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Reframing Identity: Capturing the Essence of American Muslim Life through Photography


Editor’s This article is a part of CNN Style’s ongoing series Hyphenated, which delves into the multifaceted nature of identity among marginalized communities in the United States. In the vivid frames captured by British artist Mahtab Hussain, the essence of American Muslim life unfolds. Julo, with his tie-dye shirt and dreadlocks, gazes confidently at the lens, while Abdul exudes style in low-waisted jeans and a fur scarf. Candace’s platinum hair contrasts sharply against her black shirt as she rocks a pair of Nike Air Jordans. These individuals represent just a few of the diverse faces showcased in Hussain’s ongoing photography series titled “Muslims in America.”

Reflecting on his journey, Hussain shares, “I grew up always being told that Islam is a way of life, but I didn’t really know what that meant. But going to the US and meeting all these communities, people from all walks of life, all over the world, it’s really interesting how this Islam fits in with the culture.” Through his lens, Hussain weaves together a tapestry of identities, shedding light on a community often overlooked in mainstream narratives.

Despite comprising a significant portion of the population, Muslims in the US are frequently misrepresented or absent from cultural conversations. The Pew Research Center estimated in 2017 that there were 3.45 million Muslims in the US, a number projected to rise to 8.1 million by 2050. However, Muslim representation in media remains scant. According to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, only 1% of speaking characters in 200 popular TV shows across the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand were Muslim. Moreover, depictions of Muslims in films often perpetuate harmful stereotypes, with nearly 40% of primary and secondary Muslim characters portrayed as perpetrators of violence.

Actor and producer Riz Ahmed highlights the consequential impact of such misrepresentations, noting, “The representation of Muslims on screen feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded.” In response, initiatives like “The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion” advocate for increased Muslim representation in TV and film as a means to combat anti-Muslim hate, erasure, and stereotypes. Through Hussain’s photography and the voices advocating for change, the narrative of American Muslims is being reshaped, challenging misconceptions and amplifying diverse stories of identity and belonging.

Born in Glasgow to first-generation immigrants from Kashmir and Pakistan, Hussain felt a profound urge to challenge the prevalent misconceptions surrounding Muslims in America, particularly in the wake of heightened Islamophobia following the 9/11 attacks. Initiated in 2021, two decades after the tragic event, his project serves as a visual commemoration from a different angle. Reflecting on the aftermath of 9/11, Hussain recalls how many individuals in both the US and the UK retreated into fear, wary of being identified as Muslim. "The religion was hijacked, their narrative was completely hijacked, a lot of interesting filmmakers, musicians and cultural creatives stopped," he remarked. "But in the last 20 years, I’ve seen a new wave of pride emerge about being Muslim.

Venturing into cities like New York, LA, Baltimore, and Toronto, Canada, Hussain has meticulously documented a diverse array of subjects. Some respond to open casting calls, while others catch his eye as he navigates city streets on his bike. The diversity he encounters is striking, with individuals donning hijabs and kufi hats alongside those clad in tank tops, hoodies, cargo pants, and mini skirts. Hussain, a British Pakistani Muslim himself, notes the pronounced diversity within the American Muslim community compared to Britain. "The major difference is diversity. I’ve met people from all over the world in the US who are Muslim: Palestinians, people from all over Africa. LA has one of the largest Iranian populations. It’s not the same in Britain.

The resulting portfolio is a tapestry of humanity, capturing individuals of varied ages, ethnicities, and sartorial choices. Some are veiled, while others proudly display their tattoos and skin. Beyond challenging visual stereotypes of American Muslims, Hussain provides a platform for his subjects to articulate their own experiences. Through transcribed interviews accompanying the images, they delve into nuanced topics such as navigating the intersection of American culture and Islamic faith. For some women, the decision to wear a hijab is a poignant contemplation, while others grapple with the stigma of modest dressing in a Western context.

Hussain emphasizes that his work is not about imposing a narrative but rather amplifying the voices and experiences of the community. "There’s no narrative that I’m trying to push through," he asserts. "It’s about what the community is saying, and who these people are. That’s how I’ve always made my work." Through his lens, Hussain illuminates the complexity and diversity of American Muslim identities, challenging stereotypes and offering a platform for authentic representation and dialogue.

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In conclusion, Mahtab Hussain's photography series serves as a powerful testament to the diverse and evolving nature of American Muslim identity. Through his lens, he challenges stereotypes and amplifies the voices of individuals often marginalized in mainstream narratives. As he continues his journey, Hussain remains committed to capturing the complexities of Muslim life, from the streets of New York to the politically charged atmosphere of Dearborn, Michigan. Despite the challenges and discrimination faced by Muslims in the US, Hussain's work offers a beacon of hope, fostering understanding and empathy while celebrating the richness of diversity. With each photograph, he brings us closer to a more inclusive and compassionate society.