Muna Ahmed and Khadija Charif are two emerging Minnesota-based photographers. After attending their exhibits “Behind Both Fences” (Muna Ahmed) and “Jaded Youth” (Khadija Charif) on view at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs in Minneapolis this past April, we spoke more about their work.
Safia Aidid: In “Jaded Youth” and “Behind Both Fences,” you both mediate on the tensions and contradictions of the Somali American experience, in the context of Islamophobic, anti-black and anti-immigrant sentiment. How do you see photography as intervening in this discourse?
Muna Ahmed: I feel as if photography connects as as humans. I am able to tell a story through one moment, I can tell a story of pain, happiness, world issues, and so much more. I can have viewers sympathize or empathize. I think photography intervenes in this issue because it presents a different side of people affected by Islamophobia, etc. I am able to utilize media which normally stigmatizes these people and use it to give them strength or create a human connection that is often lost because of other media messages. Photography allows me to create a visual narrative around these issues that helps fight negative stereotypes and assumptions.
SA: So photography as an instrument of sorts, a tool against oppression. When I saw “Finding Mecca in Minnesota,” I immediately thought of it as a visual counter-narrative to political rhetoric of the “Islamization” of the United States and Europe and ‘radicalization’ of Muslim communities in the West. To some, the idea of ‘finding Mecca’ in the West is threatening, but you unsettle this by showing a glimpse of everyday life, the ordinariness of something as simple as Muslim Americans gathering to pray on a soccer pitch. What types of feelings and responses did you aim to elicit in “Behind Both Fences” and “Finding Mecca in Minnesota”?
MA: My goal was to challenge thoughts and feelings about this Muslim community by showing how ordinary it is. I want to have my viewers connect and see that they experienced the same challenges as my subjects, just in different ways. My ultimate goal is to show that we aren’t so different at all. My project focuses on teenage immigrants situated within two cultural worlds and how they are confronted with bridging their cultural background and a new American identity. It questions how one defines their identity after leaving their homeland and finding themselves in a space that doesn’t accept part of them, often facing prejudice, stereotypes, and acts of intolerance. I think the idea of identity formation in your teenage years is something everyone all over the world experiences and can connect to. Showcasing this simple connection can hopefully combat stereotypes or misconception created by political rhetoric.
I think the problem with political rhetoric and why it’s so pervasive is its ability to divide and strip people of their humanity. So when people who have been influenced by this rhetoric hear about this muslim community they are often blinded hate and misunderstanding. By showcasing people living their daily lives and highlighting the mundane. I can hopefully bridge the gap of misunderstanding and provide a human connection that may have been taken away by political rhetoric that vilifies people living in this community.
Khadija Charif: For myself, photography allows and challenges me to visually memorize the feelings, emotions and tensions and instead of creating a poem, I create an image that portrays issues regarding discrimination, loss, and challenges. It allows me to tell a story, or amplify the stories of the voiceless members of our society . I believe photography allows viewers to visually be stimulated by images. Rather than reading about statistics or issues that are occurring and becoming easily desensitized by them. It forces viewers to connect with the image and issue at hand on a deeper level and that is what I am hoping my piece has done.
SA: Yet you weave poetry and words into your photography and juxtapose the textual and the visual in interesting ways. How do you work across these mediums, as a poet and photographer? I’m intrigued by two works in “Jaded Youth” in particular, where you’ve altered the photographs to incorporate US immigration paperwork.
KC: True, I chose to intertwine those two mediums of art form due to the very fact that the concept of being an immigrant Muslim Somali female is too great, too large and too heavy to deal with in just an image or writing. For example, we can both see the color red, we both can identify it, but how can I confirm my red is similar to yours? Furthermore, how can I explain such a color to a blind man? I can’t, but what I can do is try to find a way, the best way to describe it. The same goes for my identity and art. How can I make someone who has never been in my shoes feel what I feel and go through what I’ve gone through? How can I gently take their hands and guide them along the path of my history? I give them a piece of myself, my poetry as guidance and my photography as a visual influence.
In regards to those two images, I wanted to explore the idea of inhumanity in the process of documentation. Being diminished to a number rather than a story, a dream, a passion or even a heartbeat. It made me wonder how much we lost/gained by denying or validating an application. I’m hoping to expand more on that concept and turn it into a series in the near future, InshAllah.
SA: How do your own identities, as Somali American women based in Minnesota, shape your work?
KC: Much of my work has bared the sole consequence of what it means to be “the other,” to fall short of being accepted. Yet as a Somali immigrant, I have the chance to tell the story of my people, to learn the history behind their struggles and find the beauty in their future. I have the ability to connect with not just immigrants but poets, storytellers and teachers. As a female, I have the opportunity to witness and document the surge in Somali female owned businesses here in Minnesota. As a Muslim, I have the ability to capture how the Somali community not only relates with others but also relates to itself. For example, how the community comes together during the holy month of Ramadan, how each member prays shoulder to shoulder to one God. I am blessed to have such an opportunity to not only simply capture and document such candid and raw moments of bonding but to also be merely be part of it. From there, I use my art to produce the simple fact that as a Muslim Somali Female, my distinct experience has allowed me to express myself in a way that allows me and my people to create the narrative of our own storyline. Rather than having an external voice simply label us as immigrants. It has opened my eyes to the importance of keeping control of our narrative by creating our own media.
Even more so, I’ve always believed that with hardship, there will come ease. My media is my art, it is the press of a pen with bleeding ink on a blank paper. It is the flash of an image that is forever stopped in time. My identity comes with a great deal of internal validation and that struggle of being an individual, divided by the duality of my own existence and so with this struggle I’ve learned the importance of keeping the upper hand of my own narrative.
MA: I think it shapes my work because it gives me a unique perspective. I am an immigrant, Somali, muslim women. Each of the labels I fall under give me different ways to experience the world. As a Somali Muslim woman I have experienced different forms of sexism, racism, islamophobia. Each of these experiences has shaped how interact and express myself with others. I do my best to create work that is connected to at least one of these experiences, I always incorporate part of me on the canvas. Behind Both Fences touches on some of the challenges I faced finding myself as a teen. The stories these teens told definitely resonated with me and the images I created in a way told aspects of my story.
SA: I’m struck by how you both describe your work as related to your ability – as grounded in your lived experiences and identity – to witness, to recover, to unveil and ultimately shed light on experiences and narratives that have been distorted, silenced and misunderstood. Is the work of a photographer to witness and tell?
MA: The job of the photographer is to share experiences, I only have the ability to capture and share. I can’t decide what a viewer will take away from the image because they are bringing in different experiences that shape their perspective. My job is to then do my best to stay true to the narrative I have witnessed.
KC: Yes but it is more than to simply tell, it is to shift views and inspire souls. It is to pierce your comfort in a way that demands change or forces you to look more into the concept. For me, I’d hope to say more than simply state my ideas. I hope and pray that my work strikes a core, not that of comfort but that of questioning. I believe photography allows the beautiful birthing of different dialogues to take place.
SA: Tell me a bit about your creative process. What goes into creating a collection like “Behind Both Fences” or “Jaded Youth”?
KC: In regards to the process of my art, I begin by I writing about the view that I have towards the community and myself. I then research more about the topic of choice, I speak with others and analyze their perspectives and experience regarding the issue. I utilize the research that I have conducted before hand to find an aspect about the topic which hasn’t been often shared. From there, I capture the concept and create visual ideas. Once, I have created the poem or image, I review my notes and interview a few members of the somali community may it be an elder, a teen, a mother or a father. I collect their views on my drafted work and look for ways to improve or intensify the poem or photo.
MA: Before starting any project I take time to research what work has been done on the topic. I like taking the time to research so that I can find a unique way join the narrative or find a different view to highlight. I then take the time to brainstorm and meditate to find what ways I connect with the subject matter. This process helps me define what themes and topics to explore. When I have a basic outline of what I want to shoot and themes I would like to explore, I like to familiarize myself with the area or speak with the people I am going to photograph. I like having as much understanding and knowledge about the topic as possible before thinking about the camera. At that point, I take time to get to know my subjects and develop a friendship when possible. This makes it easier for them to open up and really tell me what they’ve experienced and what they would like for me to try and showcase. Curating my projects is a different experience each time. I like hosting mock exhibitions and allowing a few friends to see the pieces with little to no information. I use the feedback from these mock exhibitions to adjust what I have put together. It gives me the opportunity to address any missed connections and to add content so that my project narrative reaches as many people as possible.
SA: In the same way that Minnesota has developed into a major center of the Somali diaspora, it has developed into quite an interesting hub for Somali creatives, with so many Somali artists based in the Twin Cities. What’s it like to live, work and collaborate in Minneapolis as Somali artists?
KC: It is a very humbling experience to be surrounded by such a wonderful community filled with artists of different interests. I am very fortunate to witness different mediums of art being utilized by the Somali community. Such an environment not only allows me, as an artist myself, to thrive but it also grants different narratives to come into light. The possibility of working and creating with other artist is a never ending option that I am beyond blessed to have. To have such a fortunate chance to simply connect with artists and encourage each other as we express ourselves. I think this growth of Somali Artists, here in Minnesota has created a stronger sense of community for the somali people. I believe, it also gives the youth a lot of confidence in taking part of the community and expressing themselves.
MA: I think I’m incredibly lucky to live in a community filled with Somali creatives. I have the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the best Somali artists in the world. I have been fortunate enough to be mentored by Mohamud Mumin, a talented visual artist, as well as Abdi Roble, Huda Yusuf and Kaamil Haider. They’ve each taught me something different and have encouraged me to continue to produce quality content. I feel as if I have hit a goldmine by living in Minneapolis and being surrounded by so many Somali creatives.
SA: What are you currently working on?
KC: I am currently working on my poems, I hope to create a small book of my work and publish it. Right now I am on my 23rd poem, it’s called On the Verge of My Muses and it’s about the process of learning to identify oneself. As for my photography, I am planning on simply practicing and documenting different themes of the Somali Community, as well as collecting stories from different members of the community.
MA: I am currently working on a visual installation project for the Northern Spark Festival here in Minneapolis. My project is called “Blessing The Boats,” and it revolves around creating a vigil for all the lives lost to the refugee crises currently occurring in Europe.
Muna Ahmed is a Visual Storyteller based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her passion in photography and film lies in her pursuit to create cultural awareness and understanding. She has devoted much of her time to documenting the lives of recent immigrants living in Minnesota. Her current work focuses on capturing poetic imagery and narratives of immigrant communities living in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Khadija Charif is currently a sophomore in M.C.T.C ( Minneapolis Community and Technical College), double majoring in Biochemistry and Political Science. She graduated from St. Louis Park High School, where she took extracurricular activities that allowed her to support and bring awareness to her community. Taking on positions in the high school such as the newspaper, Echo, as a Photo-Editor and President, in Muslim Student Association. Her experience in High School allowed her to expand her passion towards her community. She supported and performed multiple of speeches regarding cultural awareness and educational exposure in community events, such as Meet Your Somali Neighbors. Recently, she has worked along with Mohamud Mumin, Muna Ahmed, MCAD (Minneapolis College of Arts and Design) students and Islamic ASL students on a project called, Bridging the Silence. Currently, she utilizes photography, videography and spoken word as a form of expression and storytelling. In coming years, she hopes to strive in creating art that not only influences but educates and inspires communities.