Recognised as a leading Muslim-American artist by the White House in 2010, photojournalist Sadaf Syed has followed her own unique path to celebrate her identity as a woman. Post 9/11, Sadaf observed a generally prevalent bias towards Muslim women, and set out on a journey across the US, travelling from state to state, going through airport scanners and 'random checkings' to capture the stories of covered women across the country. The result was a photo-documentary book 'iCOVER: A Day In The Life Of A Muslim-American COVERed Girl that sold out within months of publishing.
Now, having self-published the second edition, Sadaf is considering international sequels of the book. She's in the UAE currently, and will have her 'iCOVER' exhibition at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation (Al Majarrah Area Sharjah) from November 17, 2011 to January 7, 2012. We got chatting with the lady about her very interesting project, her path as she worked on it and the future she sees for it.
Tell us a little more about yourself. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Chicago, grew up in Los Angeles, and studied at the California State University. I also lived in Saudi Arabia for six years of my life. I moved back to Chicago after I got married.
What first inspired you to become a photographer?
Having come from a family full of talented people, it was natural that I would be inspired by them. At the age of 15, I became passionate about capturing people and their stories through photographs. I started off by working with models and actors and progressed to wedding portraits. After that everything just snowballed and here I am today. I love the fact that you get to learn so many things about a person through a single picture - their culture, their natural state of being, and their life.
Did you face any obstacles when you travelled around the US for your work?
Yes and no. Yes, because whilst travelling most of the times we were subjected to extra screening. Even though I made sure that my children and I followed the regulations of taking off our shoes and coats, we were always pointed out to the security because of the fact that I wore a scarf. Another difficulty I faced was when I realized that the press were so stereotyped about us and that there was more negative than positive coverage about Muslim women who wore scarves. I felt a little sad about the fact that I wasn't aware that there were so many fabulous and hard working women like myself all around the US. On the other hand, I was very excited and proud to be one of them. This gave me the chance to show the world what the press doesn't cover. Overall, this was a great learning experience for me.
What is the third edition of the book going to include?
There are a lot of ideas in the pipeline for the third book. Most importantly, I want to continue to show the world that Muslim women who wear scarves aren't any different from the women who don't. There are more similarities between us than differences. For example, one photo shows a mother playing with her special needs child. She faces every joy and difficulty any mother would; just because she wears a scarf doesn't mean her life is any different. Like every other women, she is trying to juggle all aspects of her life. She should be honoured because of the reason that even though she lives in this advanced society, she has stuck to her religion and is proud of it.
Where do you plan on travelling for iCover Part 3?
I see huge potential for the UAE and the European region, so they will be my next destinations.
Tell us more about your meeting with US President Barack Obama.
To sum it up in one word, it was unforgettable. I still remember that I was on my way to Canada to promote my book when I received the invite by email. It was wonderful to see Mr.Obama - he is a people's person. He gave each and every one one of his guests a warm welcome and a chance to speak about themselves. The dinner was traditional and amazing.
Who is your favorite photographer?
Steve McCurry from National Geographic. He knows the right moment to click a picture, the right person for it, and the right look for it.
How do you juggle a family and such a hectic career?
I believe in the saying 'Where there is a will, there is a way'. If I just kept thinking that I live in the US with two kids and a husband and make a fuss about it, I would not have reached where I have. I believe that one should be organised, have great time management, and be passionate about their work. Also, as long as God is on your side, nothing should stop you.
Have you noticed any difference in people's attitude after the release of your book?
Even though my book has received mixed reviews, personally I have seen a positive difference in people around me. People have told me that initially they had a few problems in trying to relate with women who wore hijabs, but after they had been exposed to my book their opinions have changed and become more accepting.
Having travelled the world, which is your favorite city?
Dubai, because of its global and multi-cultural environment. San Francisco because people use art as an education tool to share their experiences.
Besides photography, what are your other hobbies?
Reading and watching documentaries. Spending time with family and friends. Travelling.
SADAF SYED'S DUBAI DIARY
What do you think of Dubai?
Dubai is a gorgeous city where anyone can fit in. It gives you the chance to live with different cultures and to grow with them.
What's your favourite spot in Dubai?
The Dubai Marina
If you could capture Dubai in one picture, what location would you pick?
It would be impossible because of all the amazing spots in Dubai. I would love to capture Dubai's timeline and show everyone how this city has grown in terms of personality and opportunity.