‘Figuring out where I fit in’: PCA&D welcomes Saleem Ahmed for Oct. 26 Virtual Artist Talk

Saleem Ahmed has found art to be a way of building a community, even when he finds himself feeling like he’s straddling completing different and competing worlds.

Art for the Philadelphia-based Ahmed often is a way of telling a story — and much of his work also consists of teaching other people how to use art to tell stories themselves. He’s developed Vista Oculta, a five-year photography workshop geared toward teaching youth on the streets of La Paz, Bolivia; has worked as a Media Lab Instructor for WHYY, where he taught media literacy to high school and middle school students in the Philadelphia School District; and is an assistant professor based in Philadelphia. Ahmed’s own creative practice incorporates elements of documentary storytelling, family history, writing, and bookmaking.

In advance of his Oct. 26 Artist Talk at PCA&D, we asked Ahmed to answer three questions:

Your photos mark you as a storyteller: Do you have the story in mind and then seek out the photos to fulfill it, or do the photos you capture lead the way? 
SA: Honestly, I feel like my storytelling workflow keeps changing. Sometimes I start by writing down key ideas, and then try to create images based on those concepts. And then sometimes I work in reverse — where I gather all the images and try to create a narrative based on the visuals.
For a project like “Rani Road,” I remember a hybrid approach. I started by creating the initial images and then wrote about them along the way. I would write a paragraph or so about specific photographs. That writing eventually morphed into a short story that is included at the end of the photo book. 
For a recent project about Philadelphia, I remember creating a book sequence first, and then writing a poem about the images and my observations about the neighborhoods that I wandered.
Learn more about Ahmed, and see his work, at saleem.us. A link to the online event is shared in the PCA&D community’s This Week newsletter. Members of the public who would like a link to the talk may contact communications@pcad.edu.
What projects are you working on now? Do you reserve time to work on them, or fit them in spontaneously?
SA: I have a couple little projects in the works right now. I think I’ve reached a creative boiling point during quarantine, and I’m ready to make things again. I’m working on a little zine of images from the home I grew up in in Connecticut — that project is a collaboration with a publisher in England.
I am also working on another zine with a friend of mine. Before the start of quarantine we decided to collaborate on a project that pushed us outside of our comfort zone. I can’t really reveal too many details about that project just yet, but hopefully, we can release it before this crazy year ends.
Lastly, the other project I am working on is really just a little online store to sell books, zines, prints, etc. Selling my own work has always been a confusing space for me. Self-promotion is awkward, and so is pricing your own work. Either way, I wanted to organize myself a little better and figure out other platforms to share my work.
As for organizing my time… that’s the biggest challenge, especially in this work-from-home world. My studio is now also… my classroom and office. Lately, it’s been difficult to switch gears from work to art, and it’s something I know a lot of people are also struggling with.
I feel like I work in short bursts of energy and excitement. I really don’t like too much structure, so I guess my creative is more organic and spontaneous. The challenge for me is sustaining that energy and seeing a project through.
Examples from your writing (such as this lovely piece here) indicate this question may resonate: Do you have any suggestions for students who are hearing those voices — both internally and externally — that they don’t “belong” in a creative field?
SA: I’ve always felt like an outlier in so many spaces — in the art world, at work, and in my community. It’s not easy figuring out where I fit in and it can feel frustrating trying to prove myself and the career path I’ve chosen. It feels like a foreign concept in my community to pursue both art and education, but I’ve learned how to turn that into motivation.
Even if it feels like nobody is like you, you’d be surprised. The art community is full of people pushing against the same frustrations. The more I’ve shared, the more I’ve been able to connect with artists of various mediums and backgrounds — all dealing with similar challenges. Despite whatever negative energy you feel, there is a ton of positive energy that you can tap into.
Saleem Ahmed earned a bachelor’s degree in Photojournalism from Temple University and his MFA in Photography from the Hartford Art School in Connecticut. His work has been included in recent exhibitions at Section A Studio, Brooklyn; Goa International Photo Festival, India; Museo de San Francisco, La Paz, Bolivia; Perspectives Gallery, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design; and Camera Club of New York.