Artist of the Month: Dahlia Dandashi
is a creative director, producer, and photographer based in Houston, Texas. Her upbringing in both Texas and Dubai influences her worldview and her approach to her art – her use of personal memories in the images she creates marks Dahlia’s work with a secret profundity that still presents as aesthetic to the onlooker. Dahlia and I met at Tasty Spoon in Austin after she had finished photographing a doula conference for an Austin-local organization, Boss Babes. We had a passionate conversation about unpaid internships, hot yoga, and learning to value your work.
Dahlia: I’m just going to take my shoes off. My feet hurt! We’ve just been standing all day…since like six-o-clock!
Jason: Do you get to do stuff like this often? Getting gigs to take photos?
D: Yeah, it really started in college, after I finished school. I worked a really boring nine-to-five. I decided, “I’m not doing this anymore.” So I quit that. It was to the point where I was working a nine-to-five, but after five o’clock I was shooting photos and doing creative direction so it was exhausting. It felt more like I was working a nine-to-twelve almost every other day.
I love doing the work but it’s just mentally and physically exhausting working for that long. Coming home from work and not even cooking yourself dinner, or going to the gym, because you have to go edit, you know what I mean? I get to do what I want now, but it wasn’t like that at first.
J: And you were writing before, right?
D: Yeah, so I went to UT for journalism. I don’t even think I really wanted to do that, I just love to write so it was sort of just the path that fell into my lap. In my junior year of college, I felt a little bit of a shift in what I wanted to do so I did the Business Foundations program at UT to expose myself more to branding and marketing.
I felt more in place, but then my senior year, I felt more like I had made a mistake with [choosing my major] so I started to intern at places that were more flexible. It felt like a career change. I had been writing for a company and then I started doing social media and marketing too. I would say that my skill set came from the fact that I studied journalism and the fact that I was a writer, but I don’t think that being a writer is necessarily who I am or what I do anymore, by any means.
J: You feel that your skillset as a write helped you be a better content manager?
D: Totally. For me at least. To be able to write articles. Honestly, also to be able to write a lot of bullshit. I’m a really good bullshitter because of what I studied and I’m not saying that to be cocky, but I learned how to format what I write for whatever I need to format it for. So that definitely helped. When I got the chance to apply my skills to help companies and brands, it became more fun for me than working in a newsroom and reporting on the news.
J: So you don’t see yourself going back to the newsroom?
D: I don’t see myself ever going back to the newsroom. I felt really trapped, encapsulating myself in a little box. I don’t have it all figured out right now, but I grew up being discouraged from having a creative career by my family. I know it’s just because what they wanted what was best for me. I still don’t think they really get what I do.
I want to empower women, people of color, and people from where I am from - my family is Arab - to pursue creative careers because you can do it and you can succeed. That’s really my biggest thing right now. I try to work with people who are people of color, or women, or non-binary… these things are very important to me! You don’t have to do the cookie-cutter thing. I was taught that the only things you could do were to become a doctor, go to law school, or be an engineer. And I took the LSAT, I did it! (laughs) But I was like “Why the hell am I doing this?” I didn’t feel like I was helping people or expressing myself in the best way in the newsroom. I feel that now, that path that I’m on is much more of what I want to do and represent.
Before, I was working because I needed a job and journalism was what I studied in school. I realized that what you study doesn’t mean shit! I feel like I’m doing myself a favor and I feel like I’m doing other people a favor. Not like I’m a savior or anything…it’s just, you know, people like my younger sister, other people who are close to me who feel like you can’t make money doing creative things.
D: It’s not about [money]! Do it because you love it! Because you want to influence people, and work with people, and collaborate with people. For me, personally, I feel the most empowered when I get to work with other who have a similar creative vision. I’ve only been able to do that after I quit my job that I was stuck in and after I started to reach out to people. After people started to reach out to me! It’s so cool when it happens it feels like “Oh! That’s why I do this!” It took me a long time to realize that.
J: It’s exciting that you are there, though!
D: Yeah! And I would say that what I’m doing right now is what I would want to do forever. I like freelancing, but it’s not steady enough for me as a person. I need a bit more stability. But I think it was a good segue from quitting my job into figuring who I am as a person, figuring out what I like, and figuring out what the next thing will be!
J: You were saying that your family is Arab, were they born overseas? Were you born overseas?
D: Yeah, my parents were born overseas and my Dad moved here when he was very young. The war was going on in Lebanon. I was born here, but I grew up in the Middle East so I’ve always felt…I still feel that a lot of my work has to do with my identity. I never felt American enough or Arab enough, even though I spoke the language and I lived there. I felt I was seen as an outsider. I’ve always been proud of where I came from, but there’s definitely a recent shift in my work [toward Arab identity]. I can literally see it and feel it. The colors that I use represent me as a person. I’m very colorful, with the things that I wear. I grew up on a beach, everything was colorful - my Mom was colorful, she used to wear these bright oranges - things from my childhood have bled into my work. I think there was a bit of a disconnect for a few years, but it all came back to me once I left college. I sort of fell back into it. I don’t think I realized how important being Arab was to me until the last couple of years.
I lived in Dubai for so long, and when I moved to Texas, I hated it. I didn’t fit in. I didn’t understand it and I didn’t like being here. I fell into a slump for a really long time, but when I came out of it, I met a lot of really amazing people. I realized there are a lot of people like me. There are a lot of people here in the U.S. who weren’t born here, or maybe if they were, their parents weren’t born here…or maybe you were born in another country, then you moved here, then you grew up somewhere else - this made me want to embrace my Arab-ness and show it in my work. I think identity changes and it continues to evolve, but for me, this has been the first couple of steps.
I embrace where I am from now...I used to shy away from it. (laughs) Austin is a really liberal place! I live in Houston now, Houston is a really liberal place, but at the same time you worry about how people look at you and what they think of you. I’ve been to places where the things that people had to say about where I’m from aren’t nice. My Mom, she’s Syrian. What do you hear about Syrians on TV? On Twitter? These conversations are showing up in my work whether I want them to or not. Maybe not so explicitly, it’s not like I’m putting a Syrian flag up in my pictures.
J: I feel like a major theme for you is taking time to focus to realize yourself. How important do you think focus or meditation is to a creative?
D: So…I’m obsessed with hot yoga.
D: That sounds so Austin of me, but I didn’t really get into it until I moved to Houston.
J: Because the city of Houston is just one big hot yoga session?
D: Literally, it’s hot yoga! (laughs)
I think that Austin was the kickstart for me, but it’s not for me in the long run. The things I’m supposed to do in the future are on a bigger scale. Not that there’s anything wrong with Austin, I love it here, but my focus has broadened. I’m trying to influence people overseas – from where I’m and from and from where I grew up. It’s obvious that my work is very conceptual. I’ll go out to shoot, just to shoot, but If I’m shooting that way, I’ll take my film camera. If I have a conceptual idea, I’ll plan it out on a mood board. I pick the colors, I pick the clothes, I pick the location…It sounds extensive, and crazy and obsessive, but it’s what I do. The shoots don’t last long; the shoots are what I spend the least amount of time on.
I’ll just get ideas while I’m out, like, “Damn that’s a really cool color green, what can I do with that?” or “This hookah thing that I’m smoking out of really reminds me of my Mom, how can I work that into my photography or my writing?”
So focus is really important for me, but it’s not necessarily in the action, so much as it is in the planning part. And that’s not necessarily for everybody, that’s just for me because I’m a very conceptual thinker. I don’t really go on a shoot unless I have that planned out. And as I said, that’s probably crazy, but that’s the result I want. That’s the feeling and mood and emotion I want to capture and share with people.
If you want to lead a creative career, you have to let go and do whatever you want and experimenting is a big thing. Find out what your focus is.
Even If you just post a picture on Instagram, people feel it, and people can feel whether you’re genuine or whether you’re just bullshitting. That’s a big thing for me now too, being able to identify people you really want to work with. People who have your vision and agree with your beliefs and also identifying people who don’t. I don’t work with people anymore who want to social climb, I really care about who I work with now.
J: I see! So you feel like you’ve found your passion now with photography – do you think that might ever change?
D: That’s a good question. Photography is something that I’ve always loved, from a young age. Writing too, but writing was too constricting. I write a lot of poetry and prose and I love that, but words on a page don’t give me the same satisfaction as taking photos. And taking photos was the first step. I do my own creative direction, production, editing, photography, it’s not just that I take photos, although I think that’s great. I do everything else too because I understand my vision the best. When I was in college I didn’t know what creative direction was. I didn’t know what being a creative meant to me.
The path that I’m going on, I don’t think that there is a real title for me in terms of a career. I know I’m all over the place, I’ve accepted it, it’s fine. (laughs)
D: I love creative direction, but I’ll get bored of that. I’ll get bored of photography. I love working with fonts, I love copywriting, but I’ll get bored of that. I like to do a conglomerate of things. If I’m evolving, I think it will be more like “How can I use my photography in a different way? How can I use these colors in a different way? Can I apply this work to help people?” Rather than “I’m giving up photography or creative direction”, if that makes sense.
J: For sure. I get that. And you’ve said you’re evolving and changing as an artist but there may not be that complementary puzzle piece in terms of a career that fits you just perfectly. Does that make you feel discouraged? Do you feel like you’ll be able to carve your own lane?
D: I will say it’s discouraging a lot of the time because you have to pay rent, you have to eat, you have to survive. Money is important in this life, I’m not going to say it’s not. But I think that you can make it work. You can work a job that pays you a lot of money instead but you may be unhappy. Or eventually you’ll start to sort of drift toward what you really want to do. It’s about finding a balance. You have to make sure you like your job, maybe you’re not in love with it, but you’re taking enough time on the side to do something you love. And maybe make money from it!
I’m not saying you should do things for money, but once you’ve established yourself and you’re good enough, why shouldn’t people pay you for your services? I used to do free work all the time. Then I realized that A, people take advantage of you and B, if they really want your work, they will pay for your services. Once you do value your work, things will really start to fall into place. Even if it’s in an abstract way. Even if it doesn’t happen instantly.
J: That’s hopeful!
D: It is! My god, when I graduated college, I had no idea what I was going to do. I was working two internships. I moved home, it was awful. It was only after I finally got a job and realized how much I hated it that I felt challenged to go make time for what I really love. I’m not saying it’s the route for everyone, but that was really my push – doing what I hated. Once something becomes stale and and you aren’t passionate about it, try something else. I’m not telling you to quit your job and get the hell out! (laughs) Just make time for what you are passionate about.
J: There’s been a lot of talk lately about the values and injustices of unpaid internships. Do you have any thoughts about unpaid internships?
D: I did a lot of unpaid internships, don’t get me wrong! (laughs) If you are looking at it as an opportunity to learn something, I would say try it, but don’t burn yourself out. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get a job, and no guarantee that you’ll feel like you’ve used your time wisely. I don’t regret the unpaid internships I’ve worked. They gave me really good experience – some more than others. But now I’m at a point where if you aren’t paying me, you are wasting my time. A lot of times you get taken advantage of in the creative industry or in the media industry. If you don’t really care about your internship and you’re doing it so that it looks good on a resume, you should tap out.
J: You mentioned that you write poetry and prose and you also mentioned that you are from Lebanon – Kahlil Gibran fan by any chance?
D: (laughs) Yes, of course! So my poetry stuff… the reason I got into writing...I was obsessed with Sylvia Plath. I was obsessed with writing songs – AKA the songs were garbage. They weren’t good.
D: But the poetry is why I learned journalism. I never wanted to be a journalist. I don’t want to be a journalist. But I loved writing. I loved reading. I was reading poetry, I was reading books.
As I got older I started reading more Arabic poetry. Nizar Qabbani, a Syrian poet, was a big influence on me. His work pushed me to keep writing. I published my own mini-zine on identity. It was called “Short but not Sweet. It was just me presenting myself, as a woman and as a creative – really digging things from the ground, pushing them up and throwing them in your face. Things that I had kept hidden for so long. Pablo Neruda was a big influence on me as well. I was reading these poets at a time when I was young and very confused. These writers sort of put me in the right place. I’m not a poet, I’m not a writer, but a lot of times I’ll write a poem to go with a photo. Or I’ll write a poem first then shoot a photo to go with it. I’ll be like “Shit, everything is connected! This always happens to me!” (laughs)
Jason parked in that one parking spot even though his girlfriend told him not to and got a parking ticket because of it. You can follow him on Instagram, @jas.ikp. Dahlia is a creative director, producer, and photographer. You can follow her on Instagram, @dahliadandashi. Photos by Eileen @theoctopi.