No longer are marginalised groups waiting to be seen: they’re creating communities and taking up space for themselves. AZEEMA magazine, only in its third year, has helped Jameela Elfaki to engage with her community not just through print but by creating intimate experiences designed to bring people together – whether that's through modest life drawing at a V&A Friday late, Eid parties or fire DJ workshops. To mark the re-release of the Nike Air Max Verona we chatted with the photographer, art director and founder of AZEEMA about being a young creative and what community means to her.
Jameela's best achievement for AZEEMA magazine isn’t something tangible. "It's more of a feeling," she says. "We've done so many amazing shoots, so many different trips, so many projects and there's highs and lows." But at its core, "it's the feeling of the joy when I see other people enjoying what we have made, or done for the community."
The English-Sudanese photographer started the annual print magazine while studying at university. Her portraits, which have a granular quality you can only get from film, often centre women of colour and manage to be both soft and deeply personal, with the subjects staring boldly straight down the lens. "I feel like that’s what’s missing in the fashion and media industry," she says, "correct representation of women from the Middle East, north Africa and south Asia."
Jameela now has a team of five, which she says is full of "community spirit and happiness". They are: senior editor, Noor Alabdulbaqi, who Jameela met online; deputy editor, Sunayah Arshad, Jameela’s flatmate; Evar Hussayni, culture editor, who connected with Jameela at a panel talk; and Ella Lucia, fashion editor-at-large, who previously worked with Jameela as a stylist on photo shoots. "Instagram is really kind of how it all started," says Jameela – harnessing social media and digital spaces to find like-minded people.
AZEEMA's "for us, by us" attitude helps not only to archive the stories of womxn in its community but demonstrates that they are far from a monolith. Each annual edition adopts a new theme; the third issue was all about movement, "and it was like, every sense of the word. So migration, dance – it could be anything like that, it was really beautiful," Jameela says. By absorbing what’s happening around them as a collective, the team comes up with a topic that’s broad yet relatable.
They were just about to start working on issue four of AZEEMA when the lockdown hit. As the creative industries altered, things had to change. "We can't physically shoot any of the things that we need to shoot," she explains. Across the world, the pandemic has brought a loss of jobs and projects but in these unprecedented times, creatives like Jameela are finding new ways to get work done.
Jameela identified Nowruz, which marks the Persian new year and the start of spring and is celebrated across the Middle East and beyond, as an opportunity to bring her community together. She reached out to people online for their positive affirmations and resolutions, which will be incorporated alongside poems into a handmade zine. "We can't physically make the next issue of the magazine right now. I can do this and, you know, do something positive and reflecting."
Click to see Jameela’s self-shot film about the project below:
The magazine is still run without an office space and with no major funding – a credit to the team’s work ethic but something Jameela notes as a hurdle. "All of this has been self-funded from the very beginning," she explains. With their fourth print on the way, it seems hard to fathom. "None of us were born with a silver spoon, so we can’t just afford to put in our own money," she adds. "Nobody actually sees how much work and how much stress goes into it."
In some ways, it’s encouraging to know that a big, shiny office and a giant team aren’t required to make a splash in the media industry – it’s the people who count. "We've been operating from a flat covered in boxes of fabric," she laughs. "You have to do what you have to do."
For many of us, our home spaces have become our working environments, but this is something Jameela has been juggling since long before the lockdown. "You're literally surrounded by things all the time so it's quite hard to switch off," she adds. "It’s hard to separate your personal life from your work." Playing for her football team every week is her way to unwind and offers the ideal balance of community, sport and being out in the fresh air. "I’m missing them a lot at the moment, not being able to go play," she says.
Community means family, "or extended family," Jameela adds. "And if you’re a creative yearning to find that team, support system, or just a group of friends on the same wave, Instagram is really good for finding like-minded people." She and the team behind AZEEMA are proof that all you need is an idea, passion and a group of compatible people who believe in it.