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Engineer-turned-photographer Ali Ghorbani: “Evolve or perish”

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After snapping the fall of the Berlin Wall, the World Cup and the Olympics, Hongkonger Ali Ghorbani tells us how he finally ‘evolved’ from an engineer into a professional photographer

Founder of Ali G Studios, Ali Ghorbani

“You’re investing in your own happiness. You can’t argue with that,” says 43-year-old photographer Ali Ghorbani as he describes the moment he realised that, after a 19-year-long love affair with living life through a camera lens as an amateur, he didn’t want to be an engineer any more – he wanted to finally become a professional photographer. Nineteen years may sound like a long time coming but, for someone who has endured a war, moved countries and explored different careers, transforming a hobby into a career is easier said than done.

Ghorbani, who runs Ali G Studios – no, not that Ali G – is holding a workshop at theDesk co-working and events space in Sai Wan on the subject of mobile photography on Thursday June 29. Ahead of the big event, he tells us how he decided to eventually take the road less travelled when it comes to his career. Ghorbani was born in Iran and lived through a revolution and war. So his family soon moved to England and, later, France until finally arriving in the United States two years later. He was in sixth grade then. “It’s where dreams can come true,” he says, “and the USA still is that place, I believe.”

“There were soldiers behind holes in the wall in East Germany, posing for photos. I decided to focus on the people, their emotions and the details. And that made the foundation of what my photography is today.”

After learning English from scratch, Ghorbani’s family decided to make a home in the USA and applied for a green card. The final interview took place in Berlin in December 1989, when the Soviet Union was on the tail end of collapsing and the Berlin Wall fell. It was then that his uncle handed him a 35mm camera to record the historic event. Armed with ‘a hammer and a camera’, he tells us: “There were soldiers behind holes in the wall in East Germany, posing for photos. There was so much to photograph. So I decided to focus on the people, their emotions and the details. And that made the foundation of what my photography is today.”

There are two things that Ghorbani took from Germany: a chunk of the Berlin Wall and an enduring love for taking pictures. From then on, his life would continue to be dotted with serendipitous encounters that proved the transformative power of photography. While studying engineering at Clemson University in South Carolina, USA, he managed to get a job as an usher at the 1994 World Cup, held in Washington DC that year. A huge fan of football, especially of the Brazilian team, Ghorbani took his trusty 35mm with him and took photos that he would end up cherishing forever.

Later, during the 1996 Summer Olympics held in Atlanta, USA, Ghorbani managed to get a job as ‘sports information supervisor for football’, arranging security and transport for high-profile athletes in the Olympic Village. Through that job, he was able to photograph the greats, like American basketball icon and commentator Charles Barkley and, most importantly to him, ‘Legends of Brazilian football’, including Ronaldo.

Photo by by Ali Ghorbani

After all that amateur photography, Ghorbani went on an academic exchange in Brazil. Here, he took an album of his photographs wherever he went. He didn’t speak Portuguese but he ‘made a lot of friends easily’. He knew those snaps would ‘put him in a good light’. He tells us: “It was life-changing. Everyone recognised the athletes, their national heroes, in my photos. That’s when I realised the power of photography.” Transformed but not quite yet convinced, Ghorbani toyed with becoming a professional photographer but decided instead to begin a career as a telecommunications engineer and transferred to Hong Kong after being accepted for a job in our city.

That was 2001 and the telecommunications bubble had just burst. Knowing he wanted to stay in ‘cosmopolitan’ Hong Kong, Ghorbani decided to set up shop in the 852 and ’make the next thing in his life’. It was now that he started a career in photography, right? Wrong. Instead, he established a trading company, selling chicken feet from Brazil to firms in mainland China. Seriously. And when the 2008 recession hit, he tells us: “I had to ask myself, what is the legacy I want to leave behind?” And that’s when it finally began to gel.

Howard MacCrary by Ali Ghorbani

With the help of a couple of Fortress gift certificates and a nice letter from an encouraging house guest, Ghorbani finally decided to invest in a professional Nikon camera. “You can’t argue with investing in your own happiness,” he tells us. And, from there, deciding that his ‘hobby needed to pay for itself’, he began to insert himself into nightclubs in Hong Kong, taking photos of live music events and high-profile performers, including jazz great Howard McCrary. Finally, the important question was popped: “How much do you charge?” And the rest is history. You can’t really escape from kismet.

Robert DeNiro by Ali Ghorbani

Today, as head of Ali G Studios, Ghorbani specialises in portraits, weddings for HK’s elite and VIP events. Along the way, he was fortunate enough to meet his mentor, Henry Dallal, the portrait photographer of Her Majesty the Queen of England. These experiences led him to photograph Oscar-winning Hollywood legends Robert De Niro, Kevin Spacey and Shirley MacLaine. He also takes time to cultivate passion projects, creating artistic portraits dancers, artists and musicians in his spare time. He believes it’s important, even when your passion is already your work, ‘to do things that keep you on your toes’. “If you don’t do personal projects, then everything in your commercial work will start to look the same,” he says. And as a stalwart of the Western District, there’s no shortage of sights to snap in his area. “There is so much flavour that still exists here,” he says. “I want to help build and preserve our own community.”

Photo by Ali Ghorbani

Ghorbani gets his drive from the constant challenge and reward of being able to realise what’s in his ‘mind’s eye’. He encourages young photographers to shoot what they’re really passionate about, and work for what they enjoy. “If I keep doing that,” he says, “I can evolve, rather than perish.” And here at theDesk, we couldn’t agree more. He’s right: ‘evolve or perish’. Speak to this inspirational entrepreneur and photographer on June 29 to find out how you can take your first step in pursuing your passions.

By Grace Fung

Ali Ghorbani, in brief:
Name: Ali Ghorbani
Business: Ali G Studios
Position: Founder and director of photography
Age: 43
From: IranTo attend Ghorbani’s mobile photography workshop at theDesk on Thursday June 29, between 7pm and 9pm, RSVP below or visit alig.eventbrite.hk. To find out more about his photography, head to his website at aligstudios.com.

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