Nina Ahmadi Realized Inner Compassion Helps Make Better Self-portraits


“Every time I look at it, it feels more accurate,” chuckles NY-based photographer and student Nina Osoria Ahmadi while explaining to me the various self-portraits she’s documenting herself in. She often projects her struggles and experiences as a queer person of mixed cultural identity in these photos. Finding it necessary to self-reflect and take a strong stand against the things she finds offensive, she gives herself and those around her a voice of hope in moments of pain.

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I find self-portraits to be some the more difficult kind of photo projects to do. It’s almost like directing yourself in a movie; you’re in charge of getting everything right, including your own performance. Sometimes it’s you who ends up breaking the flow of the scene and having to then redo everything to get it right. And in a self-portrait series, the photos are not just getting the technical aspects correct but also correctly executing the artistic elements and the poses in front of the camera. It can be frustrating to have to shoot and reshoot yourself when parts of the photo don’t turn out the way you expect. And this might then lead to a change in how the final image looks from what you originally envisioned. The patience required for such work is highly commendable, and Nina has done some great work with this project.

The Essential Photo Gear Used by Nina Osoria Ahmadi

Nina told us:

I am a strong believer that you can create beautiful and impactful artwork regardless of the equipment you use or have access to. To be frank, specific equipment was not an essential part of creating for me.

The Phoblographer: Hi there. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.

Nina Ahmadi: Hello! My name is Nina Osoria Ahmadi. I grew up in Miami, Florida, and now live and study in New York City. I have always loved to create and perform. I found at a young age that the arts were my preferred channel for communicating my thoughts and most complex feelings about myself and the world. I am Afro-Cuban and Iranian American, which in itself provided lots of cultural information to process in my youth, so a lot of my early work stems from that. I did not begin in photography- I work most often in drawing in painting. It was over the pandemic that I became involved in photography. I purchased a camera in early 2020 and learned the general mechanics in an introduction to a photography course. Once I learned enough to improvise, I fell in love. This series is primarily self-portraits. I have always loved to perform, and photography allows me to create characters and narratives using my body with more control than live performance alone.

The Phoblographer: You focus on mixed cultural identity and racial issues in your photography work. What is the primary reason behind this focus?

Nina Ahmadi: While being of Afro-Cuban descent has been formative in the development of my life and worldview, a large portion of my life was spent without knowledge of my family and lineage; in other words, I found out at 15 years old that my biological father is Afro-Cuban. Up to that point, I thought I was white and Iranian. Since my childhood, I have both become close with my Cuban relatives and simultaneously developed an understanding of how race operates in a North American context and in Latine culture. Home, for me, was a strained and complex place because it was where I reckoned with my self-identity while living in a home with parents and siblings who could not relate to my experience– my mother being Persian and my step-father and two sisters being white. Most of the images in this series involve interior spaces, specifically bedrooms, for this reason. I wrestled with claiming heredity that was mine but did not have a role in the first fifteen years of my life, and the experience of which I did not identify with because neither I nor the people around me perceived me as Black. While on the one hand, I experienced an embodied sense of alienation due to feeling unable to identify with other Black and Afrolatine kids, I am also privileged to benefit from a general sense of belonging growing up in Miami, where most brown people who are not perceived as Black or white are simply assumed to be Latine. These internal conflicts have carried into my early adulthood, and I continue to deal with them in my private spaces.

As in my earlier work, my understanding of my sexuality plays into these cultural conflicts, especially as I grow older into more complex understandings of gender in the context of my Persian and Cuban family – both cultures with extremely fraught histories of sex and gender politics. These works are not meant to stand as representative of the mass of artwork that hails from brown people or members of the African diaspora. This series is my exploration of personal experiences involving identity. I find that artists of color are often asked to stand as representatives for entire identity groups and cultural backgrounds, while white artists are not met with the preconception that their work examines entires ethnic or racial groups. While some artists do make work that explores diasporic experiences across individuals or even nations, I find this assumption is often the default for artists of color. I hope that we, as individuals involved in the arts, can begin to break down these habits of thought and see artists and their work with greater understanding.

The Phoblographer: Are people of color still facing roadblocks to getting their work seen and recognized. What can photographers do to help change things in this regard?

Nina Ahmadi: Yes. Of course. There are an endless amount of reasons why artists of color face these roadblocks. Some of the reasons most evident and important to me are that a) art spaces are not institutions functioning outside of our world that are socially, financially, and politically steeped in histories of exclusion and segregation. By that I mean, while the art world is often, on the surface, very politically and socially liberal, it is usually as inaccessible to artists of color as the rest of the world. Not to mention the ways in which artists of color, specifically women and femmes, are simultaneously toted as tokens to create images of liberalism and diversity while none of the groundwork is being played to open paths for young artists of color. By that same point, b) children of color are not afforded the same opportunities to be exposed to the arts, let alone the resources to practice creative self-expression and critical self-reflection, which are incredibly valuable life skills not commonly practiced in most public education.

Because the states’ system of funding public education is based on gerrymandering and manipulation that maintains high levels of class and racial inequality and generational social immobility, students in poorer neighborhoods often do not get access to the same amount or quality of extracurricular activities, cultural events, or academic support. Access to the arts in youth gives young artists the chance to begin their careers early, whereas many artists of color come into their careers later in life. I would encourage photographers and artists of some repute to utilize their position to open doors for young artists of color, hire artists of color, advocate for programming offering artistic opportunities, recommend young BIPOC artists for events, etc.

Generally, ebbing committed to diversifying the spaces you inhabit as an artist and taking action to bring in local artists is a great way to make changes in art spaces.

The Phoblographer: Was the series Come Be With Me born out of a sense of wanting to understand whether every person is their own best companion?

Nina Ahmadi: In a way, yes! As I touched on earlier, I experienced some isolation in my youth due to my mixed cultural identity as well as my queerness. Ultimately, the only place I could seek understanding for the intersections I experienced was within myself. I often feel a need to turn inward as a response to the vast set of disembodying events I experience personally as well as events on a national and global scale.

My instinct is to turn inward toward a place of silence where I can imagine endless possibilities apart from the roles I must choose for myself and the harsh realities of our world. I find that entering a place of self-reflection and imagining our own worlds is a great way to process pain and find the strength to take action toward better for ourselves and our communities. That being said, in the wake of recent events such as the tragic overturning of Roe V. Wade and further pro-gun legislation, I find it is also incredibly important to take steps past self-reflection, find community, and make loud, explicit statements and take action in support of those impacted by such legislation.

The Phoblographer: There are feelings of self-conflict but also self-love in this series. What were the ideas behind this?

Nina Ahmadi: Absolutely. I think I’ve brought up quite a bit of the tension between feeling disembodied from myself while also desiring to see myself clearly through all the lenses placed on bodies like mine. One of my favorites is definitely “Reclining Nude/Conference of figures in my mind.” This was the first piece I made of this series. I feel it really accurately depicts the level of chaos I feel internally about my body, my gender identity, and my cultural/racial identity. Every time I look at it, it feels more accurate, LOL. I like to think that the story of this piece is that all the figures are what the figure on the right is experiencing while staring into the mirror. Parts of me are unbothered by the chaos while parts are screaming and thrashing, and it’s all projected into the real world.

The Phoblographer: As a visual artist, what emotions do you go through when creating these photos?

Nina Ahmadi: Personally, I find it really hard to plan pieces really meticulously ahead of time. My pieces tend to come out of the spark of an idea, and the concept sort of develops as I create, shoot, and edit, and in the time afterward. Usually, I will begin to zone in on a specific memory or feeling, and I sort of get into character and embody the memory or emotion as I’m shooting. In “Self portrait doing it to myself,’ for example, I was focusing on a memory of a negative sexual experience I had recently had. I felt faceless, as if I was just my body, as though I should have been more careful with myself and more specific about who I gave access to my body. While shooting, I am very dynamic. I may have a rough composition in my mind, but I try my best to get as many options as I can so that I can compose in the editing process and fine-tune the narrative I am trying to project.

The Phoblographer: Does the process of creating these photos help in soothing these conflicting emotions?

Nina Ahmadi: 100%. Creating art is usually direct emotional processing for me. As I mentioned before, I have a very hard time planning pieces and specific statements I want to make beforehand. The piece usually comes into fruition as it is being created and will oftentimes find its meaning after it is done and will shape it toward communicating that meaning through further editing. Making these images allows me to process different parts of myself freely and reflect my findings back to myself, almost as reminders of my progress throughout my journey of self-growth and discovery.

These works are not meant to stand as representative of the mass of artwork that hails from brown people or members of the African diaspora. This series is my exploration of personal experiences involving identity

The Phoblographer: What has the response to this series been?. Has it opened up ideas to create similar work?

Nina Ahmadi: The response has been incredibly positive! I didn’t expect the images to be shared so much, but once they did, it did inspire me to develop on the series. I would say, however, it did cause me to put some pressure on myself to make similar works, which sometimes feels disingenuous. Ultimately though, I would say the response has really positively encouraged me to continue making work in general, regardless of the specific medium.

All images by Nina Ahmadi. Used with permission. Check out her Instagram page to see more of her photography.

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