“Here you have this group of people, they’re young, they’re female – and it’s hard enough to be young and female – but they’re also Islamic at a time when there has been a lot of hostility towards Muslims.” – Sara Shamsavari
The hijab is a controversial garment. It is seen as a symbol of tradition and modesty to some or oppression and extremism to others – and yet it is just a piece of clothing. Iranian-born photographer, Sara Shamsavari’s art series, London Veil, aims neither to criticize nor advocate the hijab. Rather, through her portraits of young Muslim women in colorful hijabi headscarves, she seeks to emphasize the unique beauty and creativity of these fashionable young women – or hijabistas – and in doing so, lift the veil on the typecast of Muslim women. After a successful exhibition to coincide with International Women’s Day 2013, Sara expanded her reach to photograph young women in Paris and New York. During her recent trip to New York, Mass Appeal sat down with the young photographer to discuss her unique project.
Mass Appeal: When did you begin the London Veil Project?
Sara Shamsavari: I started shooting in 2010. I photographed maybe 200-300 girls but in the end there was only about 35-50 images that I was really happy with. It took a long time, mainly becuase it involved walking up and down the streets until I saw someone that I wanted to photograph. When all the elements are right, you’ve only got a few seconds.
MA: How has your experience in New York differed?
SS: I only had a day so it was all organized for me. It was people who really wanted to participate. I really love that way of doing things but there’s definitely something to be said for picking people in the streets, because I guess that’s one of my gifts – being able to bond with someone in a short period of time. They never expect that you’d want to photograph them and they feel empowered by the fact that you want to take a picture of them.
MA: Have you met many interesting people on your travels?
SS: There’s one particular girl in Paris that I’ve photographed a few times. She’s a medical student but she wants to be a hijabi model. Most of the agencies for Muslim fashion just use ordinary girls and put them in hijabs. Then I met Nailah Lymus who runs the first hijabi modeling agency here in New York. So obviously I’ve connected them. Nailah Lymus, her agency is called Underwraps. She’s an amazing fashion designer as well. I’m definitely so glad that we met, not just because of the [London Veil] project but on so many levels.
MA: How did you meet Nailah?
SS: I actually knew about her fashion and just reached out to photograph her. We just hit it off as soon as we met. She knows that I’m not Muslim but she’s knows where I’m coming from; that I want to help to change people’s perspective and she made the shoot in New York happen.
MA: What was the eureka moment? Why did you begin this project?
SS: I’m always conscious of what’s going on around me. When we see a hijabi girl [in the media] all we see is them in a war torn country, sad and depressed. Almost like the world is in love with this tragic image. I just thought that’s not my experience walking around London. This group of people, they’re happy, they’re smiling, they’re shining. I’m always translating how I see things.
I think I started photography because I was seeing all these images of what we’re being told is beautiful, what is good, and what we’re being told is not good. That didn’t sit right with me. My experience of life and people, that reality wasn’t being shown.
MA: Is your family artistic?
SS: My parents are social scientists. On my mum’s side, I come from a long line of poets. My dad taught me how to paint when I was very young. My brother’s an illusrator and teaches cultural studies at London College of Fashion. I would say social science and creativity are definiately in my family. So I like to create things that are beautiful but have a message. I think the best art should somehow challenge its environment.
MA: You’ve said before that you seek neither to criticize nor advocate the hijab. I thought that was interesting becuase there is always such a stance on it as a garment. Why does there have to be?
SS: I’m an artist and a photographer at the end of the day. I’m not here to make any political statements. The project is inspired by the idea that our challenges and our struggles make us more creative. Here you have this group of people, they’re young, they’re female – and it’s hard enough to be young and famele – but they’re also Islamic in a time when there has been a lot of hostility towards Muslims. Obviously I don’t wear anyone’s flag, I’m not here for or against anything. The thing I’m for is the right to choose. Don’t force someone to put on a hijab and don’t force someone to take off a hijab.
MA: Do you ever come across people who don’t want to be photographed?
SS: Obviously. It’s a so-called ‘hard to reach’ group of people. But it’s the same with everyone. When your intentions are good, people can sense you’re not out to exploit them. A lot of photographers couldn’t give a damn about the person they’re photographing, they just want that great shot. I’m not one of those photographers, I always say, ‘Elevation not exploitation.’ Photography has been used in the past to exploit and exotify. That’s why, generally, people from certain ethnic backgrounds are weary of being photographed. Having an awareness of that, photography can be a gift to elevate.
MA: Do you think the mass media idea of beauty has progressed at all?
SS: There are small changes happening. But there’s also a huge amount of exotification of people from different cultures. Their features, whether it’s Middle Eastern or African, that’s made the point of interest. Even if it sounds positive, it creates a way of a person looking at themselves and valuing things about themselves. People are beautiful but I think we need to focus less on what they are and more on who they are. I guess I try to capture that, I hope that comes out through the work as well.
MA: Is it a feminist project?
SS: I veer away from labels but being involved with the Women of the World last year really opened my mind to what feminism can be. It’s not just about challenging what a normal woman is supposed to be but what a “real” man is supposed to be as well. I think it’s about all of us becuase I think it’s hard for men in other ways. But I will say, a lot of my images seem to be of women who are quite strong. I seem to be drawn to women who are strong or not afraid to express who they are.
MA: It’s interesting that you focus on Muslim women because they have traditionally been portrayed as oppressed or subservient.
SS: It’s so funny because they’re the opposite of that, especially the girls I’ve met in New York. Just try to call them oppressed. I dare you. [Laughs] They’re the strongest. The best way to know the truth is by getting to know the people. Nothing beats being around people becuase that’s the thing that changes people’s perspectives. We’re not that different from anyone else. There’s always a common ground. When you know people, you care, you don’t see them as the other. We’re all different and that’s okay, but we’re all similar as well.
MA: You’ve mentioned your own struggle growing up before.
SS: We all go through difficulty. Whether it’s prejudice for us being women. Whether it’s prejudice for us being from a different culture. When I was growing up, obviously I have blue eyes and I’m fair [complected] compared to my family but, with my surname I was made to know, ‘You’re different you’re foreign.’ But I don’t want to make a big deal out of it becuase you take what you’ve been given and turn it into something beautiful. That’s what being an artist is about. That beauty that can come out of pain and difficulties.