When a young photographer struggled to find authentic portrayals of Muslims in the media, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
Alia Youssef, a freelance photographer based in Toronto, has created two projects over the past four years with the aim of diversifying the representation of Muslims in Canadian media.
Youssef has been in Canada since she was eight years old. A few years after she came to Vancouver from Egypt, she found her passion.
“I fell in love with photography when I was 14 and started photographing my mom and sister,” she said.
Youssef’s love for photography took her to Toronto, where she continued to pursue her passion as a student and freelancer.
While focusing on photography through her undergraduate degree, Youssef created The Sisters Project. The project, which began in late 2016, profiled Muslim women from across the country.
“Talking about the issues I really care about with photography is what lights the fire under me,” she said.
Her journey took her to 12 Canadian cities, where she got to not only meet and photograph the women, but also learn about the communities they came from.
“I was really inspired,” she said. “I realized I didn’t know very much. I certainly didn’t know the first mosque was built in 1938, or that (the Muslim community) in Edmonton had such a long history.”
Complicating the narrative
When Youssef looked at how Muslim communities were historically represented in Canadian media, she didn’t find any colourful narratives.
Instead, all she found were one-dimensional stereotypes that were used repeatedly.
“A very common one is Muslim men are terrorists,” she says. “And with Muslim women, it’s usually that they’re oppressed.”
Youssef didn’t believe the answer to this problem was in portraying Muslims in a positive light. Instead, she wanted to complicate that narrative.
“It’s (about) creating a space for people to illuminate the different aspects of their lives that don’t fall into the categories of negative and positive.”
The idea for her new project, Generations, was born from this realization.
In Generations, Youssef handed the microphone over to Muslim families in Canada so they can tell their stories. For the project, Youssef took family portraits that included multiple generations from each family.
“I thought family portraits offered this wonderful opportunity to learn about each generation’s perspective,” she said.
The thirty families featured in her project talked about how they came to Canada, what accomplishments they are proud of, and what their hopes are for future generations. Five of these families are in Halifax.
“Canada is so young and the things that people are experiencing throughout Canada’s history can change so rapidly.”
Diversity in the photo industry
In Generations, which was launched in July 2020, Youssef featured only the women of the family.
“I wanted to combat the idea of the Muslim woman being an oppressed silent person who’s at the will of her male counterpart, because that was a stereotype that was really bothering me,” she said.
Youssef also wanted to bring attention to how different Muslim women can be, including their views, experiences and even how they look.
She said she believes so many marginalized communities haven’t historically had the opportunity to decide how they want to be represented in photographs.
That’s why it’s important to have photographers from different communities. They are the only ones able to truly understand how their community prefers to be portrayed.
“It’s just such a gaping hole in the industry,” said Youssef. “You can’t have true representation of diversity if the people behind the lens are not diverse, too.”
A jump back in time
All the photos in the project were taken using film photography.
Youssef said she chose the older format because the project depended on revisiting the experience of previous generations and researching the archives for depictions of Muslim communities.
“I wanted the photographs to have that feeling that you were getting a glimpse into the past and that you could find these photos in the archives if you were looking for them.”
When Youssef sent the film photographs to the families, she also included the same photos, but taken using a digital camera.
“Often the participants were telling me that they actually preferred the film photographs because the colours are so much richer,” she said. “My hope is that people will notice the difference, even if you can’t pinpoint (it.)”
Generations was supposed to launch through an exhibition in Toronto, but COVID-19 put a wrench in Youssef’s plans.
With the help of her husband, who is a web developer, Youssef was able to publish the project through an online exhibition.
“We built it from scratch,” she said. “I wanted the website to look like you’re walking through a gallery.”
In addition to exploring film photography and website development, Youssef said Generations helped her learn more about communicating with her subjects and understanding their needs.
“A camera holds a lot of power,” she said.
“I’m trying to be part of the change in the photo industry that’s more considerate of … our position in regard to the people we’re photographing and to always include their voices so they’re not being tokenized.”
Youssef said she hopes the project would be a chance to gain an understanding of the shared history that Muslim communities have across Canada.
“I hope the project is a way for people to diversify their thinking and come out of this time in history with a broader sense of empathy and connection.”