XX: We want to know who Shaista Deen is. Tell us more about yourself
I’m 22 years old, currently studying in the UK and soon completing a BA in Fashion Marketing and Management. I know my degree is a bit out of the ordinary. I always get very mixed reactions when I tell people what I’m pursuing. I refused to let myself be someone who works tirelessly at a job I hate simply as a means of income. I grew up in Charlieville with my parents and three siblings who have always been very supportive of me. I am a Freelance Photographer and Creative Director. After completing 6th form at SAGHS I took a gap year in which I had the honour of working for Trinidad’s renowned fashion designer, Meiling. That year was a life changing experience for me.
XX: When did you leave Trinidad and what do you miss most about living in the Caribbean?
I began my degree in 2016 and since then I’ve been back and forth between Trinidad and the UK. The food. Without a doubt, I miss the food the most. I love to eat. Apart from photography, it just might be my favourite pastime and I miss our flavourful, seasoned Trini food ever so much. Apart from that, I also miss the sun and the beaches. England’s weather can become very depressing and it’s made me appreciate so many of the simple things I once took for advantage at home.
XX: How have your Caribbean roots made you who you are today?
My ancestry is Indian, I believe it was my great great grand-parents that came to Trinidad from India. I am proud of my heritage and undoubtedly, madly in love with it. That’s where the strong cultural representation comes from that you see so profoundly in my self-portraits.
Trinidad is such a beautiful little island that’s a melting pot of cultures. I grew up with such diversity around me that made me love cultures that aren’t mine as if they are my own. Culture is a major influence on my work and I think a lot of my attitudes towards it may not have existed if I wasn’t a Trinidadian, I love my little island and I’m proud of where I’m from. Trinidad is so filled with talent, it’s a shame that a lot of it goes unrecognized.
Another way growing up on island influenced my work is my love for nature. Sunlight, nature and the ocean are major influencers on my work. I love shooting in natural sunlight, I love the way shadows dance across my subject or the light highlights their defining features.
XX: OK, so let’s talk a little about your work… so you’re a photographer?
Photography helped me to see beauty in everything, to find the beauty in the mundane. Everyone’s concept of beauty is different; some people find darkness beautiful and there’s nothing wrong with that. It taught me to appreciate the people and the life all around me. A lot of things I used to take for granted became things I found mesmerizing. The passion grew and soon enough I began doing it professionally. But to me it’s more than just a job, it’s a way for me to express myself where words are lacking.
My self-portraiture’s journey is a bit funny I think. I am a proud Trinidadian, but doesn’t erase the fact that life there can be quite dangerous. My dad is protective, naturally, because of that I didn’t go out much as teenagers would. I couldn’t find models and just go out to a photoshoot so I started experimenting and bringing my ideas to life on my own. Till this day pretty much all my self-portraits are taken in the comfort of my bedroom, using a tripod stand or a stack of books when I didn’t have one and a desk lamp as my lighting equipment. Trust me, it can be hard being stylist, make-up artist, creative director, lighting assistant and photographer to yourself. Especially when you have to keep running back and forth in between shots to hit the timer and then pose. Sounds kind of ridiculous no?
Eventually I realized that self-portraiture was the best way I could express myself because who knew better the image or emotion I wanted to evoke than myself. Apart from that growing I always wanted to see a girl that looked like me doing the things that I’m able to do today. I wanted essentially to be someone younger me could’ve looked up to, never thinking that so many other young girls or women would be able to relate to me because of it.
Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago I never saw any female hijabi photographers, I never had that inspiration. A lot of people would tell me I can’t be that and I would never get far with it simply because no one had done it before me which I found stupid to be quite honest. If anything the negativity I would receive was what pushed me to prove that I am capable of doing well as a photographer and more.
I was depressed for a period of time as a teenager and photography was one of the main things that helped me out of that. I was very different with regards to the way I saw myself back then. I was extremely insecure about myself, pessimistic and doubted my abilities a lot.
After I was able to get past all of that I wanted to help others do the same. It sounds corny but I’ve always wanted to make people happy and help in whatever small way I can. That is now by sharing my art and encouraging positivity, I get so many messages where people would tell me that my posts helped them get through a rough time and that means the world to me. Or that I’ve inspired them in some way. I’m extremely humbled by it all.
I photograph the people I love or the people that have had some sort of major influence in my life, so it’s mainly my friends and family that are seen on my profile. They are definitely my favourite subjects because a lot of times I get them saying, “I didn’t even know I could look like that!” and the fact that I’m able to make them see themselves in a different way, bring a smile to their face even just makes me so incredibly happy.
I am insanely grateful for my family and my friends, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what I have thus far without their love and support. I would do anything for them. I want to make people really feel something when they see my work not just think ‘oh another pretty picture #goals’. I want it to evoke something within them.
XX: How long have you been shooting, and why did you pick up the camera in the first place?
I bought my first DSLR camera with my own savings when I was just 14 and I’ve been shooting ever since, going on 9 years now I guess. I have been fascinated with photography from a very young age. I would enjoy getting my hands on whatever camera I could find. I remember my mum removing the film from the cameras because I would go around taking pictures of anything and everything I found interesting. At first I would just play around with it, capturing photographs of my family and just about anything around me. I soon realized it was something I am very passionate about and decided to pursue it further. I would take random jobs at first, birthday parties or society dinners for example.
XX: How did you end up being featured by Instagram?
To be incredibly honest, that came as such a shock to me. It was never something I was working towards because I never believed it to be attainable. Instagram has over 800 million users. Given those odds, I would never imagine the person that works on finding photographers to feature would ever come across my work just on the explore page and then go on to think it was worth the feature. But I am eternally grateful that my work was recognised by the platform that opened up so many opportunities for me.
XX: You were also featured in Vogue… how did that come about?
I was featured in Vogue Arabia in 2017. Prior to that I had been contacted by the UNFPA which is the United Nations reproductive health and rights agency. The UNFPA were showcasing 40 hand picked female photographers from all around the world for International Women’s Day. They requested that we each create an image that represented womanhood in some way to us.
My photograph was selected by the United Nations and featured by them on their Instagram platform. From there Vogue picked up the story as the project was very successful. I was then contacted by the editor of Vogue for an interview. The whole experience is a blessing as well as the result of a lot of hard work and has humbled me.
XX: What does it mean to you being a Trini-Hijabi photographer? How do your identities help your art?
I consider myself an unapologetic artist. I guess a bit of that rebelliousness came from being a hijabi in an industry where I’ve not seen any as a young girl. I once cared a lot about people’s opinion of my work and of me and that prevented me from just being myself a lot because I would worry about what people would say if I did certain projects. Judgement is sadly something that comes so naturally to people.
Being muslim and one that wears hijab, people would focus on that more than they would the fact that I’m a photographer and an artist. The scarf on my head is not the most defining aspect of who I am even if it is a large part that I am proud of. I want to be recognized as an artist, not just a “Hijabi Muslim Artist”.
I’m a woman and I’m an artist. My beliefs or the colour of my skin should not be the only things that define me. Often enough I would use my photography to voice my opinion on social topics. I’m not sorry for who I am and what I stand for. I think that has always reflected well in my art and has made a lot of my work very relatable or inspiring for other young Muslim/Trini girls
XX: What’s your end game/goal?
It’s a surprise, just you wait and see.
Just kidding, I know it sounds cheesy, but my hope is to someday form my own charity which I would have built from starting my own business. My ideal career surrounds helping others, children specifically. Photography will also always remain a constant through all of this, perhaps taking a different turn from what I currently do in the form of story-telling.
Apart from that, my only other dream is to be able to give my parents all that they gave me and more, at the end of the day I would be nothing without them. If I can accomplish that I will consider myself successful.
XX: So, when next are you coming home to shoot for xx? 😉
Whenever you guys are ready to have me!