Nish Nalbandian


What is your background?

I’m a documentary and editorial portrait photographer. I’m relatively new at this, and still learning from my more experienced colleagues.

What kind of photography do you most identify with?

I love documentary portraiture and good storytelling documentary work.

Explain your style in 100 words

Meaningful portraiture on location telling the story of the subject, and hopefully the context of their environment.

How did your style change over time?

I changed subjects. I wanted to photograph in a bigger milieu, not just my own little world. I switched my focus from aesthetics to a focus on what was happening in other parts of the world.

What photograph left a lasting impression on you and why?

A few really got me interested in documentary work. Nachtwey’s Hutu Man attacked with Machete, Salgado’s Serra Pelado Gold Mine Workers vs Military police, and a few others really caught my attention. Finally, a photograph of my grandfather in his French Armenian Legion Uniform in 1916 really got me thinking.

When did you discover your passion for photography?

I took up photography as a hobby in the mid-2000’s. I just loved making pictures of my friends. But I really got into it when I committed to making photographs every day on a long motorcycle trip with some friends.

Describe a real-life situation that inspired you?

When I’m faced with the suffering of other people, people facing hardship, tragedy, conflict, and life after conflict I am inspired or compelled to listen to their stories and share the images I make with the world. When I first started doing this I realized that this was the right path for me to be on. It may be cliche, but there is a place for the documentary photographer or photojournalist to share the voice of people who are not being heard.

What’s your most embarrassing moment related to photography?

I’m constantly embarrassed by my past work. I think that I’m a decent photographer, but then I’ll start looking at the work that others are doing and realize how much further I want to go. I’m also constantly reinventing the wheel since I’m self-taught and came at this later in life without schooling in it. I’m a little embarrassed when younger photographers know simple things that I am just discovering.

What jobs have you done other than being a photographer?

I’ve had lots of other jobs, but this is my second real career and my first one that seems a real fit for me. I was sort of a serial entrepreneur, but all the businesses I started ended up losing their allure after I got into them. Only one was really financially successful (a chain of pet care facilities), but even that didn’t keep me in it. Photography allows me to be an entrepreneur, but the ‘product’ is something that I would make for myself anyway,

What is your dream project?

That’s hard to answer, there are so many things I”d like to work on. My first thought is that I’d love to do a project in a post-war Syria, portraits of people and their stories. But that’s not likely to happen soon… If I could have the grant to pursue anything I wanted, I’d do a documentary and portrait project about regular people living in conflict zones and trying to continue their daily lives, in a few different conflicts, showing the similarities rather than the differences.

Name 5 photographers who have inspired you

Nachtwey, Salgado, Eugene W. Smith, Gene Richards, Mary Ellen Mark, and Annie Leibowitz.

What would you do without photography?

I’d struggle to find a way to have an artistic or aesthetic expression, and contribute and connect to the world bigger than myself.

How do you know when a body of work is finished?

Man, I haven’t figured that out yet. For now, I’m learning to start new projects.

Is there one photograph of yours that you are very proud of? Why?

Yeah, I made a photograph of a family displaced by fighting in Aleppo that really realized my photographic vision for the project. But more than that, it took a lot of commitment and work to execute, and most important, I feel like I showed the world something about them and what was happening there at the time. I’m proud not just of the photo but of the connection that I made with the people there that allowed me to get such an intimate look into the lives of these people, that they would trust me to make this picture and show them with dignity and respect.

What is your most important gadget? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?

Fast prime lenses and remote triggers for off camera flash on location.

How did you start taking pictures? Why do you take pictures?

I started taking pictures with a point and shoot and found myself interested in taking more. Now I do it because I love it. It’s a convergence between just finding something that I like to do, a finding a voice inside myself that I want to express, and finding a way to do both of those things, but subordinate them to the voices of the people I am taking pictures of. It’s tremendously satisfying when it comes together.

What was your first camera?

I started with a point and shoot, then got a canon rebel, and worked my way through to the pro models.

What camera do you use now and why?

I use different cameras for different projects. My main bag is packed with a Canon 5D Mark III and a Sony A7RII. These are great cameras for documentary or photojournalism. My portrait kit includes a Pentax 645Z and a Mamiya RZ67, for portraits, there’s nothing like medium format.

What role does the photographer have in society?

There’s such a wide range of photography that it’s hard to say. For example, I’m not really up on art photography so I can’t speak to its role in society. But editorially we still live in an image-driven media universe. There is such a huge demand for images out there. The problem is that having a camera is being mistaken for being a photographer, and the value of the photographer can be diminished by this mistaken emphasis on the tool rather than the photographer who has a vision.

You can find out more about Nish here.