Episode Description

Professional photographer Tom Toby recounts his story of creating a documentary photography project that evolved into capturing 114,000 portraits of the religious pilgrimage Karbala in Iraq. 

You can follow Tom’s stunning array of photography work on Facebook and his via his portfolio Website

Produced by Aamon Sayed. Aamon has worked within the Social Work sector since 2012. His work experience adds sensitivity to interviews to create them in a culturally safe setting. As a podcast producer, Aamon explores the human condition, and how to make the world a more positive place through his podcast series AddLOVE. 


Note: This transcript is automatically generated and may contain errors.

Aamon Sayed
My name is Aamon Sayed and welcome to another episode of the Stories of Community Resilience Podcast by 3ZZZ. On this
episode of the show, I’ll be speaking with Tom about his experience of resilience and in particular what it’s like to be a career artist
and photographer. Before I start, I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and recognize that as we capture stories
here today, the Indigenous people have been storytelling on this land for thousands of years. It always was and always will be
Aboriginal land. Welcome, Tom.

Tom Toby
Hey man, how are you?

Aamon Sayed
I am great. Thank you for coming in today. We definitely have had a long history. Before we started recording we were talking about
you were actually my photography teacher when I didn’t know the difference between shutter speed and aperture.

Tom Toby
Should I apologize for that?

Aamon Sayed
[laughter] No. No, not at all. Not at all. One of the things I mentioned to you before and I’ve always had respect for is artists who make, uh, like, who are able to get to the point where they’re making a living off their art. I feel like the art, and in this case, photography needs to be of a specific calibre for someone to be able to do that full time. And and people who do that I have a lot of respect for because it means they’ve done a lot of unseen work to get their art to a specific point. So I guess I’d like to start just by understanding the journey as an artist into photography, and then perhaps we’ll move to the importance of Islamic and cultural art.

Tom Toby
The fact that you can’t see me – It might sound a bit unusual if I say to you that my journey started in ’99. It’s a while ago. My appreciation for photography came about by sheer fluke, really. I was what you call a wandering student. I really just didn’t have any direction, any aim. I discovered photography, through an exhibition by a guy called Robert Mapplethorpe, who was one of my photographic heroes. Through that exhibition, I decided that I wanted to study this and for the first time in my life, I felt direction, I felt purpose. I took that journey and I studied and I worked, and I found that the, the best way to actually get an
understanding of what it is to be in the field is to actually work for somebody who is brilliant and I was very lucky to do that. And I and I sort of dedicated my entire time. I would literally be the first guy in the studio and the last guy out. Uh, in some projects I would
actually sleep in the studio because I knew the next morning was going to be, you know, very, very important.

Tom Toby
So for me it became a dedication. Whether or not I was going to make money from it, I simply didn’t know. All I knew is, was that I had to take that path and take that journey and then see where it took me. And I discovered very quickly that, no, I mean, you can make a living from it. It’s a very, very tough living. It’s not you’re not sort of swimming in money, but certainly you’re given a creative
outpouring that you can monetize, especially in the commercial advertising space, which is where I sort of resided for quite a long
time. So for me in, in that space I was able to help, whether they be companies or products or people work out exactly how we could
best represent them in photographic imagery. And that became a sort of very technical component of my work. I developed a really
great understanding of what it was to compile and to understand and interpret a brief. From that point it was, it became very
successful very quickly.

Aamon Sayed
Some of the, the work that I’ve seen, I actually own some of your work actually. You have these really beautiful, vivid images of the
ones that I have are of Lebanon and Karbala. So, maybe we can start by talking about the transition from something like commercial
and product photography into something like more culturally and religiously important.

Tom Toby

Absolutely. I think the most important thing to, to get into or delve into, first of all, is that I had my own personal awakening. What I’m
about to say to some people might sound very extreme or very divisive, but it’s actually not because anything that I say is revolves
around my understanding of my world, uh, of the world and your experience and my experience. So, you know, I would say that I am
a very proud and staunch internal Shia Muslim. What does that mean to everybody else and how I communicate with the rest of the
world? Absolutely nothing. I mean, to me, I am a Muslim first and foremost. And to me, you cannot be a good Muslim and dislike or
hate anybody. It’s about inclusion. It’s about love and togetherness and justice. I mean, I was listening to your introduction and that
that wonderful recognition of our indigenous brothers and sisters. I mean, that to me is at the very heart of being a muslim, you know,
in my experience. So for me, I wanted to I had discovered this this amazing pilgrimage that happens in Iraq every single year. And it’s
been happening for 1400 years. And when I first heard about it, I thought, this can’t be true, this cannot be true. But I was told that
somewhere in the vicinity of about 20 million people walk from a place called Najaf in Iraq to a place called Karbala in Iraq, 89km in
total. And hang on a minute. 20 million people will do it at the one time. And I thought to myself, that can’t be true. I mean, can you
imagine the population of Australia walking from central Sydney, from the CBD to Kiama? All at the one time. It just boggles the mind. So I thought, no, that certainly can’t possibly be true and I need to learn a bit more about this. So I started frequenting a, um, an Islamic Center down in Kogarah called the Al-Jaafaria. You can imagine I was like the outsider there. Nobody knew who I was, you know, And they were all sort of looking at me weird, you know, ‘Who is this guy? Where did he come from?’ And then they started talking to me. ‘And what do you do? Tom?’ “Well, actually, I’m a I’m a high fashion photographer” ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ Right. I mean. Well, I’ve starting to have this, religious awakening, this cultural awakening. I really sort of want to know more about who I am. So after a long while, we started talking about this concept of Karbala. And I had no idea what that was about. So and I, I think it’s probably a bit too deep and meaningful to get into now. So we’ll, we’ll sort of skim, skim past all of that. But I learnt about this Arba’een pilgrimage and one of the guys actually said, “Well, why don’t you go and do the pilgrimage and take photos and we can do a documentary there?” And I looked at them, I said, Great, this sounds like a wonderful idea. How many of you guys have got documentary experience? “Oh, none of us.” Okay, um, “do you guys own any gear?” “No, no, no. But we can get some.” I’m like, these guys are. But they did. They. They went out, We got all this gear together, and before we knew it, 2014. Two weeks before Christmas we land in Najaf.

Aamon Sayed
And this is the first time you’ve gone First time you’re also like doing the whole logistical thing of, like, preparing for this.

Tom Toby
The thing is, I thought I was prepared. Oh, I had no idea. No idea. So we land and the first thing we needed to get was a a vendor’s
trolley. You know, the ones where they sell the fruit and vegetables off. We needed one of those because we had so much gear
worth of gear loaded all the gear on and literally pushed it for 89km. Right now, I don’t know about you, but I hadn’t walked 89km in all of my life. Collectively.

Aamon Sayed
Several, several ultra marathons back to back.

Tom Toby
I’m talking all of my life collectively. I’d never walked 89km. And here I was about to, you know, walk this 89km. And it was the most
life altering experience I’d ever had in my life. I mean, I saw children walking. I saw elderly and by the elderly, I’m talking 80s walking
men, women. Every possible walk of life. We’re on this thing and I’m thinking, I really, really want to document this. And at the time,
we sort of went in with a bit of a free for all idea, just capture what you can capture. But over the years, and I went every year from
2014 to 2019 and then Covid. God bless it. Put a stop to everything for a couple of years. But by the time 2016 came around, I made
it my mission. So I guess I got to give it a little bit of background between Najaf and Karbala. On that road there were stalls and those
stalls are literally shoulder to shoulder all the way up for 89km. They’re run by the locals. They’re completely free. So you can get
food, you can get water, you can get shelter, you can get a massage. You can whatever it whatever it takes to get you through that walk. They will do for you and it’s all for free. And I thought and that’s called a mockup. And I thought, I want to set up a mockup, but I can’t take any food and water or anything like that. I’m going to set up a photography studio. So 2016, I set up a photography studio and people would come as they’re walking. I’d stop them, I’d take their portrait, I’d give them a card and I’d say, Right, give me a
couple of months and you can have your photo off my Facebook account. And there were people taking their photos from all over the world. Right. So since 2016 till. So between 2016 and 2019, I shot 114,000 portraits.

Aamon Sayed
I just got goosebumps.

Tom Toby
So there’s this incredible body of work. Which I think today may or may not make a difference to somebody. But I think in a hundred
years time this will be.

Aamon Sayed
It’s that’s documentation. Absolutely.

Tom Toby
So now the thing that sort of irked me about the whole project and this was a big concern for me was that we had to keep going back
to the community with our hands out and saying, Can somebody fund this place? Can somebody fund it? So we raised about
$150,000 in three weeks. Which I thought was amazing. The people were incredibly generous. In fact, I just want to share a really,
really quick story with you. Yeah. A guy owns a chicken shop. Down in Rockdale. I rang him up, I said, “Hajj I’d like to come and see
you. We need some help.” He said, “Yeah, come and see me.” So we went down there. We walked in and I said, “Can we just have a
couple of minutes of your time?” He said, Yeah, yeah. So we sat down and I explained to him the project. So there was an exhibition,
a book and the documentary. That we had to put together. I said, Look, anything you can help with would be fantastic. He said, look.
So he pulls out his checkbook. He writes a check out, folds it, gives it to us. And of course, you don’t want to be impolite.

Tom Toby
You don’t open. Yeah, Yeah. So I just kept it closed. And I walked out and I walked out and thanked him and walked out. And I
opened it up and it was $5,000. And I thought, wow, I was expecting about 500 bucks, you know? So I said to the guy with me, his
name is Sayed Hamid, one of my dearest friends. I said, Look, man, I want to go back and thank this guy. This is this is huge. We
walk in and there’s this guy sitting in the back corner of his restaurant crying. Crying. Sobbing. And I walked up and I just put my hand on his shoulder and I said, “Hajj I just want to thank you. I mean, we weren’t expecting this.” And he just looked at me and he said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” I said, What are you talking about? He said, “My God, this is such an important project. And all I was able to give you was $5,000.” And I just stood there and started crying. I didn’t know what to say. I mean, he wanted to give more.
I said, “You’ve done your bit. Thank you very, very much.” So we put this project together and then at the end of 2015. The project
finished. It was called The Heaven to Heaven Project, but I just couldn’t stop there. It was driving me mad. I had to keep going. So a friend of mine that I’ve known since my university days came up to me and he said. Verbatim. “You guys are idiots.” I said, Why? He
said, “You don’t know what you’ve got.” He said, “You can use these images now. And instead of taking money from the community
to do the project, you can start funding the community.” Mm hmm. I said, What are you talking about? He said, We’ll print them. You
sell them and whatever print money that you make from it, you give to the to the organizations and Islamic charities all over the.
Since 2016, under the guidance of Hajj Abdullah, we raised $1 million for Australian, for Sydney based charities alone. So we’ve now turned this project whereby we, we take these images. When I was at university I actually was an auctioneer to get myself through
through uni. Again. The fact that you can’t see me is a very, very good thing because –

Aamon Sayed
Well, people. Yeah. We’re going to take your portrait very soon.
Tom Toby
Well, God help you. But yeah, I’m a handy auctioneer and I’m very loud and I’m very gruff, and I don’t think I’ve ever been very subtle
in all of my life. So we we hold these exhibitions and auctions and. All we do is we take out the cost of the printing. We take out about
10% just to keep our project running and everything else goes to that charity. We did one that was really interesting actually. We
did one, during Muharram last year. The organization was very scared because they’re like they’re not sure if the community
is going to take it on board, you know? I said, “Look, man, it’s not costing you anything. We don’t take any money up front. We take
all the stuff there. Whatever sells, sells, whatever doesn’t. We take back.” 32 minutes. And the reason why I know that is because I’ve
got the video of it. 32 minutes raised, $84,000 by selling these prints. So we print them to the best possible quality they’re all printed on on acrylic glass, museum grade. Amazing stuff. And that’s been our existence. So it’s funny that when you were talking about monetizing and actually making a living from it. Well, by the grace of God, we’ve now taken it to a level where, we
do make a living from it and we have to, but –

Aamon Sayed

It’s more than that. It’s, it’s I see that it’s more than that. There’s a, there’s an element of like not only are you funding like your, like
your living, but you’re funding like the community you’re giving back to.

Tom Toby

I mean, I’m a big believer in none of us do anything really God. I think God provides us sustenance for us all. But in his grace and in
his mercy, he says to us, I’ll enable you to feel like you’re doing something so that I can give you a great reward. And I think that’s part of God’s mercy. You know, the money that goes to these centers, it’s not coming from me and it’s not coming from any particular individual. But God has enabled us to do these things so that we can get a little bit out of it. Now, I don’t want to get all religious and what have you, but these are my callings. This is what I find. So it. It’s been a real privilege over these years.

Aamon Sayed
Tom, thank you so much. That was an amazing story. I wasn’t expecting. I’ve known you for a long time and I know how how detailed and powerful some of the stories that you tell about. I wasn’t expecting that. It was beautiful. So thank you so much. And I hope that you are able to continue not only continuing the work that you’re doing, but also like to grow that and, you know, become more refined in in the way you do things.

Tom Toby
And I tell you, I have to really pay tribute to what you’re doing, man. I think this is such an important project, and the opportunity to sit
with you today is a real privilege for me. So thank you very much.
Aamon Sayed
Thank you, Tom.


To share your story, fill out the Expression of Interest form below, or email [email protected]