Merdad Shojaei knew by the time he was 10 years old that he wanted to be a photographer, but, like many parents around the world, his parents wanted him to be a doctor. He went to high school and medical school in Iran. “I didn’t have a chance to work on my passion,” says Shojaei, who practiced medicine in Iran.
Iran is thought of as an arid and lifeless country, and it is scientifically proven to be the hottest place in the world, but Shojaei remembers the flowers, trees and birds. “We have all types of weather,” Shojaei says. “We traveled during the summer to the Caspian sea through roads lined with trees, like here.”
After practicing medicine in Iran for ten years, he decided he would move to the US, knowing he would have to get retrained and get a residency. He had a cousin in Georgia, and then he took his residency in New York.
Visits to the Pacific Northwest stayed in his mind, and he moved over to work at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center ten years ago when they were trying to build up the program with surgeons and doctors of internal medicine. He became a hospitalist, caring for patients who have been admitted to the hospital from the emergency room. He finds the work worthwhile, but stressful, noisy and demanding.
Shojaei found a release from his stress through photography. “I found Ridgefield. It just attracted me.” Now he can be found for hours at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, usually in his car. The photographers there use their cars like a blind. “If you see a bird you can park your car and just wait for action.”
The “action” is just observing the birds in their natural habitat. Shojaei is respectful. He practices a philosophy of being in the birds’ world, rather than the birds being in his world. “You don’t want to scare them or invade their privacy,” Shojaei says, adding that he learned this philosophy from books and other birders.
He bought his first camera in 2010. When he started, he didn’t know about cameras or photography or birds. Now he owns three DSLRs, one with a 600 millimeter telephoto lens. He learned his four tenets of photography — light, luck, proximity and direction — from the internet, books, other birders and experience. Over the years he’s found himself deleting photos he previously thought were good, his standards rising. And he’s learned about birds from books, but also from a lot of respectful observation.
He showed his photographs to co-workers, and one day a co-worker offered to buy one. That surprised him, but gave him an idea. He walked down 4th Street in Camas and stopped at the Camas Gallery. He talked to the co-owner of the gallery, Marquita Call, and asked her to try and sell one of his photos. He told her he didn’t care for what price. She agreed, and only a few days later it sold. She asked for another one.
Sometime later there was a fundraiser through Legacy. He went there with four photos and sold three. “After that, I thought, ‘It feels good for me to do that.’” And he continues to donate his photography. “If I hear about auctions or fundraising, I donate.”
The act of giving has settled into his mind, and an idea is forming. He hasn’t worked out the details yet, but he would “like to make a community, a group in the medical field who are artists.” The idea is to present and donate their work so that art can actively help in healing.
“I know people in my hospital who do painting and photography, and they are great,” Shojaei says confidently. He’s updating his website to reflect this goal. “I want them to like to use their art for medical research.” There’s no telling how much could get done with the power of medicine and art.
Shojaei says fall is a good time to photograph birds. “Lots of birds are coming from Alaska and Canada.” Shojaei takes special notice of the intimate scenes he observes of the birds’ lives, such as when a Canada Goose mother was guiding her group of goslings into the water, and the slow one, the one limping, required her to circle back and stand beside it to protect it.
The American Bittern is “beautifully camouflaged,” admires Shojae. Not just in its coloration, but when it’s in a bush and feels danger, it will straighten its neck and move with the wind, as if the neck is just another branch.
Sometimes he is able to capture the vignettes he observes. He has one photo of Canada Geese goslings, all sleeping so peacefully, while the mother is wide-eyed, alert and on guard, like mothers of all species all over the world.
When he finds a good subject, he may take 50 to 100 photos. Then he takes them home and deletes any that are blurred or not in the right position. The next step is to pull them into Lightroom, a program that allows him to adjust the exposure, shadow and highlights. Unlike PhotoShop, it doesn’t add or remove anything from the photo, so his goal is to capture the shot at the scene.
His medical career has informed his photography in that he knows that nothing comes easily. “You always have to be patient and work hard.” His photography aids his medical career in that he enjoys the silence at those times in the field. “It makes me a more tuned person for my next round of shift.”
Shojaei doesn’t plan to end either pursuit. “I’m a doctor, but I use my art for patient care.”