Places You'll Pray: online project captures the unexpected places where Muslims pray
Created and curated by photographer Sana Ullah, the Instagram account has more than 35,000 followers
On Welsh mountaintops, in California deserts and even on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean – these are some of the places where Muslims have prayed.
These scenes from various geographies are documented on the online platform Places You’ll Pray, created by American photographer Sana Ullah.
She came up with the idea in 2015, after having to pray in a mall dressing room with her sister. Ullah began to think of the many places where Muslims perform their prayers when they are not close to a mosque or prayer room.
At the time, Ullah, who was born in Florida to Bangladeshi parents, had just completed her undergraduate studies. Taking a gap year before pursuing new media journalism for graduate school, she developed a photo series on Muslim communities and prayer that she included in her portfolio.
As an American Muslim, she says she was initially unsure about showcasing her images, afraid of being pigeonholed as the “token Muslim girl”. This changed when a professor, who was African-American, gave her some advice. “He told me that if I didn’t tell stories from my community, someone else who is not from that community would, and those stories wouldn’t be as effective,” she says.
Soon after, Ullah started an open call for submissions on Facebook, and the images started coming in – first, from everyday spots like libraries and basketball courts, and eventually, to far-flung areas such as the foot of a waterfall in Sumatra, an area of the Sahara Desert in Chad, and a serene lake in Kashmir.
Over the years, the Places You’ll Pray Instagram page has shared more than a thousand photos and attracted 35,000 followers, many of whom are non-Muslim. “I make sure the images are composed well and are clear. I try not to push for the ones that look extremely staged,” she says about her selection process.
Friends and followers have expressed how the platform has helped them learn about Islamic prayers, Ullah says, including the fact they don’t always have to be conducted in a mosque or prayer room. “Muslims need a place that’s clean in order to pray, that’s it,” she says.
In another instance, a teacher in the US thanked Ullah for including one of her pupils’ photos on the platform. “The student told the class, ‘For the first time, I can relate to an image that’s going viral’. The teacher told me that even if there’s a lot of anger and hate, there are lot of other people who are supportive and who are allies,” she says.
Ullah started her project during a consequential period in America, just as Donald Trump came into power. Between 2016 and 2017, anti-Muslim bias increased in the US by 17 per cent, as cited in the Council on American Islamic Relations. In the first half of 2019, the organisation recorded 759 anti-Muslim bias incidents in the country.
In 2020, she says the sentiment can still go either way. “I feel like there’s sparks. There’s moments when I feel it’s really bad and then other times I feel it isn’t as bad,” she says, adding that the experiences of Muslim communities may vary according to where they are in the US.
The Places You’ll Pray project has enlightened her in other ways, on the geopolitics of Muslim communities in areas like Kashmir and Bosnia, for example, and the spread of Islam in Eastern Europe and South America.
It’s also a chance for her to see the natural beauty of other countries, she adds. This includes the scenic photos of Haroon Moota, a mountaineer and fundraiser, who has submitted to the project twice. The first was from when he climbed Mount Snowdon in Wales, and the other was during a five-day charity trek to Machu Picchu in Peru.
“I shared my pictures to hopefully inspire others to maintain prayer and to demonstrate that we can overcome barriers regardless of where we are and what we are doing in the world,” he tells The National.
Ullah says that she will continue to build Places You’ll Pray, even as she embarks on a new career path. She has recently started her role as a programme officer at National Geographic, where she will be helping other photographers craft their visual stories. She will also develop her own projects, including a new body of work around colourism in the South Asian community.
Updated: July 30, 2020 04:34 PM