It was a simple formal email, received among hundreds more like it, sent to thousands like me: “Paris Photo and Aperture Foundation are pleased to announce the winners of the 2014 edition of the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards.” The right dose of curiosity and boredom made me continue reading. But only upon seeing the title of the award-winner, Hidden Islam, did I become fully alert. Let me explain: being born in the Muslim world, and living in today’s climate, you experience this weird phenomenon each time the word “Islam” is mentioned in any type of Western media; even though you are in no way hiding your presence, you feel like you are eavesdropping on a conversation that will determine your own life. A decade of shot emotions—fearing the possibility of new misconceptions, exhausted and unwilling for another hopeless round of explanation and clarification, and angered by the possibility of this dynamic becoming a constant part of my life—were triggered by the simple two words of the title. And so I set my way to understand Hidden Islam.
The bookis the result of years of work by Nicolò Degiorgis. The documentary project focuses on a subject of great importance that has so far received little attention: the struggles of Muslims living in the Islamophobic environment of today’s Europe. Degiorgis’s lens is directed specifically at how this phenomenon has affected Muslims in his homeland, Italy. Martin Parr writes in the introduction that the nation’s 1.35 million Muslims have only eight official mosques, in a country where the right of worship without discrimination is part of the constitution. To portray their struggle, Degiorgis turned his camera to the places where Muslims have sought refuge to practice their religion and pray. The photographs can be categorized into two main groups: black-and-whites of the exteriors of these locations and color photographs of the Muslims praying within.
The black-and-white photographs, deprived of color and context, bring to mind the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. But Degiorgis’s work takes a path very different from the Bechers’ by seeking to convey more meaning through what is literally hidden inside; the black-and-white photographs unfold to present within them color images of the buildings’ interiors. The viewer is confronted with bursts of colors and textures, and within these humble and warm environments, he finds individuals, alone or together, simply praying.
There is indeed a simple and effective power to this approach. But with a more critical look, some crucial questions are raised about depictions of this minority group. Comparing the reactions this book has received to the intentions of this documentarian artist, an important question surfaces: how can an attempt to portray the issues of this minority group lead to prejudiced readings itself? Parr offers something of an answer to this, absolving the artist of any responsibility for his images’ impressions: Degiorgis, he writes, “leaves the conclusion about this project entirely in our own hands.” But I can’t discharge the artist of this responsibility as simply as Parr does. Perhaps we should first explore whether these images—or any image—can possibly be so neutral that the culpability of their reading rests fully with the viewer. To examine this, we must turn back to the images themselves.
Because the black-and-white imagery creates an environment of contextless generality, the viewer might then perceive the colored images within as similarly factual, without questioning the photographer’s choices. And at first glance there is nothing about these latter images to make one suspicious; they are entirely in accordance with the usual Western depictions of Muslim prayer. But does ubiquity determine neutrality? To test this, let us compare depictions of the Muslim prayer in Western and non-Western cultures. As an exercise, I Google Image–searched “Islamic prayer” in four different languages: Italian, the artist’s language; English, the average Rail reader’s; and Arabic and Farsi, the languages of several distinct Muslim cultures. Let us assume that the Italian and English results are generally more indicative of Western representations of Islamic prayer and that the Arabic and Farsi results are more representative of an insider, Muslim view; with this simple comparison, one can see how each indicates a certain perspective on the religion and how each perspective leads to certain culturally defined readings. In the Western depictions, the photographer mainly remains behind the crowd, which is usually depicted as a largely undifferentiated group, mostly captured in the prostrate position. In the insider representations, the photographer usually faces the crowd and includes people’s faces, mostly focusing on the individuality of a specific member of the group or the immensity of a large gathering of believers, and they are usually photographed standing, which puts the subject at the same level as the photographer and viewer.
Degiorgis’s work in Hidden Islam is more representative of the Western depiction. He makes mostly these same choices, and at points even exaggerates them. In almost all the images, his camera remains behind the crowd, distant, and above the subjects, who are nearly always captured on their knees. No single face is shown to represent any of the subjects as individuals, and for the most part even their skin has been excised from the images, depriving the congregants of their humanity. The viewer stands where the photographer wants him to stand, separated, looking down at this bending herd. The Muslim individual is yet again reduced to being unknown, strange, threatening, the other.
As Muslims are othered, the reality of their worlds are more and more often simplified for the intended Western viewer. There is no question that the reality of the Muslim world is a subject of huge complexity, and certainly there is no easy way to fill the gap between this complexity and the viewer’s understanding of it, but the problem with this approach lies mainly in separating our viewers. And this segregation of the audiences is my next objection to this book. Needless to say, there is no denying the troubling environment European Muslims are in today, and the importance of Degiorgis’s attempt to discuss this subject must be stressed; but that should not absolve him of inaccuracies or simplifications. For example, the introduction refers to these locations as “makeshift” mosques. While this population obviously deserves more mosques, the Islamic prayer room is commonly held outside the mosque—after all, it must be practiced at five different times throughout the day, and one can’t always be so near a mosque. As far as the images show, these prayer rooms are not so much “temporary” mosques, then, as alternative prayer spaces that one will find anywhere in the Muslim world; but Degiorgis refuses to make a distinction or acknowledge this throughout project. It is worth noting that the exact same images could be produced in the most wealthy, modernized, pro-Islamic cities of the world. What is troubling here is that this reduction suggests that Degiorgis’s project has been created for a non-Muslim viewer with limited knowledge of the subject matter.
An Aperture video about Hidden Islam boasts, “After seeing this book, you can’t help but think of what might be hidden in your own city.” Now, as I sit here in New York, as someone with a Middle Eastern background, reading these words once again, well aware—and used to—being on the other end of this sense of seclusion, I can’t help but wonder if we would expect such a reaction to a project focusing on the struggles of any other minority group. I wonder, perhaps, if we stop hunting the individual for being Muslim, there would be no more hidden Islam.