Muslims leave the East London Mosque in London\'s Tower
The work of Bharat Choudhary makes one wonder how a Hindu photographer from India decides to focus his art and energies on young Muslims living in the west. The answer involves an itinerant
life, mistaken identity and a dash of guilt.
One afternoon in October 2009, a bearded Choudhary was walking towards his apartment after leaving a media ethics class at the University of Missouri, where he was studying photojournalism. \"These two guys in a pickup truck drove past me and started shouting, \'Osama! Osama!\'\" the 33-year-old recalls. They swerved around, parked directly in his path and continued to shout the name of the late Al Qaeda leader. \"I walked past them, didn\'t confront them at all. I avoided eye contact because I was too scared.\"
Choudhary had written research papers about the US media\'s negative representation of Muslims, and the incident catalysed something inside him. \"I was trying to decide on a topic for my graduation project,\" he explains. \"This helped me narrow it down and decide to focus on Islamophobia.\"
That project became the Silence of Others, a series of sharp, often dark photos of young Muslims struggling with post-9/11 stereotypes in Missouri, Chicago, London and elsewhere. The images have been exhibited at the Delhi Photo Festival, and at the Open Society Institute in New York City.
The seed had been planted years before. Born in the foothills of the Himalayas, Choudhary was raised among Muslims outside Lagos, Nigeria. \"I never considered Muslims to be different,\" he has written of his youth. \"My best friends were Muslims, we played together, shared our food.\"
Choudhary returned to India for university and, after graduation, became a project coordinator with Care, an anti-poverty organisation. That job led to a stint in Ahmedabad in 2004, counselling victims of the Hindu-led, anti-Muslim riots that shook Gujarat in 2002. \"I could see what the Muslim community had faced,\" says Choudhary. He had difficulty introducing himself to the people he counselled because his first name, which is an alternative word for India, gave away his religion. \"There was definitely some amount of guilt.\"
Around that time, he began snapping the odd photo while going about his humanitarian work. He met and learnt from the accomplished Indian photographer Raghu Rai, earned a Ford Foundation fellowship for his images of India\'s marginalised communities and went off to study in the US. In 2009, he won a top prize in the College Photographer of the Year competition for his photos of a Burmese refugee family in Delhi. Their story, told by Choudhary, helped Burma Assist raise funds for its refugee protection work in India.
Now, after two years shooting the Silence of Others, the exhibits in Delhi and New York have been heady experiences. At the Open Society launch event, an Iranian women offered a dose of pessimism. \"She said no matter what you do you will never win this argument that Muslims and Islam are good,\" Choudhary recalls. \"I don\'t think it changed my mind in any way, but it wasn\'t something I\'d heard before.\"
Some observers say his subjects look too Muslim and that his work, rather than helping them, fuels negative stereotypes and cements the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims. Choudhary says he doesn\'t seek out overtly Muslim subjects; he photographs the most interesting people who cross his path.
Choudhary points to his photo of a group of friends outside London, standing near a motorway overpass. In the foreground, a Bangladeshi man wears Khaleeji dress. \"In England I see this Arabisation of the Muslim community,\" he says. \"They use Arabic words and dress like Arabs. They say the Arabs are the chosen people by Allah.\"
His process involves lengthy interviews to get at the ideas and experiences that have shaped his subjects\' views. At a community event on Chicago\'s South Side, he met a woman of Kurdish background named Amina. She told him she had been driving with her younger sister one afternoon when a man in a car next to them rolled down his window, called her a \"sand n***er\" and drove away.