Ayesha Khan is a freelance social documentary photographer living and working in Cardiff who uses her creative practice to challenge Muslim stereotypes and to dismantle the misinformed narratives surrounding Muslim womanhood. A central theme within her photographic work is the depiction of confident and accomplished Muslim women, as a direct response to negative Muslim stereotypes that permeate across the media landscape. Rooted in her personal experiences of discrimination and Islamophobia, Ayesha’s work has the essential ability to empower, to educate, to build cultural bridges and to encourage positive, open-minded exchanges. We caught-up with Ayesha at her home to find out more about her journey into photography, the inspiration behind her latest series, The Everyday, and what she hopes to achieve from photography in the near future.
Ayesha, how would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?
I would introduce myself as a Photographer/activist who is using my skills to help educate people about Muslims.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
My most vivid childhood memory would have to be playing in the snow with my brother. Could call it my first memory.
How did you get into photography? What are the milestones of your journey?
I found photography when I was studying Art in high school. It started from my hobby of taking photos of Gods beauty in the world. I then began to understand the depth of photography throughout college and my degree at university. I then started using it to challenge the visual representation of Muslims, specifically Muslim Women.
You describe yourself as a British Pakistani Muslim woman. From your experience, what does a Muslim woman feel like when she wears a hijab in public and reveals her Muslim identity to others? What goes on in her mind and what kind of statement is she making?
I have always been a person who believes in not hiding your identity. I found that being different was what I was, after being told thousands of times, so I embraced it. Always keeping your guard up would describe what a Muslim Woman who chooses to wear hijab feels. You don’t see yourself as a person with a scarf as it’s normal to you but to some others, that is all that they see. When people see anything relating to a Muslim, especially a Muslim woman as they are the visually Muslim, some people who are brainwashed think TERRORIST straight away. It is quite frightening to come across this kind of people. People like this may be a minority in Britain but they are a vocal minority. Wearing hijab is a request from God in the Quran, so when it comes down to why we wear it, it’s as simple as that. Whilst wearing it we are also representing the Islam as visible Muslims. For this reason, when people get to know us on a personal level they will understand that it is just a clothing garment like a shirt or trousers for hijab wearers. Also it is our way of having a connection with God. To me it’s not a statement but just an extra covering.
In your latest series, The Everyday, you challenged Muslim stereotypes and Islamophobia by portraying confident and accomplished Muslim women. Can you give us some insight into the inspiration behind this project? Have there been any personal experiences that led you to explore these particular themes?
I have experienced and witnessed a lot of islamophobia in my life. I fled from a village in South Wales called Skewen as it just got so bad. When you enter the village you can see people staring at you and it got to a certain point where calling the police wasn’t doing much. So we left. I found, whilst being brought up in such a racist/islamophobic village, that people have so many misconceptions about Muslims and it was all coming from the media and all the hate that they are feeding gullible people with. Representing Muslim Women in a heroic manner is to spread a message that we stand tall and proud, to say to people that you can’t tell me that my religion stops me from accomplishing my goals or doesn’t let me be educated or leave the house when that is all lies. If such people would do some research they would see that in Islam women had rights to education, own a house and much more before it became acceptable in Britain. Showing this through my series and for these images to portray the right message is very important for such people to see.
How was your work received by your immediate friends and family? What was their reaction like?
My family and friends have supported me very much through this series and previous. The Muslim community in general all feel the same about Muslim representation being tarnished by the media with false accusations and making the general public afraid of a religious group. For this reason I have a lot of support, both from Muslims and non Muslims.
What was the most important lesson you’ve learned about yourself at the end of this project?
I have learnt that whatever I had gone through growing up in such an unstable environment in school where I would experience islamophobia from teachers and pupils alike, made me an activist wanting to show and educate people on what Muslims are really like, especially women who tend to be the visual representation of Muslims, and being a female I invested myself very much into each shoot. During each shoot I experienced pride in meeting women who wanted to participate and had some amazing skills that I could show off for them.
Along with challenging stereotypes and social misperceptions, the empowerment of Muslim women seems to be at the core of your work. Can the viewer interpret this as a feminist statement?
Yes, Islam teaches a lot about women empowerment, so using this in my work was core.
How effective is photography as a tool to fight Islamophobia and change society’s misperceptions of Muslim women?
Photographs are everywhere. A photograph is such a useful tool to spread a message. Photography can manipulate the way people see something or someone. An image can be taken at a split second and give the person a completely different meaning. That’s why when reading photos, you should also think deeply. I am using this to my advantage and showing people the truth through a photo as people see photographs as evidence. In my case each photo I have added to this series shows a real person doing exactly what they do as a hobby or a job. Showing a huge print of an empowering Muslim Woman will question those who believe women have no rights and get them researching. This also gives empowerment to Muslim women/girls who see very little positive representation of themselves, and shows them that they can achieve so much.
Who are some inspirational photographers that you follow and what do you admire about their creative output?
I follow the Muslim Sisterhood on Instagram, they are creating photos of Muslim Women around London showing their empowerment. I admire the fact that they keep going and adding new shoots to their collection which shows to viewers that Muslim Women are just amazing and there are so many of them to show. I also follow a lot of Muslim Women who are doing amazing things, that’s my biggest inspiration.
What’s a must have in your gear bag?
Every shoot is created by me, from staging it to lighting etc. My shoots have to be similar in stance and lighting to be part of the series. I use a Nikon D800 full frame so that I can make very large prints. I use one or sometimes two lighting setups, trying to keep it looking natural as I want people to believe in the photos and not think they are all modelled. Also, a wide lens. I use a 24mm for my shoots as sometimes in small places I need to stand a little bit closer and in order to get a full portrait you need a wider angle.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
The best advice I was given is not to be dragged down by people’s opinions and do what I believe in. This advice was given to me by my university tutor Donald Christie when I felt that I couldn’t cover such a topic as I may offend others who don’t want to know about Muslim Women. My tutor told me to show people what true muslims are and not to let anyone frighten me off. This is what I did and how I began the Muslim Women series. I still remember that day and am so thankful for that.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
When will images like these no longer be needed? ‒ as people will already understand.
When will the negative news directed only on Muslims stop?
When will Muslim Women not have to be on guard whilst wearing a hijab?
What are you working on at the moment?
I am continuing my series and working on venues for more shoots. I have two ladies waiting on shoots to be set up. That’s all I can say for now! But keep an eye out during the next few months.
What do you hope to achieve from photography in the future? And what trips or photography projects would you love to do?
I would love to do a series on Muslim men. There are several issues about stop and search, men having beards and some muslim men shying away from being a visible muslim due to being made to feel it’s not acceptable in society. These are future plans but my main concern now is the Muslim sisters who are the easy targets, so I will carry on with this series and continue to get it into public spaces.
Thank you, Ayesha for your lovely company and heartfelt conversation.