Millzero Nishan: photographer-cum-artist on a social mission

When Ali Nishan — known by his pet name of Millzero — joined the mandatory military service after his O-Levels in the late 1990s, he straight away applied to be placed in the photography division of the Maldives armed forces. But after three months of initial military training, his superiors rejected his offer and instead assigned him to the communications department. They did not see him creative enough!

But even then, Nishan knew he did not belong there. Ever since he got exposed to a friend’s camera — a one-megapixel shooter — during his school days, he had not been able to let go of his new found passion for photography. So, with the salary from his first month of service in the National Security Service (NSS) — now known as Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) — Nishan bought his very first camera; an entry-level two-megapixel Olympus camera.

A photo taken by Nishan shows a man cruising a stretch of crystal clear waters of a Maldivian lagoon on a traditional Dhoni.

Armed with a camera of his own, Nishan went on to take photos of almost everything that he came across in his free time and as his primary hobby. From the extraordinary transformation of capital Male from an island to an urban population centre and the lifestyle changes that came along became the subject of his photos.

“I did my A-Levels privately while still working at NSS. But after three years, I resigned and joined the Environment Research Centre as a Research Assistant. While working there, I got a scholarship to pursue higher education in biotechnology in India. But I had to come back to Male after a few months in India because there were some issues with the scholarship,” explains Nishan.

He resumed his work at the Environment Research Centre, travelling to islands across the archipelago to document the Maldives’ terrestrial biodiversity such as the insects, birds, animals and plants that form part of the country’s identity. The unspoilt natural beauty he discovered in the islands was a contrast from the radically transforming capital city and it soon became his inspiration. His passion and inspiration kept him going, but he was not paid after he returned from India because he was still considered a scholarship student.

“I was running short on cash and I had no income except the little I earned from the few projects I took on in my free time. That’s when I started taking up wedding shoots,” says Nishan.

From a wedding shoot done by Nishan.

The self-taught photographer has over the past 10 years established himself as the go-to-guy for wedding and portrait photography. Locals and visitors alike avail the services of his own wedding photography service, Island Cupids. He is known for the unique personal touch he applies to every photograph he takes — a feature he proudly attributes to the personal relationship he forms with each and every client. As he puts it, every couple that he works with is a subject of study.

But even when he started his wedding photography career, Nishan had a grand vision. He knew he was destined to be not just a photographer, but more of a storyteller. And so he joined Haveeru Daily, the country’s longest serving newspaper and largest private media organisation, as a photojournalist in 2006.

Nishan’s photojournalism work at Haveeru Daily was the catalyst that launched him on the local and international media scene. With the most experienced team of writers and journalists in the country, Nishan documented a wide range of events; from breaking news events such as protests, fires and unusual deaths to music concerts attended by local and international celebrities.

A portrait of local actress Mariyam Azza done by Nishan.

Many of his photos have been featured in exhibitions held in the Maldives, including the 2009 Hay Festival, a 2011 biodiversity expo and a 2012 Japan-Maldives contemporary art festival, and in high-end resorts such as JA Manafaru (formerly Waldorf Astoria – The Beach House at Manafaru Maldives) and Bandos Maldives. They have also crossed the shores of Maldives, reaching far corners of the world through his association with Thomson Reuters, the Associated Press and various UN agencies. From New Delhi to Tokyo to Copenhagen to New Haven, Nishan’s work has come to signify the many environmental and social challenges facing the Maldives.

“My biggest accomplishment is the trust everyone in this community has in me. I think it’s because of the integrity I have maintained over the years. I don’t take my work lightly. That’s why I have taken copyright issues with international organisations as well and won many of them. I take pride in it,” he says.

“If I take up a project, I make sure that I deliver. I have failed several times. I have had several hardships. But I took lessons from each of those experiences and made myself better. That’s my strength.”

A photo taken by Nishan shows a defining characteristic of Maldivian lifestyle; travelling by boat on rough seas.

There certainly is no photographer in the Maldives more revered and trusted than Nishan. But he does not identify himself as a photographer anymore. He is, as he describes himself, an artist with a social mission.

True to that identity, Nishan has already sprung into action. He has launched a Facebook page in collaboration with a group of friends to create public awareness about health and medical issues, and has taken several projects — commercial and voluntary — to create visual materials, including photos and video spots, aimed at increasing public awareness about health issues and the importance of staying fit and healthy.

Despite being trained in photography, when it comes to his social mission, Nishan does not care if it is photography or videography. Be it a photo, a video spot, a graphic or even a much complicated and complex art installation, he employs his creative skills to create a compelling piece of art that speaks volumes and helps in better conveying the intended message to the target audience — a vital characteristic of any good marketing or social campaign.

“About two years back, I had the chance to travel to an island with a team from SHE [Society for Health Education; a non-profit that promotes health awareness] on an awareness mission. That and several subsequent work with such people have exposed me to healthy habits and also to other modern concepts like gender equality,” Nishan recalls his inspiration for social work, which has led him to participate and conduct workshops and training programmes on photography in metro and rural communities, promoting it as an important tool of communication amongst isolated island communities.

We have all heard the phrase, “a photograph speaks a thousand words.” Isn’t it possible, then, to present a a kind of message that gets ignored almost always within those one thousand words? Nishan took on that challenge and made it his life’s work. With several ideas to expand and diversify his social work from health awareness to include cultural preservation and revival, this is a young artist who is on a mission with photography as his tool.

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