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.
Amina chased after him, took down his licence plate number and contacted the police. The man was later sentenced to 150 hours' community service. Impressed by her determination, Choudhary photographed Amina in her Bridgeview home, wearing a blue scarf in a mostly darkened room, her sister watching in the background.
His work has given him access to a variety of Muslim communities, yet time and again he hears from young Muslims frustrated by discrimination. "Though they were born in countries like the UK or the United States, many have difficulty trusting their own security systems and police, they have a hard time believing they will be protected," Choudhary says. "They are viewed a certain way for their headscarves and their prayers. They use words like depression, anxiety, isolation."
For the most part, his subjects are very open and friendly. Yet like many journalists, one of the most challenging aspects of his work is making people feel comfortable enough to discuss their personal experiences and feelings with a near-stranger. "That takes time," he says. "I've had difficulties with some strong personalities that I haven't been able to penetrate."
He has succeeded enough to win a sizeable grant from the Alexia Foundation for World Peace, a non-profit focused on socially conscious photography. After two years shooting in the US and UK, Choudhary is now applying for financing to work in France and Germany. He's also hoping to move from individual stories to community experiences, such as the anger of Muslim immigrants in Parisian banlieues.
Choudhary has grand ambitions for the Silence of Others. "I hope my project shows non-Muslims what is stopping full-fledged integration of Muslims into western society," he says. "I want Muslims to look at it as something that gives them a voice and a medium to talk about their issues."
David Lepeska is a freelance writer who contributes to The New York Times, Financial Times and Monocle, and previously served as The National's Qatar correspondent. He lives in Chicago.