You know those people you meet and you have an instant connection with? They vibe at the exact same frequency as you, there’s no weird bumps or miscommunication. It’s just effortless. That is Jenna Masoud in a nutshell. She’s creative, intelligent and has instant command of a room as soon as she walks in it. Jenna is an unstoppable force and a New York native who recently graduated from Brooklyn College where she majored in film. She began posting videos to Vine (RIP) and where she gained a significant following and friend group, which is incidentally how we met. Her work has always had a sense of modern-day nostalgia, almost giving you a feeling of being homesick for a place you’ve never visited before. Whether it was her meticulous stop-motion videos that she’d create on Vine or her stunning melancholic film photographs, Jenna has a very clear vision in her work and- as we learned- an even more clear vision of herself.
Ailish and I met up with her while we were in Brooklyn for Afropunk. Brandishing four different cameras ( a mix of film and digital ) Jenna took some gorgeous photos of us and did an excellent job making us feel incredibly comfortable despite the fact that we felt goofy and awkward, to begin with. After an hour or so into shooting, we began to finally feel good in our own skin which was completely Jenna’s doing.
Captivated by her, we interviewed her about everything – from her favorite cameras to shoot with to what it’s like being a woman of color in this industry, the concept of a “hyphenated identity” and even how Instagram is never something to look down upon.
Moist Queef: So how did you begin this interest with photography? You mentioned something about your dad being a person who started this love?
Jenna Masoud: Well, I grew up around my dad’s cameras. It allowed me to play around with the cameras first before I even understood the concept of photography. My dad had a Bolex, which intrigued me before I was even aware that I wanted to go to film school. I was just constantly surrounded by cameras. I almost feel as if I got into photography backward in a sense. I started out fascinated with film cameras before I even found out their function. I was completely thrown into it, but by the time I was around 16/17 years old I was getting booked pretty regularly. Family events, engagements. It was kind of amazing being trusted with such big events.
MQ: We’re so impressed that you brought four cameras to our shoot! Do you tend to bring multiple cameras to every shoot, including your film cameras?
JM: Well the community that I primarily shoot with – the Arab community – tends to not always appreciate the art of photography. They see me more there to “document” as opposed to creating, which of course kills me a little. But I’ll bring my film camera and sneak in a couple of portraits I know that they will appreciate. If it’s a portrait shoot, it’s usually no less than 3 cameras. But events I always tend to digital.
MQ: What are your top favorite three cameras to bring to shoots?
JM: My go tos are definitely my Canon A1, Rolleiflex medium format, and my digital.
MQ: Speaking of film cameras, I noticed that you have more of a melancholic nostalgic look to your photography. But because the shots themselves are so modern, it can almost be jarring which makes them interesting. Is that intentional?
JM: I felt that happened accidentally. I used to watch other photographers and would notice their coherency and found that I didn’t have one. It honestly wasn’t until recently when I finally revamped my entire website that I noticed I had an aesthetic the entire time, which was encouraging to have it happen so naturally. As if it was an actual expression of myself, not something curated. As for the nostalgic aspect of it, I think there’s a sense of forced nostalgia because of the film aspect of it. Film just gives you a certain warmth, a certain comfort, that is impossible to mimic. There was a point that I didn’t want to do photography anymore because I found that people who shoot only digitally tend to be editors over being photographers. I used to look at my digital photos and wonder what was wrong with them and why they look nothing like other professional photographers. I was giving myself such a hard time until it finally dawned on me – I’m just not an editor. Because of this mentality, people are chasing the gear as opposed to relying on their own creativity to create something beautiful. So yeah – I appreciate film more. I’m going to make sure each picture counts. My quality has changed significantly because I don’t have the option to value quantity. I found that walking around with my eye in the camera has allowed me to be constantly aware of a shot, until I see a frame that I like. I’ve done it for up to an hour until I find the perfect frame.
( Jenna documenting what camera took what photo by starting each roll with a mirror photo)
Whereas with my digital I would have hit 1000 before I took the shot. I appreciate my composition, my lighting, my models significantly more. My editing comes from behind the lens as opposed to on a computer. I am humbled by film slowing down my process.
MQ: Well how would you say being a POC has influenced your eye or your experience in the photography world?
JM: I definitely felt growing up that I couldn’t express myself as a woman of color. I honestly never considered myself a POC until recently. I would always say to my classmates in high school “Middle Easterners are Caucasian” “We don’t speak Arabic at home, only English! My parents were born and raised here, I’m second generation!” I was so proud of my American heritage – which I still am – but I was proud because of the way it would dominate my Palestinian heritage. That was until about a year or two ago, I found old videos of myself when I was maybe 2 or 3 years old, and I was completely fluent in Arabic. I had been under the impression that English was my first language so it was shocking to see myself more fluent in Arabic than I am now. Plus there was also such vibrant culture in that old video which is a stark contrast to now where we are fully modern. This completely sent me into a depression. I wanted everything to slow down for a moment because I felt like I had lost all of these years that needed to be cherished, almost as if I had felt that I had missed out on opportunities.
So I made a complete 180. I focused intensely on getting back to my roots, learning how to cook Arabic dishes, learning new instruments. It’s just such an intense transition from being like “Oh I could totally pass for white if I didn’t have this scarf! My name is Jenna and my skin is paler, I was born with blonde hair and blue eyes!” I was so ready to embody being white, but I finally realized that I don’t want to throw away my culture. I felt like I had been brainwashed, and I noticed that translating in my work. It was seriously lacking anything that reflected my Palestinian heritage. I was shying away from cultural identity in my work, and now that is my goal.
( from Jenna’s shoot – “ Muslim Girl”)
I have a hyphenated identity. I was trying to identify as an American but truthfully, I am just as Palestinian as American. I’m so excited to bring out all these voices especially since hijab fashion is at an all-time high right now. My community has so many advantages, I’m able to make it so much farther because of that.
MQ: Have you ever felt affected by being a woman in the photographer world?
JM: Oh absolutely. Starting off I was so uncomfortable telling models what to do. I think that’s because inherently as women we are afraid to take up space at all times. I would gently ask them to do things but in return, I would hate the photos that came out because I was too afraid to demand anything. You’re also just not taken seriously as a woman. In film school, I would be in a group with multiple guys from film school and I had to constantly prove I knew what I was doing, that I knew how to shoot, how to set up lighting etc. They would CONSTANTLY challenge me or try to counter me and I was always right. If I ever pointed something out, it would be “Oh here she goes again, being bitchy/demanding/picky”. And I found myself constantly apologizing for MY IDEAS, which was insane. It took so long to drop the “nagging female” trope I had internalized in my head because at the end of the day my ideas were just better.
MQ: What are some of the biggest challenges you feel that you have faced outside of the gender/racial bias?
JM: Definitely myself. I’ll get compliments, but I still go home and just hate everything I’ve created. I do have to deal with pretty crippling anxiety which plays a huge part in it. But then I post them on Instagram and it gets such an incredible reaction. While I hate that there’s a part of me that enjoys the validation of the internet it’s encouraging to keep going to know people are enjoying what I’m putting out there.
( From Jenna’s series of self portraits demonstrating what living with anxiety feels like )
MQ: Yeah! Art is meant to be experienced by others honestly, or else you’re just in a vacuum of your own thoughts.
JM: Exactly. It’s a way to combat this naturally negative outlook I have on my work. If I don’t post something that I’m proud of, or I don’t think anything is good enough it completely sparks a depressive cycle of just insecurity and feeling horrible about myself. I have such high highs and such low lows. When I finished a film, I was working on in film school I found myself in a heavy depression. It wasn’t until I got to see it on the big screen and it got such an amazing reaction that I was able to snap out of it. It’s constantly about forcing myself to share and to allow myself to get a reaction. Even on Vine people would mock others for getting validation from strangers. It’s not something I need, but it’s amazing to get such support through strangers especially when dealing with such self-doubt and anxiety. It’s less validation and more reaffirmation.
MQ: Sorry to make a pun here, but yeah. It’s just not that “black and white”
JM: Definitely, before I started creating my own vision I would create solely for the sake of getting likes. Even on Vine I found myself doing that at times, but as soon as Vine died I realized I had taken full advantage of an opportunity to find out what my vision really looked like. And it transformed to me just posting whatever I want. I just realized how much more people were open to my voice as opposed to what was mainstream.
MQ: So on that note, what kind of role does social media tend to play for you?
JM: Oh absolutely a positive one. People constantly put it down, but it’s such a creative world that has unlimited uses. The amount of friends I’ve made, the amount of jobs I have, I have friends literally everywhere. Just the idea that I can travel the world and have friends everywhere is outstanding to me. Everyone is so welcoming right off the bat. All of my film school friends didn’t have Instagram or social media because they felt they were too good for it which blows my mind! It’s SUCH a creative platform that’s perfect for creative types! Social media is the new networking, you gain nothing by looking down on it. It’s creating such a different atmosphere when you meet up with your internet/Vine friends because you’re talking about things you all know you already care about and care for.
( Dear Ears; a band that originated on Vine, photographed by Jenna )
Whereas I’d talk to my film school friends about making a Vine and they’d roll their eyes and go “ there she goes again” and I’d be like “ Well why aren’t you?”
I was completely coined as “ the Viner” and people made fun of me for it but here I am with an actual career in photography because of how seriously I took social media. I will always advocate for it, there’s bad in everything and there’s good in everything. It all depends on how you take it.
Jenna took some incredible photos of us which we’ve curated into a series which you can find here