With anti-Muslim rhetoric at an all time high, Islamophobia on the rise, and hate crimes and racial profiling on the increase, it’s clear that the global Muslim community is under attack. Gonzo Today considers the impact of the recent events and the wave of anti-Islamic sentiment with Mohammad Rakibul Hasan – a prize winning photo journalist and winner of the UNESCO photo contest for promoting sports worldwide.
Some people may be unaware of the rich artistic legacy that Islam offers. In particular the floral, geometrical and calligraphic aspects of art within Islamic culture that are very much admired throughout the world. Why do you think there is such a grand misconception that Islam frowns upon, restricts and undervalues artistic creativity?
Mohammad Rakibul Hasan
Every religion governs by the law of a belief system. In the 21st Century, where hyper diversity and multiculturalism are growing faster than ever, the world is experiencing a new dimension of connectivity. Through the advancement of technology, we, mankind are under a single umbrella living our lives regardless of thinking about our personal religious identities. The Muslim countries where Islam is being practised in quite a routine and ordinary manner, embracing scientific advances and encouraging a new perspective of life, as well as contemplating the purpose of life, are being constantly ignored. Moreover, those that have no knowledge of the huge contribution Islam plays in art are obviously lacking real knowledge and can’t understand the direction of global values. Islam has an established rich culture and artistic tradition that spans centuries. It derived from the Middle East. The cluster of Middle Eastern Muslim countries and their practice of Islam, now however, seeks to restrict personal freedoms. This occurred due to changing political agendas and political unrest. The rulers of Islamic states have used Islam as a political tool in order to control individuals and groups alike. That is why, the practice of art and culture has gradually become more and more interfered with and dependent. The independence of self expression has not been realised. After 9/11 the image of Islam has been questioned but this was not an act by the ordinary believers of Islam. It was by Al Qaeda, who politically align themselves with a different set of beliefs. Be it a minority in the Western countries or the majority in the other parts of the globe, the Muslim community is in every part of the world now. The motto of Islam and every other religion is PEACE and no religion actively offers destruction or violence as a legitimate tool of power. The world is revolving through a complex system of politics. Powerful western countries are also playing a game, based on political theories to best suit their own agenda. How we perceive the world easily, is indeed more complex than our presumption.
As a young Muslim man in the eye of a political storm witnessing atrocities all over the world and barbaric acts of violence claiming to be perpetrated in the name of Islam – how do you feel?
I, as a Muslim descendant and moreover, as a human being, feel pity for mass killing in the name of Islam. Islam never accepts an extremist ideology, the interpretation of Islamic verses are calculatedly or wrongfully misinterpreted by a few extremist groups for their own purposes. I consider anyone who commits these crimes as “extremists” regardless of their purported religious identity. But we cannot lay collective blame on every Muslim man, woman and child for these wrongs. We cannot accuse the entire Muslim community around the world for what extremists do for whatever purpose.
Can you tell us a little about how you became a photo journalist and if you faced any difficulties in realising this goal?
Photography or the visual media is a powerful form of communication. I, as a photojournalist of a developing country, regularly face many types of difficulties and challenges in pursuing my art. When it is a question of survival by doing photography, there is limited space for us in our country and being an independent photographer I always have to search for opportunities. Today photography is more based on legacy, like other forms of the art movement. In our country [Bangladesh], the photography movement is very much institution oriented and only the institutional legacy is maintained. No other form is either appreciated or encouraged with the same honour or prestige, so I am continually fighting for my right to shoot images. I have practiced documentary photography for some time, and now I am departing from what is ostensibly a classical genre and shifting to fine art photography where I feel more freedom and can express a more personal point of view.
Technology has spawned a myriad of snappy snappers and a constant stream of selfies. What sets you apart from the selfie crowd and how has digital technology influenced your work as a photographer?
I have been using a film camera during my studies at Sydney University which I really enjoy. I have witnessed the transition between the film and digital era. I welcome new technology which offer new perspectives and new possibilities. The digital world offers more of a dynamic work-flow and helps to create a new kind of contemporary art. If we look at Andreas Gursky and Thomas Demand, both have pioneered fine art photography and provided technology assisted forms of photographic art which are very fresh in terms of traditional practices of photography from the past. Gursky’s performatism is a new perception of seeing the world through the lens. On the other hand, demand has produced and constructed reality. His many pictures express wide political statements for example for Kitchen c. 2004 where Saddam Hussein was hiding before he got caught. The times have changed and with that change so does the philosophy of art and human connectivity. We live in a global village, the dominance of religion is diminishing and freewill and individualism are the prominent power for new living. We are living in a ‘selfie culture’ now. And it is normal for people to enjoy taking pictures of themselves and sharing those moments on social media. It is only a way of communication and to connect with their friends who live in other parts of the world. Globalization is the key point of technology. You can be drinking tea in China and talking to friends in Paris. As I explained: I am moving away from shooting pictures of realism for my personal work and investing more time on generating ideas based on technology and philosophy from the consciousness around me.
Many of your pieces have overt political overtones and clever subtexts. Can you explain the messages and thought processes behind your work and in particular the Obama and Julian Assange photos?
I am being a conscious person. What is happening around the world always forces me to think critically. The creation of “Barack Obama” (c.2015) is definitely a political picture where we see him with a “Mona Lisa” smile that creates a paradox. Mr. Obama is a two time President of the United Sates of America and the country is undoubtedly one of the most powerful countries in the world. If we look objectively at the foreign policy of the Obama government , in particular the “War on Terror,” there were many fatal flaws that ultimately destroyed key countries in the Middle East. Though there have been dictators of those Middle Eastern countries, by invading those countries and by deploying military action he made the world unstable and humanity has been lost. The fate of the ordinary people of Iraq, Libya, and Syria are under gross uncertainty. At the same time, the rise of extremists in the name of Jihad have widened Islamophobia and anti-Muslim feelings throughout the world. The majority of Muslims suffer every day for the acts of others. No where else is this true. For example, the entire Italian community are not punished for the sins of the Vatican and IRA bombings didn’t cause people to attack all Catholics in every part of the world. Those who control the world, those who are great leaders, never seem to be accountable for their actions. The Mona Lisa smile is a metaphor, fairness, a beauty that only belongs to great personality. Ironic then that the Noble Peace Prize was given to Mr. Obama to reduce the horror of any kind of war, and yet war is omnipresent all over the globe.
Julian Assange believes in freedom of information and identifies with that fundamental concept. I am not going in to the debate of how he collected secret data by breaking the laws or his personal issues but this information and the material he gathered has changed many global policies and relations even in Western countries. The world is now reliant on a virtual platform which is not absolutely secure. One can break through, hijack, or steal data from anywhere. I depicted his picture in pixelization, my goal is to find out who is Julian Assange and what he has done for mankind and if it is worthy or not. Will the world in the future have free access to information? Assange is the man who started it and sacrificed his life doing so now interned in an Embassy. His fate is still unknown, fighting for rights of all according to his ideology. We must not forget.
Changing topic slightly – what do you think the most important skill of a shooter is?
Photography is a vast disciple. Every photographer requires different skills for their particular genre. For a documentary photographer engagement with the subject matter is most important. For a fine art photographer, a wider knowledge not only in art but also in other subjects are most valuable to understand other forms of art and to practice by your own.
You’re currently studying History of Art at Oxford, do you enjoy the cultural differences, have you ever been subject to anti Muslim abuse yourself. Is it something that worries you?
Oxford is a wonderful place for learning. It is a multicultural place and people are very open minded. Religious identity is less important here as a student. I am fortunate in that I never had to face any such kind of anti-Muslim abuse.
So, what’s your favourite way to shoot: black and white or colour?
It depends on what genre of photography I am up to. I love both shooting in colour and black and white. I choose the tonal aesthetics on the subject matter. In recent days, I have changed my way of creating images. I often manipulate, create ready-made pieces of artwork inspired by Marcel Duchamp. I use collected imagery from open sources on the internet or recreate sets in my studio to reconstruct the reality of what happened before by getting reference images from video or other sources. Photography as an art medium is still in a developing position, not many photographers have experimented with this extensively. There are huge possibilities in this arena.
And if we could conclude on a positive note what’s your message to those who fear Islam?
Islam doesn’t mean terrorism. Islam is a religion of peace like other religions. It is absurd that people who practice Islam must be considered a terrorist. Extremism is in every religion, the proportion can be short or long. The planet where we live is our home and our common identity is Humanism. Islamophobia should be considered a psychological disease that will destroy socio-cultural solidarity and societal harmony.
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