Image © Bharat Choudhary
For the past two years, Bharat Choudhary has documented the impact of religious prejudice and stereotyping on young Muslims in America and England. Now, after winning one of Getty Images Grants for Editorial Photography worth $20,000, Choudhary plans on expanding his project to document how social, political and economic factors are fueling the alienation of Muslim youth in France. He speaks with BJP's Olivier Laurent.
BJP: How did you learn you had won one of this year's Getty Images' grants?
Bharat Choudhary: Actually, I was at my place, and my wife and I were arguing about something, and I got this call – I missed their first call actually. I saw there was a call from the Getty office. I was really nervous because I thought they had called to tell me that my application had been unsuccessful. But they gave me the news, and I was really happy, and so was my wife.
BJP: Why did you start this project in the first place?
Bharat Choudhary: I'm deeply concerned about the growing distance and the hatred between Muslims and non-Muslims all over the world. After events like 9/11 and 7/7, the Muslim community, in Western countries especially, has come under a lot of scrutiny. But, surprisingly, despite the extent of the problem at hand, I felt the depiction of Muslims, and the analysis of the problem, was shortsighted and prejudiced. Unfortunately, contemporary photography too has intentionally or unintentionally propagated ignorance and stereotypes. I thought – in this larger debate of what is right and what is wrong – the only missing link was the voice of Muslims. If we are talking about them, it's also important to hear their side of the story. So when I started working as a photographer, I decided I should do something that would provide a more balanced and forward-looking perspective. That is when this project was conceived.
BJP: What were you trying to show?
Bharat Choudhary: Initially, the plan was to understand what Muslims had to say about this entire debate affecting them; how these debates have consequences on their identities. It was more about identifying individuals who had experienced Islamophobic or racist attacks.
Image © Bharat Choudhary
BJP: You are Hindu, yet you decided to look at the Muslim community, why?
Bharat Choudhary: I'm a Hindu, there's no doubt about that. But with the Muslims, I share a common social, cultural and political history. I share the common experience of being a South Asian immigrant. Their struggle for identity and belonging is very much like my own. I feel, after the terrorist attacks, that there was a section of this community that had been marked out for a special attention, so in a way I felt connected to them. And at the same time, I was intrigued and wanted to find out what goes on and how they are affected.
BJP: You have documented the situation in the US and UK, and now you want to use the money from the Getty grant to go to France. Why France?
Bharat Choudhary: There are a number of reasons. First, it's a country that has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, which is around six millions. Then, there is a very strict implementation of what they call "Laicité" and its subsequent impact on the French Muslim community. It offers a unique example that needs to be documented. Another important reason to include France is that, with this project, I'm trying to understand the Western European experience of young Muslims. England, France and Germany have to be included in this research because of the different histories of immigration these countries have. Each of these histories is unique. In order to understand the broader issues – such as the radicalisation of Muslim youth – one has to explore different social, political and cultural environments in different countries.
BJP: You're planning to document the communities in Paris and Marseille. How will you get started?
Bharat Choudhary: I have some friends who are helping me with this project, but the Open Society Institute has been carrying out a project called At Home in Europe, and their London office has been very supportive. They've connected me with a lot of community workers, NGOs and research organisations in Paris and Marseille. These organisations have also agreed to help me. I have these initial contacts.
BJP: Will you look at Toulouse following the racists attacks that happened there a few months ago?
Bharat Choudhary: I won't specifically look at Toulouse, but there's the issue of the juvenile delinquent system that has also been identified as one of the key reasons behind the radicalisation of young Muslims. Maybe I will look at the system, but not at Toulouse in particular.
BJP: In your project description, you mention that people are afraid of "these others". Why is that?
Bharat Choudhary: To be honest, there are a lot of vested interests in spreading this fear of the "other". No doubt, the increasing violence in the name of Islam has contributed towards this negative image, but that contribution doesn't compare with the atmosphere of fear that has been established. This fear benefits a lot of different people – government officials and politicians can operate with unlimited power, for example, and companies that are in the business of homeland security are earning a lot of cash as long as this atmosphere of fear persists. There's too much to lose if the general public gets to know who these "others" really are. And the media, knowingly or unknowingly, helps in sustaining this atmosphere of fear and hatred.
BJP: France has very strict rules about street photography and privacy. Will this limit what you can do?
Bharat Choudhary: The interpretation of the law is a bit confusing, but I don't think it will affect my work. You don't really need permission to take a picture in a public place. I can take photographs and get them published as long as the photographs do not focus on anyone specifically. But I will be documenting people I get to know well over a period of time, and so their consent is always there. They know what I'm doing and I will have their signed authorisation.
Image © Bharat Choudhary
BJP: Beyond France, will you look at expanding your project to other countries?
Bharat Choudhary: Based on my experience in France, I might include Germany. It will all depend on my work in France, because I might extend my time there.
BJP: How important is this grant in helping you achieve this project?
Bharat Choudhary: It is very important because it is an honour to be the recipient of such a grant. And then, the money is important too. Without it, I would not be able to support my work in France. But there's another important reason: as a freelancer, I work mostly on my own, and often in complete isolation. So when a jury, comprising some of the most important names in the photographic industry, says it likes your work, you feel confident you are moving in the right direction. Sometimes, just a little encouragement is all we need.
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