Bharat Choudhary

Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova

 My life, in years so far, has been divided between Africa and India. Nigeria brought me up and India crafted me. But the juxtaposition of crisis and beauty in these countries illustrated the relevance of chances and choices in life. I spent 5 years working with CARE in rural development projects by choice but one day met Meg Ryan and her inspiring entourage photographer just by chance. I left my job by choice but happened to learn photography from Magnum photographer Raghu Rai and his son Nitin Rai, by chance.
And now as a photographer also I believe that our chances place us there but it’s our choice that defines our images. My choice is to create images, which document issues that dictate our existence; images that explore the profoundness of the human soul and reveal all that remains a secret to our bare eyes.
I admire William Blake when he asks us to see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, and to hold infinity in the palm of our hand and eternity in an hour.
I believe he was talking about photography and images.

Grants and awards
Alexia Foundation Grant, 2011; 64th College Photographer of the Year, Gold (1st), International Picture Story, 2009; Pictures of the Year International, Emerging Vision Incentive Nominee, 2010; Ford Foundation International Fellowship, Cohort 7
Photocrati Fund, 2nd Place winner, 2010; The Guardian/Royal Photographic Society/ Joan Wakelin Award Finalist, 2010; Ian Parry Scholarship Finalist, 2010


SB. How did the idea of “The Silence of ‘Others’" come to your mind?

BC. My formative years in India were quite eventful. Where on one hand I was fascinated by India’s religious pluralism and syncretism, on the other I was also disturbed by the constant clashes between its many religious communities. The Babri mosque demolition, the Bombay bombings and riots, the killing of Dr. Graham Staines, the Chamba massacre, the Gujarat riots and countless other abominable acts of religious violence took place just within a span of 10 years, from 1992 to 2002. In between, 9/11 also happened and a global ‘War on Terror’ was unleashed. So by the time I chose photography as a career in 2007, I already had a lot built inside me that led to the birth of The Silence of ‘Others’.

 
Rezia Halima Wahid [right], a textile artist, and her three-year old daughter, Noorie, at Rezia's studio in London, UK. Rezia said, 'Islam is a part of me, my existence, but my spirituality is something very personal. My identity as an artist is equally important and I want to be recognized for my work'. September 2011.

 SB. Are you a Muslim? Did you find it difficult to gain access to the communities you wanted to photograph?

BC. I am not a Muslim and access to the Muslim community has been a struggle since day one. I have had all kinds of experiences, some good and some not so good. I still spend half of my time seeking and negotiating access, which unfortunately, in most of the cases, is never granted.

SB. Today, the Muslim world is often described as a 'Fundamentalist' and 'Terrorist'. What world did you discover while working on this project?

BC. The Muslim community, world over, is struggling with several of its own internal issues. No doubt there is a section of the community, which believes that it is its moral and spiritual obligation to oppose anything that is un-Islamic or non-Muslim. They have reasons to believe that the West is at war with Islam and therefore, they would employ any means necessary to win this war.

There is also a large section of the Muslim community that defies the rhetoric that Muslims don’t want to integrate. I have seen that their concerns are no different from the concerns of non-Muslims. They too wish to have better jobs, quality education, equal opportunities and a good life.

Moreover, categories like ‘Fundamentalist’ or ‘Radical’ are just instruments of politics and have almost nothing to do with religion.
 
Kaiser Aslam, 19, sketches the Chicago skyline at the Ohio Street beach, USA, as his sheets of drawing paper fly around. “It's not easy,” says Kaiser. “There are a lot of temptations in this society but it’s my faith in Allah, and his blessings that shield me from all wrongdoings”. May 2010

SB. What is the impact of these stereotypes on young Muslims in the West?

BC. Young Muslims are struggling with socially demonizing discourses. They believe that uninformed portrayals of Islam and Muslims by media propagate stereotypes. Many of them said that, even though born and raised in America or England, they have difficulties in trusting their law and security enforcement agencies and feel that they are more prone to being victimized on account of their being Muslims. They mentioned that non-Muslims harbor prejudice towards them and they are often ridiculed for their beards, headscarves or their socio-cultural practices. They spoke at length about their emotional and mental turmoil using words like frustration, depression, anxiety, anger, confusion, isolation, humiliation, stress and uncertainty.
 
Muslim women and children attend a fair in London, UK. October 2010

SB. How did you choose the people you photographed? What distinguished them?

BC. I believe that every one has a story to share. And no story is less important. So my only aim is to look for young Muslims, who do not mind being photographed. I spend time on the streets, go to various community events, visit organizations and talk to a lot of people I meet at these places. Whosoever grants me access becomes a part of my project.

SB. Is there a story you learned that you can't forget?

BC. Not any one in particular. In fact, each and every story turns out to be unique and often raises more questions than it answers.

SB. Is this project about Islamophobia or did you discover a growing alienation on both sides?

BC. Yes, the project did begin with an objective to explore the issue of Islamophobia in the West. And if I have understood your question correctly then yes, I did observe that many Muslims too have an aversion to the Western society. But that is what my work hopes to explore; to ultimately understand conditions that are fueling the growing divide between Muslims and non-Muslims.

SB. Would you call what is happening to Muslims in Western society a violation of human rights?

BC. Absolutely. Individuals are stripped off their dignity, security; due to discrimination they are not equal members of a democratic society and do not have equal opportunities. They are abused, attacked; all this is nothing but the denial of basic human rights. One can find hundreds of cases where right to a fair trial or freedom from torture has been blatantly violated. In March 2010, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning Islamophobic behavior, including Switzerland's minaret building ban, saying that such measures are in sharp contradiction to international human rights obligations concerning freedom of religion.
 
Iythar, an Egyptian-British fine artist, paints at her studio in East London, UK. One of her paintings [top-left] is titled, 'The Way Sarkozy Intended It'. She said, "It is an interpretation of the burqa ban in France. It shows how the ban takes away the voice and identity of Muslim women, leaving them speechless and incomplete". July 2011.


  SB. Do you think your work will impact and eventually change the Western attitudes towards Muslims immigrants?

BC. To believe that a photographer alone will change the world is naïve but to dismiss one’s potential is even more unintelligent. Nothing will change if I just take a bunch of colorful or grainy pictures, get them published or hang them in galleries. Attitudes can change only if photographers take the pain to collaborate with academics, intellectuals, activists and politics, and have the courage to disrupt the existing power equations. I am challenging a belief system that has existed for years and in order to catalyze a change, I need to be patient and strategic.

SB. What is the future of the project?

BC. I began by photographing what exists and now is the time to photographically research why it exists. I intend to dig deeper and photograph important social, cultural, political and economic factors that are widening the rift between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe. But this is easier said than done. A lot of research and reading has to be accomplished first.