Clara Mokri, a second-year documentary student at Berkeley Journalism, has been selected as this year’s recipient of the fifth Jim Marshall Fellowship for photojournalism.
The fund was created in 2015 after an exhibit of Marshall’s work at the School’s Reva and David Logan Gallery of Documentary Photography. Named after renowned photographer Jim Marshall, the fellowship provides financial support to aspiring photographers. Funding was provided by former reporter and legendary ad-man Jeff Goodby, San Francisco-based photographer and Marshall’s long-time assistant and heir Amelia Davis, and other individual donors.
The 23-year old Los Angeles native was about five when she first started playing around with a disposable camera given to her by her dad, who is a Hollywood cinematographer. “I was taking pictures of literally everything that I thought looked cool to me as a kid,” Mokri says.
But there was a deeply personal reason behind Mokri’s hankering to take pictures that prompted her to capture moments of her family’s life during her teenage years. Mokri’s grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which made her realize the importance of the seemingly mundane task of documenting everyday life through photography.
“Ever since we found out that he had Alzheimers, I kept thinking about the fragility of our memories. One day, perhaps photographs and videos might be all we have left,” she explains.
Recruited to Yale to play Division I basketball before her senior year of high school, Mokri, who speaks three languages, had almost no energy for her longtime hobby in the first years of college. Working towards her degree and constantly training left her little time to pursue anything beyond basketball. After a few years of playing, she resolved to retire from sports. Although quitting basketball was one of the hardest decisions in her life, it also opened up new opportunities allowing her to take photography classes and pursue personal projects.
With a few documentary photography essays under her belt, Mokri landed an internship as a photo editor at Vice while still in college — where she studied under investigative journalist Bob Woodward — and joined the photo team of TIME Magazine after graduating from Yale in 2018.
“Clara is incredibly passionate about her photography. Her way of seeing light and composition is very powerful and she is a great editor. She’s like a star on fire,” said Ken Light, Berkeley Journalism’s Logan professor of photography. “Very innovative and self-starting, she really pushes herself hard. Clara was a photo editor at TIME Magazine and she found that passion of wanting to be on the other side, and the idea of editing other people’s work pushed her to realize she wanted to make more pictures herself.”
Mokri’s work has since appeared in Surfer Magazine, Vice, TIME Magazine, and Sports Illustrated. In 2019, her photograph from the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York was featured in TIME’s Best Photojournalism of 2019. In 2020, she received an invitation to the prestigious Eddie Adams Workshop, honoring the country’s most talented young photographers.
When asked about her first reaction upon receiving the scholarship, Mokri says she couldn’t contain her excitement: “I was really happy to get it. I think I most likely cursed when I found out,” she laughs. “It is a huge honor.”
Mokri describes her style as a synthesis between fine art and documentary. “My background in political science and journalism has definitely shaped my vision. I am trying to incorporate fine art and documentary into my photographic style and tell stories that are both informative and descriptive, but also consist of images that can stand alone as works of art,” she says.
The themes of race and ethnic identity have been driving Mokri’s work since college, because as a child of Indonesian and Iranian parents, she saw a dearth of reporting on marginalized groups. She sees her mission to capture imagery of underreported communities “on the fringe of society” — whether they be racial or ethnic minorities, oppressed, or living in remote areas — to “give them a voice and tell their stories.”
Mokri is currently working on a personal project, “Cherry Rice” (a wordplay on the Westernized version of a traditional Iranian dish, albaloo polo, made of rice and sour cherries), that explores the concept of American identity and what it means to her immigrant family. She came up with the idea while sheltering in place with her family in L.A. Mokri photographed her father and other family members who were born in Iran and later became American citizens.
“The photographs of my family show traces of American and Iranian identity based on cultural relics, like a hijab or cowboy hat,” explains Mokri. “It’s a commentary on what it means to be American for those who, like my dad, have decided to become American and were not born into it.”
In her second semester at Berkeley Journalism, Mokri received the $4,000 Dorothea Lange Fellowship, a campus-wide award for outstanding work in documentary photography. If not for COVID, she would be using her fellowship award to travel to Indonesia to shoot a story on how the Western tourism industry contributes to persisting colonialism in the country.
Despite her international projects being put on hold, Mokri is sanguine about working on local stories. “There are so many underreported communities in our own country. Photographing and reporting in the U.S. is important because there’s so much to be told,” Mokri says.
–Victoria Dmitrieva (’21)
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