LIBRARY Member, Artist and Photographer Sara Shamsavari received international acclaim after the series’ London, Paris and NYC Veil debuted earlier this year as part of Southbank Centre’s Women of the World Festival. Her photographic portraits celebrate the styles of young, urban Muslim women by exploring how they express their individuality through vibrant hijab styles.
Before the preview of her captivating solo exhibition at LIBRARY on Monday 2nd November 2015, we caught up with Sara to find out more about the inspiration and motivation behind the Veil Series.
Tell us a about your photography?
I’ve always worked across different artistic mediums, but the thing that I love about photographic portraiture is its ability to create a bond between the person creating the portrait, and its subject. It’s also an incredibly inclusive art form that appeals to those who may not ordinarily visit a gallery or a museum.
My work is project-based, and addresses concepts such as uncelebrated beauty, British identity, and the hijab in Western societies. The projects look at social and cultural concerns that exist within our society, and explore identity, migration and displacement.
Do you feel that your own life experiences have influenced your work?
I was born in Iran and have survived war, cancer, and running between countries to escape persecution – all before the age of two. Growing up in London in the 1980s and 90s, migration was happening but it was not as common as it is today. Foreigners, including my family, did experience a level of prejudice.
Being from one culture and growing up in another has inspired my exploration of identity. I am influenced by the idea that whatever we face – whether prejudice or misunderstanding – we have a choice between letting it affect us negatively, or turning it into something new and beautiful. I chose the latter. I feel that the women in the Veil Series are shining illustrations of this concept. At a time when they are so misrepresented in the West, they shine with colour and adornment.
How did you first begin photographing women who wear the veil?
I began shooting the Veil Series in London in 2010, photographing people I knew or met on the street. In 2013, London Veil debuted as a series of projections at the WOW Festival at the Southbank Centre. After this, there was so much press and exposure around the series. Hijabista’s all around the world reached out to me to be photographed. I extended the series to Paris and New York, and this year to Philadelphia, Chicago and Toronto.
With this series, do you aim to challenge Western perceptions of the hijab and the women who wear it?
This series is simply the manifestation of a greater ideal, albeit a simple one. It asks us to respect difference, to respect freedom of expression, and to allow people to follow their beliefs or lifestyles without fear. It’s also meant to encourage us to see what is beyond our differences and to the common ground that we all share. A lot of people in the minority suffer, and I was astounded by how much prejudice the headscarf seems to attract. Much of this is due to ignorance. My collaborator, James Maiki and I created a video to accompany the exhibition, in which some of the participants speak with their own voices.
You’ve photographed women in New York, Paris and London – did you feel there were any differences in their attitudes?
Most participants reflected their cities as you would expect. The Londoners were quirky and idiosyncratic, the Parisians chic and particular, and the New Yorkers sophisticated and entrepreneurial. Our identities are so complex and multi-layered, and each of these women reflected not only their cities but also their faith, their widely varying cultural heritage, and their popular culture influences.
What is the one thing you would like a viewer to take away from your work?
If my audience could take away one thing, it would be a reminder to look beyond the surface and to see each other as human beings.
Also the box sets that will be available on Nov 2nd can be pre-ordered, reserve here to avoid disappointment.
Interview by Grace Cain