Photographer and writer Saddi Khali’s life story is vivid like his work. He doesn’t have a residence but travels the country and parts of the world taking pictures. He got into photography after evacuating New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Then he moved to New York and performed poetry. His spoken word skills landed him on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and stages throughout the country. And his photography has garnered some serious buzz on Facebook. But it's Khali's passion for life you can’t help but admire.
I extend my hand when I first meet Khali at the Four Seasons hotel lobby in Los Angeles.
“I’m from the South. We hug,” he says as he gives me a friendly smile and embrace.
In just a few years the New Orleans artist has touched thousands of people with his photos. No airbrushing, Photoshop or special lighting touches his pictures. Khali, 37, uses natural light and the organic beauty of his models. His images are fresh air in a time where it feels like we're suffocating under silicone, skin lightening cream and Botox (Do you recognize Lil’ Kim and Heidi Montag anymore?). Khali photographs people of all backgrounds. Yet,his purpose for his photos of black people is to defy the negative images society has been force-fed for centuries. Many of Khali’s photos are of nudes. Some are erotic, others clothed but all are moving. His images not only look good, but make you feel good. I sat down with Khali to talk about his career, erotica, Hurricane Katrina, and why he un-swags his clients.
You were in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. Did that experience inspire you to start taking pictures?
Definitely. The morning before Katrina I went to Baton Rouge which is about an hour- and-a half outside of New Orleans. Most of what happened I watched on the news. And watching the way they colored us and watching the way other people’s control of our image displayed us was really angering to me and hurtful. I started paying more attention to all of the ways we are showing us and how unlike us those images are. And how not celebratory and how not uplifting and how denigrating most images that we see of ourselves are. So I wanted to get back to the basics of seeing us without all of the images we’re bombarded with--without the pain, without the self-esteem issues and just without the swag or any of that. But how are you when you are just in what God gave you?
Is that what you mean on your website where you say, “Black people need to see images of ourselves with humanity”?
We grow up in communities where on the sides of corner stores there are images of us with liquor and cigarettes in our hands. [There are] videos of us throwing money at each other or shaking our thigh meat. The news shows us being carded off to jail. Everything is either really awful or unrealistic. As opposed to complain about what’s happening, I play my part in helping us to reclaim our image. Something as simple as just showing us how we are.
My photography doesn’t have airbrushing. I don’t have a bunch of studio lights. I just use the sun that’s coming in through any window. I don’t have a bunch of couture poses to create you in this larger- than- you- are personality. It’s just you. And fortunately we are beautiful enough as just us.
Did you take any photography classes?
I’ve never taken a class. I’ve never read a manual to a camera.
I can’t believe you never took a class because you’re really good at playing with light.
I had this really cool light kit and Katrina took it. So I went to New York with a broken camera and no lights. I started shooting with no lights. It was more just necessity and so I ended up learning how to shoot with what I had. Now, because I know it by heart, there’s definitely a technique to it.
Many of your models are unclothed. Why are you using the erotic to paint a positive image?
Well I’m just finding out that most of my stuff is erotic.
You’re just discovering this [laughter]?
The vast majority of it has no sexual or sex like connotations at all. It’s just somebody looking comfortable in their skin. [I had an argument] with somebody who was telling me that it was sexual. It was my brother actually. I told him I was going to show him sexual and so I created Saddirotica. Saddirotica is intentionally sexual. The other stuff to me is just sensual because you’re supposed to feel it more than just see it. I think art should contact more than one sense. I don’t want to just make a pretty picture. I want to tell a story...Most of us haven’t the slightest idea about ourselves, let alone each other. And then we walk around a bunch of smart, pretty cool people lonely as hell because we can’t connect with ourselves let alone each other. So I thought maybe I can create images of us connecting. How we should look together. Maybe I can show us in very intimate situations and it not look like porn. And it not be shameful. Why can’t the organs and the tendencies that God gave us be alright?
Some of my favorite images are of the full-figured women because bigger women have a stigma and those are my favorite. They look beautiful.
I’m the oldest of six in a single-parent household. My mother would come home from work tired. She would sit down and each one of us would have to grab a leg, a foot, an arm and rub it. And she would rub us back. So it made me very affectionate. Also my mother was soft. So I find myself being attracted to whatever is soft on you. Can I squeeze it, does it jiggle? And I find that all those things on women that I appreciate are the things they’ve been taught not to like about themselves.
Your photos show the women’s rolls, the cellulite and it looks beautiful.
And I didn’t do anything to it to make it look beautiful. I just showed you what you had. But I showed you in a context of celebration as opposed to something you need to get rid of or feel bad about. My work to me is just as spiritual as it is sensual. And I believe that God doesn’t make flaws.
There’s one photo you have where we don’t see the woman’s head. But the way her skin, rolls it’s almost like a waterfall.
I have one called “Soft Rock Formation.” There’s no head, just these hills and valleys coming down.
Yes! That’s the one I’m talking about.
To me, often times a woman laying down looks like landscapes, hills, valleys and sand dunes. Some place I want to vacation to.
You contributed to the erotic anthology Dark Eros when you were 23. You were quoted as saying: “I only feel erotic when I’m breathing.” You’re 37 now. Do you still feel that way?
Very much so.
And what does that mean?
Eroticism to me is you owning up to the fact that you are very sensual and connected to a world.
I live to really experience life. I want to feel it. I want to smell it I want to hear it. There is certain eroticism to being open and being connected to what’s happening.
Click Here for Part 2. Khali talks about living on the road and how he finds his models.
You MUST visit Saddi Khali's work on Facebook, websites Saddi Khali and Saddirotica and follow him on Twitter.
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