From escaping the 1979 Iranian Revolution, to photographing the fall of the Berlin Wall, and narrowly avoiding having Shirley MacLaine “beat the shit out of him”, Ali Ghorbani has lived a life typified by conflict.
Now one of Hong Kong’s most sought after freelance photographers, he has worked his way up from the world’s bottom rung to find himself snapping the likes of the Ho tycoons, Fan Bing Bing, Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves.
Born in Iran during the throes of the 1979 revolution, Ghorbani boasts a beginning that is perhaps more humble than any Hollywood success story. Memories of his youth are darkened by confusing images of rationing, demonstrations, burning cars and tanks, sirens and bomb shelters.
As horrific as this surely was, Ali found a way to cope thanks to the ignorant innocence of childhood.
“The war for me, sadly to say, became like a game. I was so young and when we heard these sirens, I would pretend that I was a soldier. The lights would be out, and I’d be crawling on my belly going near the windows to see the flashes in the sky because you could hear the anti-aircraft missiles trying to hit the Iraqi airplanes,” Ali tells Coconuts Hong Kong.
Fearing their son could end up just another child martyr in the minefields, Ghorbani’s parents escaped to England in pursuit of safety and peace, with the eventual aim of seeking asylum in the United States.
Despite the absence of missiles and mines, however, it was in England that Ali found himself facing a different kind of struggle.
“I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know why it was raining all the time, I didn’t know what people were saying, and I didn’t even know how to spell my name in the language.”
From England, the family shifted to France before their final migration to the USA, the land of opportunities. Despite his parents’ excitement at finally reaching their destination, Ali recalls the anxiety he felt at the prospect of once again having to adjust to a new culture and language.
“I started to ask myself ‘Why is this happening? How do I cope?’ There was a lot of internal stress that kept building up.”
But forging alliances with other migrants and putting all his efforts into excelling at English, Ali adapted as best he could. Little did he know that this final unwanted move was to spark the start of his relationship with photography.
In a clear-cut case of the right-time and the right-place, the Ghorbanis were sent to Berlin for their Green Card interviews in December 1989 – the same time the Berlin Wall was being dismantled from both sides. Armed with a 35mm film camera (a brand new present from his uncle) in one hand, and a hammer in the other, Ali took pictures of history unfolding and became a part of it himself.
“I was overwhelmed by all these emotions. You have sound, noise blasting, you have people crying, people kissing the wall, people kissing the ground, people hugging each other, people smiling, people laughing. And there were holes in the wall through which you could see the East German Guards posing like a football team while people on this side were taking photos.”
“It was impossible to capture everything in one frame, so I tried to concentrate on the emotions of people, the details of the moment and the experience. And that was the beginning of my photography style.”
It is perhaps this strong connection to the emotion of a moment that has secured Ali a spot taking intimate photos of Hong Kong’s most famous families and made him one of the city’s top wedding photographers.
“The good thing about weddings is that you’re privileged to be the person to capture the most intimate and most special day of a couple. But you have to be at the top of your game. Because, when you show your photos to the couple, you want to see those emotions come out again. When they go through that album and you see them wiping tears, you know you’ve done a good job.”
After first coming to the territory to trade chicken feet (of all things), he set up his brand, Ali G Photography, from absolute scratch, employing a model of perseverance and initiative, no doubt perfected while carving his place as an outsider in the US.
Muscling in on various high-profile events until his work started to get noticed, Ali is a stellar example of a true Hong Kong success story.
Now with countless international stars under his ever-ready shutter finger, Ali laughs as he remembers his favourites. Shah Rukh Khan, the King of Bollywood, was perhaps the most famous in terms of net fan base; drama queen Kevin Spacey was the easiest with his unstoppably expressive face; Victoria Beckham was the hardest with her ‘no-smile’ policy; and Shirley MacLaine was the scariest, having threatened to “beat the shit out of him” when she thought he was a paparazzo. Iranian Revolution or not, that’s a pretty scary prospect.
But no matter how established he becomes in both Hong Kong and his trade, when asked who he wishes he could have photographed, Ali’s answer still harks back to that insecure immigrant searching for acceptance.
“I would love to have photographed Charlie Chaplin,” Ali explains. “I used to watch his films a lot in the US, as you didn’t have to worry about whether you could understand the language or subtitles. These ‘safe movies’ gave me comfort without any speech. You could just watch and be visually immersed and escape from your daily stress and conflicts. [Charlie Chaplin] was also a pioneer in what he did.”
While Ali may have left these uncertain times and the war zone far behind him, he never forgets how different his life might have been. Recalling when the enormity of what he’d escaped first hit him as a young teenager in the US, Ali says:
“I realised that most of my family was still there. And who knew what kind of future they would have? I have cousins who could be drafted in the military, and they go one day and maybe don’t come back the next day.”
“That made me realise that I should be thankful for what I have now – that second opportunity at life. Because I wouldn’t have that opportunity being down there on the front lines.”
We’ve no doubt Ali will continue to capture the world with this lucid sense of passion, appreciation and duty, as his feelings seemed to have altered very little since first receiving that life-changing gift from his uncle.
“That camera to me was the world already.”