As one of the most targeted minorities in the West, Muslims are regularly faced with the threat of harassment, vandalism, and negative portrayals in mainstream media. In turn, this discrimination adversely affects the numerous cultures and ethnicities associated with the religion. Many individuals are made to feel unsafe outside of the confines of their own cultural communities, which only leads to further segregation in our Western society.
For photographer Marwan Bassiouni, focusing on our similarities is the gateway to embracing our differences. As an Egyptian-American-Swiss Muslim man, he has lived and practiced his religion all over the world, experiencing its perception in a range of different cultures. For his project New Dutch Views, Bassiouni positions the Islamic experience as synonymous with the Dutch way of life – a rejection of distinction in order to make way for seamless integration.
In this interview for LensCulture, Bassiouni speaks about his perception of documentary photography, the Dutch-Muslim experience, and why it’s important to embrace both our similarities and differences.
LensCulture: You’ve lived in a number of different places and came into photography a bit later than other practitioners. How do you think your past experiences informed your initial artistic practice, and how did you learn to develop your skills in the medium once you decided it was something you wanted to pursue?
Marwan Bassiouni: It’s true – I started photography quite late, and it happened somewhat by chance. I was always interested in how things changed once you photographed them, and how ordinary things could be made to look so surreal. But my own practice can best be categorized in different stages. The first was when I worked as an assistant to a still life photographer for three years. Through that job, I was able to learn a lot about lighting and the technical side of photography, which was an incredibly useful foundation for my current practice.
The second stage is a bit different. I’m a conscientious objector to the Swiss military service, so I refused to enter the army, and instead worked for a human rights NGO. Being Egyptian-American-Swiss and Muslim, I ended up at an NGO that focused on the Middle East. During that experience, I became acquainted with how photography can really engage with socio-political issues, and how it has a certain power.
LC: How did these experiences come together when you started making your own work?
MB: I started making my own work about situations where I wanted to show a different perspective on certain issues. My being part of multiple cultures led me to do some things in Egypt, and that’s when I had my first experience with mainstream media. Some of those moments were positive, and some were less positive, but that’s when I realized I wasn’t a photojournalist. I had an agenda – a reason for making images. I was too focused on ethics and a humanistic approach, and changing the ways we look at things by challenging certain ethno-centric views.
LC: So that’s what led you to art school.
MB: Exactly. And in art school, I became fascinated with the experience of looking. I’m really interested in the history of painting, and also Japanese Zen gardening. That’s what led me to the work I make now. Photography is construction, so for me the word “documentary” is more about a will to engage with something that we consider to be collective reality.
LC: Can you expand on that distinction a bit? For you, what is the difference between “photography” and what people generally define as “documentary”?
MB: I know that the issues I deal with in my work are real, so I don’t look at photography as a means to make something “real.” For me, the issue is real, and photography is a way of captivating someone’s attention to point to it.
LC: How does that inform the work you are making for New Dutch Views? And how did the idea for this series come to you?
MB: I work from a motivation, so for many years I’ve been involved with how Islam is perceived in the West – the representation of the Other. This idea developed after I was photographing mosques in a variety of different ways. I was kind of just seeking, observing, and meditating on each space. I realized that every time I entered a mosque, I was looking for Western elements within it. So at first, I was photographing all the things in each mosque that were very ordinary – that you would probably see anywhere else.
LC: Why were you drawn to those elements?
MB: In my work, I am more interested in highlighting the similarities between Muslim and non-Muslim people. So when I came across the windows and started looking at the landscapes through each window frame, I got into this whole other contemplation about what it would mean to look at the landscape we share through a mosque, and have that as the point of view.
LC: Speaking of this point of view, all the elements in these photographs are in sharp focus. How do you make these images so that both the interior and exterior are both so clear?
MB: I would describe it as making two photographs at the same time. There’s no additional lighting – it’s all ambient. What I want to do is replicate the experience of being in the mosque and looking outside. I create two images with multiple exposures and sharpness, so that everything is in focus. I’m confronting you with a visual experience so that you can actually go into the landscape, but you can also navigate all around each part of the image. What I hope is that by looking through the entire image, you can get a sense of the wider landscape of the Netherlands – both urban and countryside.
LC: Why was this work important for you to make right now?
MB: Throughout history, Muslims have been perceived as an enemy to the Western side of the world, and there is a big gap in understanding about those dynamics. In the last 60 to 70 years, more and more Muslims have started living in the West, and there are many preconceptions about Islam that are simply untrue. It’s important to understand that there are Muslim people, and there is Islam. As is the case with any belief system, there are good Muslims and there are bad Muslims. Today, there are people doing extremely criminal things in the name of Islam, and in Western media, we focus on the negative side of Muslims. When you say “Islam,” people think of radicalism, or terrorism, or a lack of women’s rights. The impetus to follow any religion stems from a need to connect to mankind, and to find peace and balance in everyday life. I created these images to be abstract portraits of Western Islam. It’s important to understand that Islam is not an “Other” – it’s now an “us” as well.
LC: I think the title also speaks to this. You’re not presenting these “views” as something alternative. Instead, they are Dutch.
MB: It’s very complicated trying to feel at home in the West when you’re not necessarily like the majority, even if you’re only a little bit different. This work is about accepting that there are all kinds of Dutch identities. The title is a statement about what exactly national identity is. It’s a bit provocative, but it’s also making a point that these aren’t necessarily the only new Dutch views. Like you said, it’s a way of saying that these views are Dutch – that Islam is Dutch. And it’s important to say that in a literal, direct way.
LC: How have you perceived the existence of Islam in the Netherlands in comparison to other places you have lived?
MB: I’m interested in focusing on what is actually working and what is positive about integration. By going around the entire country and meeting such a range of different Muslims, I’ve perceived an open-mindedness in the Dutch people, particularly when compared to some other European countries. For example, I definitely think that they are much more accepting and open to Islam in Holland than they are in France. But at the same time, I don’t mention where any of the mosques are in my descriptions or captions because many mosque officials are afraid for their safety. Two years ago, there were almost 170 acts of violence committed against Muslims in the Netherlands, including arson, harassment and vandalism. So there is definitely a problem, and Muslims are still the most targeted minority. However, there is also a lot of respect there, and the Dutch legal system enables Muslims to have a certain freedom that, compared to the rest of Europe, is exemplary.
LC: You’ve visited a number of mosques that were created for all different types of Islamic practitioners. But like you said, you’re primarily interested in locating those points of similarity. What are some features that you think are unique to the Dutch context?
MB: There is an actual Dutch mosque architectural identity that has come out of the culture here. Dutch mosques are very traditionally Dutch-looking, in my opinion. They are all made out of bricks, and sometimes you can’t recognize them as something distinct from their surroundings. It’s so interesting that the Dutch-Muslim identity in the Netherlands has been given a certain place and certain space within the fabric of society.
LC: The way you present this work is very specific, either as large prints on an exhibition wall or within the pages of your book. You’re not just creating images – you are creating an experience. Can you speak a bit about what you want this experience to evoke for your viewers?
MB: I’ve seen some people actually stop in front of an image, and I feel extremely grateful to have offered this kind of reflection. I like the idea that people might start reflecting on their own friends or circles, thinking about why they might not be friends with Muslims or engage with that perspective on a regular basis. I think we need more compassion in this world, and I think that by putting you inside the mosque, I am making you think about being in someone else’s shoes. It doesn’t have to be a Muslim person – it can be men being in the place of women, or rich people being in the place of poor people. If we can look at what we have rather than what we don’t have, this is the kind of contemplation I enjoy – it’s about meditating. If you can remember it and feel moved, I think that’s something. Changing people’s perspectives on Islam? I don’t think I have the power to do anything like that, so I expect very little in that department. But in a way, that little bit does mean a lot.