Maha, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I grew up in Saudi Arabia in a science-focused family and I was expected to concentrate my energy on and succeed in the sciences. After I graduated high school with a science concentration, I moved to California to start college at 17. That was quite the transition. English, being my second language, made my first English class, Shakespearean Drama, very interesting… and by that, I mean difficult. My second year, I got into drawing and ceramics and much to my parents’ chagrin, I fell in love with the arts. To be able to create with my hands and translate my vision into something tangible I could share with others was exhilarating. From that point on, I knew I wanted to create. My parents disapproved of my becoming an artist, so I looked into architecture, which seemed like a good mix of creativity and problem-solving. This educational pursuit/compromise satisfied my family and led me to fall in love with architecture and how spaces influenced experiences. After receiving my degree, I worked as an architectural designer for ten years, starting in San Francisco and then moving to San Diego in 2007.
In March of 2010, I summed up the courage to leave the corporate world and I embarked on the journey of entrepreneurship. After the economic crash, the design field as a whole shifted from what it once was. I found myself working in a male-dominated industry on jobs that lacked creativity. If I knew anything, it was that I needed return to the arts, and I therefore decided to start my own female-run photography studio with my vision at the helm. Starting my own photography business was daunting and scary, but I needed to take control of my destiny.
Utilizing my knowledge, love, and enthusiasm for architecture, art, and travel, I pursued the most unique projects and tracked down awe-inspiring locations for shoots. At the outset of my journey of starting my business, studio MAHA, I dove into Nature, Landscape and Travel photography. Chasing adventure, unique structures, and capturing the remote and unknown is what excited me, pushing me to wake up at 3:00 am to catch the northern lights in Iceland, or off-road for eight hours in a sedan to make sure I get the moon rise over Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. Through the years, I decided to reconnect with my roots and shifted my practice to focus on architectural, interior, and product photography services.
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Life is a roller coaster that took me to incredible highs and not-so-fun lows. Not much more than a year ago I had to rebuild my entire studio from scratch. After two weeks of road tripping in the summer of 2017, I woke up to a balmy sunrise at Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah. As I climbed out of my tent, wiping the night from my eyes, I checked my phone and saw I had a voicemail, “Hey… Maha.. um… water… everywhere… OUR STUDIO IS FLOODED!… everything is destroyed…“. At 7 AM, a construction crew broke the city water main in Little Italy, San Diego and as the mosquitoes churned around my ankles I learned all of my equipment (and livelihood) were now under four feet of water.
In this flood, I lost my entire studio and much more: multiple camera bodies, lenses, lighting equipment, external drives, and many pieces of artwork I had collected over years along with my art supplies. I felt powerless. This was not a new feeling, but one of aching familiarity. Working in a male-dominated field, and growing up in Saudi Arabia as a woman not directly from that country, I knew this feeling too deeply in my bones. As moving to the United States in 1998 was a fresh start for me and my family, this was to be a time of reinvention as well. I had to start over again, but not without lots of love and support from the amazing community I had built in San Diego.
Please tell us about studio MAHA.
My photography studio concentrates on architectural, product, and portraiture photography. As a brand, I would have to say I am most proud of the relationships I have developed throughout the years and the community I have been able to surround myself with. I have worked for everything from large international companies to small, solo operations and I am mostly known in San Diego for my architectural photography. As every project is individual and unique, it is my job to see what is easily overlooked and to find the beauty in all the details.
Everyone has a camera on them at all times today and therefore love to question whether professional photography is dead or relevant. Yes, your phone can take a decent picture. But with a culture that views over 5000 advertisements a day and is conditioned to pattern recognition via content scrolling, decent doesn’t cut it. My knowledge of architectural design and years of experience as a professional photographer have afforded me the ability to capture images that stand out from the pack.
Who have you been inspired by?
This is a grand question… I have not had the luxury to have female mentors in my field. Therefore, I have sought inspiration from my female friends and colleagues who are some of the most hardworking and focused people I know. First off, my two sisters have always had the most incredible work ethic, setting an example for me of what it takes to create your own success. I am also thankful for my dear friend Magdalena Kubik, a fabulous designer who has had my back through thick and thin and has always been my biggest supporter. She inspires me with her positive outlook on life and how she relentlessly sees the best in people. I admire Anna Roland, another friend, and fellow entrepreneur, whose thirst to see the world and all it has to offer is almost unmatched. Stacy Keck, who is already a well-known lifestyle and event photographer, and who doesn’t stop growing and fostering communities. On top of her photography business, she amazingly just co-founded You Belong Here, a collaborative work and event space for urban creatives.
These women are my rock. They, amongst many others, are strong, creative, motivated and just incredibly inspirational women.