Emphasizing empathy through pictures

Zoshia Minto, who recently founded Everyday American Muslim, talks about how dispelling fears creates dialogue and connects communities.

On February 10, 2015, three Muslim students were shot and killed by their neighbor in North Carolina. The victims were newlyweds Deah Barakat, 23, and Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and the bride’s 19-year-old sister, Razan Abu-Salha. According to a CNN report, the women’s father said his daughters “were always trying to serve the community” and Yusor’s husband had also participated in a volunteer mission “at a dentistry clinic for Syrian refugees in Turkey.”

“Two years ago today three Muslim students, Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan, were killed in their home in Chapel Hill, NC by a neighbor who reportedly was angered by an ongoing parking dispute. The families of the slain students believe it was a hate crime driven by Islamophobia. Deah, Yusor, and Razan’s legacy of community activism and their desire to help those around them was honored February 4th with the opening of The Light House Project, an office space and community resource center, which will be used to help local youth groups carry out various community service programs. In this picture, a crowd of more than 400 people gathers at Dupont Circle in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015, to remember Deah Barakat, 23, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan, 19. The three Muslims were shot to death in their home in Chapel Hill, N.C. two days earlier.” Photo by Zoshia Minto.

Though Zoshia Minto didn’t know the family personally, a friend of hers photographed the young couple’s wedding. Their death struck something within Zoshia and she responded in the way she knew how: photography.

“Photography is a great tool for telling stories and I’ve seen how pictures affect people’s reactions and perceptions. As a photographer, I feel like I can show the reality of American Muslims since I see it and live it,” said Zoshia, who was raised by Pakistani parents near Baltimore, Maryland.

When Zoshia started focusing her camera on the daily lives of American Muslims, she began with her family and friends, photographing everything from birthday parties and community events to religion and education.

From top left: 1. Models are given instructions before walking the runway at the Haute and Modesty Show during DC Fashion Week in Washington. The show, which was part of DC Fashion Week for its fourth season, featured modest fashion from various local and international clothing designers. 2. A girl holds on to her father’s hands as she dips into the pool. Manteo, N.C. 3. A ballerina-themed birthday party at a dance studio in Hoboken, NJ. 4. Dr. Wagdi Attia blows out the candles on a cake at his surprise 70th birthday party held at a friend’s home in Vienna, VA. 5. Kids run and play in the mosque while the adults take cell phone pictures. Lanham, MD. Photos by Zoshia Minto from @EverydayAmericanMuslim.

“I just feel like we’re bombarded with a lot of stereotypical, negative images…and that’s not what I see around me. The point of showing these images is to show what connects us as people, not to emphasize the differences. Some of the pictures I’ve been taking obviously show Muslims in mosques or doing things that reflect their faith, but at the same time there’s a lot of just everyday situations. I’m hoping that when people look at those, they just see people and not somebody who is different.”

Two weeks after the US presidential elections, Zoshia was having coffee with Muhammed Muheisen and Roos Wijngaards, co-founders of Everyday Refugees, who inspired her to start her own Everyday account. She created Everyday American Muslim on Instagram “right then and there.”

“We live in a time in which social media shapes a lot of public opinion, and you can tell stories and reach a lot of people quickly,” said Zoshia.

From left: 1. Jehan, 8, plays with a cat at the Islamic Community School at Masjid As-Saffat in Baltimore, MD. The school has been in operation since 1977. 2. Mazin shields his younger sister as they play in the water fountain at a shopping center in Fairfax, VA. Photos by Zoshia Minto from @EverydayAmericanMuslim.

Soon after creating the account, a man from Michigan reached out to Zoshia saying, “I don’t want to fear or hate you, I hope to learn and understand.” Happy to receive his message, Zoshia responded with thanks and told him to feel free to ask her any questions.

“That sort of response to the feed is part of the reason for the project and for specifically sharing it on the Instagram platform because it’s just so accessible, and you can see it every day. It’s good to know that there’s actually this interest and thirst for knowing something greater than what you see on the daily news.”

But creating dialogue among outsiders is not Zoshia’s only hope. She explains that just like with any group of people, there are also issues within the Muslim community. One is that African American Muslims are often written out of the narrative by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

“American Muslims are not just immigrants. There’s a huge population of African American Muslims who have been here for generations.” By including a “wider range of people” to reflect the real diversity within their community, she hopes the images will stir conversation among Muslims, too.

From top left: 1. Visitors at Masjid As-Saffat in Baltimore, the first mosque in Maryland. Photo by Zoshia Minto. 2. Baltimore City police officers cheer on contestants in a potato sack race at Peace Fest held at Masjid ul-Haqq in Baltimore, MD, June 6, 2015. The event, organized by the Muslim Social Services Agency, was an effort to bring the Baltimore community together following the riots after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American, who died from a spinal injury apparently suffered while in police custody. Photo by Zoshia Minto. 3. People gather at a park in Bethesda, MD for a community potluck dinner to welcome the beginning of Ramadan. The event was organized by Next Wave Muslim Initiative. Photo by Zoshia Minto. 4. Gloria Saafir, 70, is an African American who converted to Islam 16 years ago. Currently she is a member of “Jewels of Islam” group at Masjidullah, Philadelphia. Jewels of Islam is a group made up of majority Muslim women who come from different cultures, ethnicities and religious backgrounds. The goal of the group is to work together to support and establish the role of women in the communities of Philadelphia. Philadelphia, USA. July 2016. Photo by Amr Alfiqy. Photos from @EverydayAmericanMuslim.

While Zoshia is the main contributor to Everyday American Muslim, she is working to include more photographers to achieve diversity. By using the #EverydayAmericanMuslim hashtag, Zoshia has found and invited others to collaborate on the account. Fahrinisa Oswald, a photojournalist who was raised in a Sufi-American community in New York, has featured images on the account from “IslAmerica.” The photography project was part of her thesis at Columbia University where she received a master’s degree in journalism.

“An American Muslim couple gets married at a Sufi mosque in New York. This image is from an ongoing project about American Muslims and Muslims in America: IslAmerica. Photo by Fahrinisa Oswald.”

“I really enjoyed the project because I was able to reconnect with my past and to really appreciate the unique upbringing that I had and that made me the person that I am today,” said Fahrinisa, who had lived outside the United States for 10 years before returning for graduate school.

Her project focused on a Sufi mosque, built by American-Muslim converts, and its members are “a colorful mix” of people from all over the world, many of whom have formed “hybrid families” with Americans.

“The project is intended as an affirmation, or reaffirmation, of the humanity of American Muslims at a time of widespread negative stereotypes and fear. It provides a deeper look into the daily lives of Muslims who have lived in America for many years — sometimes decades, or even from birth — as well as those who have arrived more recently and are seeking to adapt to life in their new American-Muslim community,” writes Fahrinisa.

But, widespread fear can go both ways. A woman Zoshia was photographing for her ongoing project about wearing the hijab stopped participating because she felt uncomfortable due to the current political climate and widespread Islamophobic rhetoric. Fear, misinformation and one-sided views, Zoshia believes, don’t only negatively affect individuals, but also society as a whole.

“The more you fear something, the less inclined you are to work together. You’re not going to come together on the issues that are really important and relevant to everyone, like jobs and health care. The more focused we are on what’s different — and these false sort of threats — just feeds into so much more negativity, and you’re not really focusing on what you can actually solve together, to create a more stable and engaged society.”

The first image published to @EverydayAmericanMuslim on Nov. 23, 2016: “Welcome to Everyday American Muslim. This feed is all about the daily lives of American Muslims, beginning with this image in front of the Lincoln Memorial in DC.” Photo by Zoshia Minto.

Zoshia Minto is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland. Follow her on Instagram @ZoshiaMinto. To see more daily life images of American Muslims, follow @EverydayAmericanMuslim.