By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – Ali Darvish exhibits both supreme confidence and utter humility, qualities that weave in and out of each other like quicksilver. Not to be confused with arrogance, his confidence seems a natural extension of a steadfast inner compass that keeps him anchored on a path of gratitude, service and humility.
With clients that include the National Football League and National Geographic magazine, and shooting assignments for the Carnival of Venice and the Olympic Games, the Iranian-born photographer has been successful in both the commercial and fine art sectors, but for Darvish, it has never been, nor will it ever be, about the money.
“For me the joy is meeting people,” said Darvish, whose personal projects are typically in service of a greater cause. “To share their story and inspire somebody to do something with their life.”
Having visited 92 countries, camera equipment in tow, Darvish is a reservoir of stories, and drawing from that deep well is how he answers most questions.
He brushes over the harrowing episodes—a plane crash over the Yukon River while shooting the Iditarod, imprisonment in Fidel Castro-era Cuba for suspected espionage, being robbed at machete-point—and focuses instead on the beauty he has experienced around the world, and in his stateside communities of Tampa, Florida, and New York City.
When he lost all of his camera equipment in the plane crash, and had no means to replace it, he took it as a sign from God that maybe he was supposed to give up photography.
However, all of his friends got together and presented him with enough gift cards to New York’s fabled photography outlet BNH to enable him to resume his passion.
From then on, Darvish has made it a priority to involve those who support his mission-based projects with the far-flung or closer-to-home communities they aim to benefit.
“America is the most generous country in the world,” he said. “But when they give, they [often] don’t know where it’s going.”
Darvish has traveled to places like Haiti, Bolivia and Peru in the wake of natural disasters to document the impacts and the humanitarian aid efforts underway to alleviate them. His images are then used to help raise funds and awareness in the U.S. and given as gifts to donors.
When in need of chainsaws to help relief efforts in Biloxi, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina, he received 178 of them. He collects inexpensive reading glasses and brings them to Africa where, he said, 500 people will line up for a basic eye exam. He also brings handmade cultural goods back to the U.S. and returns any proceeds to the communities that made them.
“It’s such a simple thing … get creative—photography is just one thing. Whatever it is, do something. We live this life once and we are not promised [tomorrow],” he said.
For the last 10 years, Darvish has been focused on photographing African wildlife, in hopes that it will help reduce poaching.
“And they’re making chopsticks out of it!” Darvish said, referring to the elephant’s valuable ivory tusk. “Who wants a million-dollar chopstick? Imagine your children and grandchildren and Africa doesn’t have any more wildlife.”
By leading private photography classes in places like Rwanda, he is promoting tourism in the region. By teaching photography to the tribal people, he is giving them another skill. He understands that in order for poaching to cease, another means of economic support must take its place, showing the native population that protecting the region’s natural resources is in their own best interest.
Darvish approaches photographing wildlife the same way he does people—slowly, humbly and patiently waiting to earn their trust.
“That’s how you get your pictures,” he said. Sometimes getting the shot also requires taking creativity to the next level. When he couldn’t get the attention of a dazzle of zebras after hours of waiting, he put on a paper lion mask and played a recording of the animal’s roar. Problem solved.
Darvish is emphatic about the need to think outside of the box and give people images they have never seen before, especially in today’s competitive market. It’s something he stresses to all of his students—that, and the importance of research. “Fear comes from not being prepared,” he said.
Both are reasons he traveled to Novia Scotia’s remote Sable Island to photograph its wild horses, two images of which will be in the Big Sky Art Auction on July 26. Darvish was captivated by the island’s rich history and, at the time of his first visit in 2009, he was one of only two professional photographers to ever step foot on the island, and the only one to do so in winter.
Sable Island is nicknamed the Graveyard of the Atlantic for the nearly 400 known shipwrecks around the crescent-shaped spit of land since its discovery in the early 16th century—also the reason for the existence of the island’s approximately 300 wild horses.
“I’m always mesmerized by how much pain they can endure,” Darvish said, describing the horses’ long shaggy coats covered in 2 inches of snow, their bodies turned away from the relentless wind and blowing sand.
Darvish’s current mission is to use his work to advance efforts to make clean, filtered water available to the tribal people of Kenya’s Maasari Mara region, who, he says, currently drink contaminated river water. Similar to a successful project he was involved with in Haiti, the plan is to generate enough money from his wildlife photography to fund the drilling of one well, and the necessary filtering system, and present the project to his own community in the hope that others will sponsor wells in the region.
Darvish reflected on some of the most significant moments when he realized the impact of his work: handing a photograph to someone who had never seen their own image; witnessing families sift through the ruins of devastation desperate to salvage their photo albums; the time an Ethiopian woman asked him to take a picture of a pile of dirt that Darvish later learned was the burial site of her 5-year-old daughter.
“Whether it’s through pictures of wildlife or people, or the power of compliments, meet someone and make a little difference in their life,” Darvish said. “We’re all in this together; you can’t just sit down and cry—try to get up and do something with your life.”
Two of Darvish’s photographs of the horses of Sable Island will be in the Big Sky Art Auction on Thursday, July 26, under the big tent at the PBR arena from 3-6 p.m. Visit bigskyartauction.org for a full auction catalog and to RSVP. To see examples of Darvish’s commercial work, or request a viewing of his fine art collection, visit photosbyali.com.