Abe Mora is a NZ based photographer who eventually realised his talent in photography while working as a tradesman across the ditch. Abe devotes much of his work to portraiture and travel and considers each moment in photography a time for learning.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what you usually photograph.
I was raised in Whakatane where I attended school until I was of age to do an apprenticeship. For 10 years I was working as a tradesman; 5 of which was spent in Melbourne. I had been a keen photographer in all the years as a tradesman and I would usually spend a lot of my pay buying camera gear to experiment with. When it was time to return home to New Zealand I decided to take the long way home and traveled to 15 countries with the hope of breaking away from being a tradesman to pick up my camera full time.
I returned home with a large collection of images that represented the years of experimenting with my cameras and this really boosted my path in to photography as a possible career. I would receive a lot of comments on my work but I didn’t realise how hard it would be to step away from such a true and safe method of earning money as a tradie and really stepping in to the unknown world of a creative.
It turned out to be that film making was a good way to get started on my photography. I would assist directors on shoots and because of my photography that I put out there. People would put a lot more faith in me then I felt I deserved such as lighting or even technical aspects to operating cameras.
It was my dream to be able to travel with my work and I would wait for opportunities to come and to my amazement they came a lot faster then I anticipated. I was kind of thinking all these creatives I now get to work with would work out I am a fraud but every time they put trust in me they would call me back to do more and more till eventually I even convinced myself I was capable of being a creative and now I have been graced with the presence of some talented people all from taking a risk to try something new.
I still cant believe only a couple years ago I was running a tradesman service in Australia and now I am able to say I have worked with people like Ciara, TLC, Stan Walker and Parris Gobble just to name a few and have now been to 32 countries all in pursuit of something I love.
How did you get into photography?
Since the age of 12 I have been passionate about skate boarding, alongside friends who shared the same interest. With that brought the need to capture the progress of our skills, which was a big deal for us. But we couldn’t afford video cameras, so the next best thing was taking photos. This is where my interest in photography stemmed from.
Skate boarding carries a certain vanity to it and the way it often gets depicted by non skate boarders such as the classic photo on a cereal box of some kid covered head to toe in padding would always bug me because this wasn’t what skate boarding was to me. The timing of the frame was everything and every detail to a skateboarder is crucial such as hands and the way your body is positioned and the board being at the peak of the action I guess you could call it the decisive moment, so when I would take photos of my friends skateboarding I would take it the way I would want to be depicted. I think this process helped me a lot when it came to portraiture.
Skate boarding is where my passion for photography began but I think that grew ten fold during my first trip to a foreign land (Australia not included). When I was 20 I travelled to Japan with my friend Daniel. This was the first time I experienced travel photography and I became hooked.
Your work seems to emphasise a strong focus on portraits and documentary. Is this something that came naturally or did you develop this style over time?
They say you are what you eat, and I guess this has proven to be true with imagery. All the things I photograph are the things i am drawn too. When you first start as a photographer, or any line of work you tend to say yes to everything offered, which doesn’t hurt when you are learning. But in time it is good to learn how to say no, and seek out value in all that you do.
I think the more you learn how to say no, the more you understand what it is you shoot, the more quality your content holds. Take a look at Steve McCurry for instance. His body of work spans across decades, yet you will struggle to know the difference between an image he has taken in 2001 vs 20 years prior. His work consistently holds the same power and quality. You can only achieve this when you know your subject.
Talk about some of the challenges you face when photographing your subjects.
I constantly face challenges in photography and often I am the challenge. Lack of knowledge or preparation could mean I don’t quite get the intended result, which in return pushes me to refine my art and learn all that I can.
Another challenging factor that is beyond my control, is the culture we have towards being photographed in New Zealand. I was in Oman just recently and I would walk in to trade sites, and the only gesture I would give them was raising my camera suggesting that I take their photo with their permission. And to my amazement they would say yes and then pose for me in the most picturesque manner. The word i would use to best describe it was Timeless. But here at home people would usually say no because of the attitude we have developed here towards having our picture taken, and when it is a yes It requires a lot of direction to get your subject to the point where you a willing to push the shutter. I guess it all depends on the intended destination for the image that determines the attitude you hope to receive from the subject you photograph.
There appears to be a real sense of unique cultural identity embedded in much of your work. Do you actively look for this subject matter or is it this simply coincidental?
New Zealand has a large cultural aspect that a lot of people tend to ignore. Lucky for me I was raised around it, so it became part of me. I don’t have any Maori blood in me, but people would usually mistake me for being Maori. This is possibly where the cultural detail in my photography started.
I have always been a fan of Steve McCurry and his body of work, and the idea of shooting for nat geo was such a dream. So naturally this influenced my work and it has become iconic to my own work.
When I photograph people I am also searching for a personal experience. I seek what Maori call 'Mana', and I've always managed to find this in indigenous people.
You have traveled to many picturesque places in the world. How has travel affected the way you perceive the world you photograph?
This has been a blessing and a curse, none of which I would change. But when you get to see as much of the world as I have you become frustrated with little things such as the daily fashion we wear, for instance in Russia the conditions in the winter season are so extreme, that big fury coats, scarves and classy hats are normal. It adds value to a composition. But when I come home to New Zealand, I know people don’t dress like that here so you can’t achieve the same impression. In the same respects, why would you want home to look like the rest of the world?
So it is a blessing because of the diverse subjects I am able to experience, which I don’t believe would be the case if not for my camera. And it is a curse because travel to the other side of the world for a shot that I have in mind is not so easy.
You’ve recently been shooting work featuring some high profile musicians and entertainers. What brought you into that world?
There are a couple factors that brought me in to that world, first was having the desire to do it. When there is a focus, things tend to work out in ways I don’t quite understand or expect.
Shae Stirling is a director/ film maker who specialises in music videos and really is one of the most talented visual artists I know. I would often assist him on his shoots and he would allow me to take photos of who ever the artist was that we were shooting on the day. These images would sometimes become their single covers, or be used for their musical promotion. This helped to build a portfolio to a standard good enough, where artists would approach me personally because they could appreciate my style of shooting.
The other factor that put high profile people in front of my camera was my closest Childhood friend who has a passion for film. He worked for a film company in Hamilton and their main client was Parris Goebel, which is a big name even on the world stage. Because I also do film on top of photography, my friend put my name forward to his boss to accompany Parris and The Royal family (dance crew) on their world tour because no one from the production company could leave home, work and other commitments for 6 weeks. Luckily for me, I was in a good position to go, so I received the call to ask if I could travel with them.
Prior to the world tour, Parris and The RF needed promo photos for the tour, so the owner of Taktix films referred my work to Parris, and mentioned that I was a good photographer. At this stage I hadn’t even met Parris. Not until the day I had to go in to white studios to do the photoshoot. It was all on me at that point. I’m not a studio photographer, and I was about to photograph a person that is Rihanna's go to for choreography, and has worked alongside some of the top current artists in the world. You could bet that I was nervous, but I did it anyway and got 2 full pages in Parris’s book Biography from that shoot, so it all worked out in the end.
I admire the work of Albert Watson and Joey Lawrence and their work is definitely a direction I see myself heading into with celebrity portraiture.
What are some of the different shooting technics you experiment with?
I believe it is important to keep challenging the way you think and see a shot, and there are a few techniques I like to experiment with. Some you may not call techniques but it is part of my process. First is the camera I shoot with. I love shooting with cameras that are terrible in most environments but amazing in a few, i.e. cameras that are bad in low light or slow to shoot , because this forces my hand to become somewhat more focussed on my subject choice.
Second would be lens. Once again I like to limit my choices so i'll usually shoot prime. And if I’m feeling game enough, i'll only take one lens out with me. So if I have a 35mm lens, I only see my compositions as 35mm and no other shot matters at that time. I find a much higher success rate with getting the shot when I give myself less choice and even taking less photos.
Lastly would be what most consider to be a technique. I occasionally do focus stacking to give the image a unique depth. Sometimes i'll take multiple images of the same scene and blend the photo in post, depending on the story I am trying to tell.
Which part of photography do you like best ie. Shooting, editing etc?
I can say without doubt, that I love the shooting process. mostly while doing landscape photography when I am by myself. Landscape photography is a patience game. It's not even about getting the shot for me, more so the process of getting out and doing. Occasionally you find a scene unfold in front of you and having a reliable camera on hand that can do the scene some justice is a big deal for me. I'll often shoot on a tripod because it slows me down and forces me to think about the composition. I find shooting a landscape challenging, If I can go home with one shot that I am happy with, then it is a successful day.
Is there anything that informs your creativity outside of photography?
Travel is a big one, most people have great ideas and often we tend to believe they are better than others. But unless they are put in to action, they have little value. So the art of doing is a key to success. I find travel puts me in a creative position that all the planing in the world can’t compensate for. When Im shooting I am constantly being inspired, and if I’m not inspired then I’m not shooting. Gone are my days of taking thousands of photos in one sitting. Besides event and sports photography overshooting creates a large disconnection from your subject, even if your subject doesn’t even know you exist.
I also enjoy movies. They are a big influence for my creativity. I know how hard it is to express yourself in one image, so I could only imagine how hard it would be to express yourself for 2 hours in cinema. I often break down lighting techniques while watching a movie just to try figure out how they may have achieved it.
As an artist what are there things that you dislike about the photography community/scene?
I haven’t really involved myself enough to find anything to dislike. I’m learning this is a very small industry in New Zealand so you always have to be on your toes. Keeping good relationships is key to success in this country.
What’s your dream project?
Im not too sure whether i've discovered the answer to that one yet. I do want to be far more specific in my subject choice, but I think in time I will discover what, who, why I do that. I imagine it will either involve celebrity portraiture or cultural portraiture.
I am working towards having my own fine art gallery so I guess this is all working towards that.
How has photography influenced the way you fit into the world?
Im hoping my photography is the element that helps me stand out from the world rather then fit in. Photography has endless possibilities, so that should also mean I have endless possibilities too. To be able to answer what those might be, would be impossible. But each Idea executed is a step in the right direction.
It really goes beyond the image when you use photography as a tool for self development. The more refined and masterful your images become, the more refined and masterful you become. well that's the hope anyway.
What kind of gear do you shoot with and why?
i'm currently shooting with a sigma SD H Quattro, not because of its convenience, but because most people that know of this camera, know how many limitations it has. But where it shines, it really does shine. The colour depth and clarity this camera has makes all the draw backs worth while for me. I do believe it is good to experiment with cameras, and in recent years I have owned the Nikon D800, Phase one 25+, Hasselblad H5d 40, and just recently the Hasselblad 500cm. All of which have been amazing. It just keeps things interesting for me.
See more of Abe's work: