“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.