal part in telling a narrative. It was important for me to show old archival shots of my parents’ childhood to set the narrative of my own. It was also important to use old video stills of my time in Morocco for example, to give the audience an understanding of my relationship with the country. 

KB: Particularly with the archival material, you allow the audience to access such an intimate part of yourself and family. How did it feel creating a personal project and sharing it with the world? 

KS: It felt and still to this day feels strange, especially when I exhibit the project or have features. I’m allowing people into my world in order to show my story and to help myself understand it further. I’d like to think the intimacy of the project allows the audience to feel like they’re coming on a journey with me and hopefully people in a similar situation can see similarities in my images and relate them back to their own stories. 

KB: Although Third Space speaks of a personal narrative, did you consider the audience when forming the project? 

KS: Although it is a project that is quite intimate, I made sure not to make it too personal in a way that the audience would feel lost and out of the loop. Some of the images are more personal and might not be as easily explained through the photograph, however, I want the audience to use their own perspective on the images, for example, the image of the roses represents my mother ‘An English Rose’ but to others it may signify something else. 

From ‘Third Space’ ©Karim Skalli

KB: Natural light seems to feature a lot in the photo series, was this purposeful?

KS: I think that natural light is just an important feature in my work altogether, I’m drawn to it and it just added itself to the project nicely. I’m a big fan of painters like Edward Hopper and photographer Rinko Kawauchi, both artists who use natural light beautifully in their own work. 

KB: You transformed Third Space into a book. What is the significance of showcasing the photo series in this way and if so, how do you feel it helps build the narrative?

KS: I’ve always been a big fan of photo books. I think it’s a great way to showcase a project in a different format other than digital. I felt because the project was me building an intimate narrative that a book would be best suited for it. Once I began creating the book with two fantastic graphic designers (Alicia Mundy and Matthew Goss) I began to notice pairings I didn’t realise were there, the editing process of the photo book is a great way to see your project from a completely new perspective.

From ‘Third Space’ ©Karim Skalli

KB: You speak of the individuals who helped to create Third Space; how did these collaborations come about and how did you find the collaborative process? 

KS: When working on a project I think collaborating alongside other creatives is a really important step, it allows fresh perspectives on the work in terms of feedback, the edit and structure. In terms of the graphic designers, I saw both their work at a graduation show and was really impressed. I got in touch and began discussing collaborating. It was a really enjoyable experience. Fiona was actually my mentor during my MA year, meeting with her and discussing the project was incredibly helpful and again, really enjoyable. 

KB: Do you have any future photographic plans and are you currently working on any projects? 

KS: I’m working on a follow up project to Third Space which looks at other mixed heritage identities and their relationship with their identity and growing up dual-heritage, that project is on-going and a theme I really want to keep exploring. I’m also currently living in Japan so am shooting nonstop, it’s an incredible country, I’m hoping to work on a project whilst I’m here too. 

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Kelly Bryan is a writer and visual artist with particular interests in fine art photography and socially engaged practice. You can follow her work here: kb040598.wixsite.com/kellybryan