Many of you may remember my post on Can't Take It With You, a landmark photo exhibit showcasing Muslims in America that's opening next week in New York. Omar Mullick, the photographer of the exhibit, invited me to the gallery space yesterday and we had a little chat.
Bassam: How are you feeling?
Omar: A little tired, a little happy. We've been working around the clock.
Bassam: So, first things first, where did the title for the show come from?
Omar: It's the opening lines of a Radiohead song called Reckoner. It had a pretty strong impact on me when I heard it. I realized that I was as capable of going to Radiohead or The Brian Jonestown Massacre as I was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for the same notes of transcendence....
Bassam: Seven years is a long time for a road trip to take photos.
Omar: It was on and off, in between commercial gigs or when I was traveling.
Bassam: Why show it now then?
Omar: Well the point of the project was to make a broad brushstroke -- I wanted to get at some thing about the country, about the sweep of the place and this moment. This community was a way in to that narrative. They are at the center of what we will accept as American or Western - right on the edge of what we think of as the 'other.' What can I say? I am not one to look away. I don't think I answered your question, though. I only feel now, I think, that I got a sense of this being an American narrative, and an irrevocable one, and the sheer breadth of it.
Bassam: So how do you edit that down?
Omar: With difficulty! I tried editing photos as if I were marrying the images to statistical facts about the community. That was an abject failure. The whole thing died on the page. It's a series of impressions in the end - I make no pretensions about being objective. I think the job is to be transparent about your biases. Consistently, I was drawn in the gallery edit to photos of people or moments who problematized some of the prevailing stereotypes. In the end though, when the high concepts paled, I kept coming back to things that move me about photography: wonder, awe, light - looking for the humanity in people.
Bassam: Why black and white? Why film?
Omar: I can give you all these explanations but to be perfectly honest I liked the aesthetic for this project. It's that simple. I also love what film does when you point it directly in to the light. I am interested in where all that starts to break. My bread and butter is digital though, so don't read in to my remarks some aversion to digital - far from it
Bassam: Getting back to the edit, we had a question from a reader asking after the emphasis on scarved Muslim women in the edit. Do you have women in the show who do not have scarves? And is my reading of this emphasis fair?
Omar: Great question. Yes, I do have women in the show who are Muslim and are not wearing scarves. Of the photos that come to mind, there is one photograph I am particularly fond of that shows a young girl wearing the hijab (headscarf) in New York talking to an elderly Afghan Muslim woman at her store in the West Village. The elderly woman is not wearing a scarf. I like that shot because the prevailing stereotype of scarves is that an elderly generation imposes it on the younger one. The expectation is reversed here. Incidentally, that same photo has the Afghan husband, cheerful and beardless, smoking a cigarette outside his shop. I loved that. I also have another photo where a young girl is wearing a hijab and riding a bmx and another girl behind her who does not wear a scarf has got a riding helmet on, probably for safety. I thought that's subtle, and a little playful.
Bassam: Any other photography books that depict Muslims that you like?
Omar: Sure, Joachim Ladefoged did a book called The Albanians - I used to travel with that in my backpack. Fazal Sheikh: Ramadan Moon. Stanley Greene did a book called Open Wound on Chechnya. All wonderful.
Bassam: So what's next?
Omar: I've been shooting a lot of pictures of a corner in the Brooklyn music scene that I am particularly enamored with. I am curious to see where that goes. I have to shoot things I am a little in love with.
The gallery opens October 8th and runs till November 5th in New York.
RSVP at the Facebook event
(photos by Michael Kirby Smith, taken on the fire escape at GalleryFCB)