Photography | A Muslim’s Dilemma

When I was younger, I dreamed of being a photojournalist. In high school, I took a photography class and loved it and one Christmas, I was able to convince my dad to buy me my first SLR camera. I paid for my subscription to Life magazine out of my own money earned from delivering newspapers or babysitting. I spent long hours pouring over old copies of National Geographic magazine interested as much in the stories and people behind the photos as in the actual photos.

I knew the names, photos, and life stories of Bourke-White, Cartier-Bresson, Parks, Adams, Eisenstaedt, Leibovitz, Lange, Avedon, Ritts, Meisel, Demarchelier, Lindbergh, Nachtwey, Newton, and Testino.

As an introvert, I like the solitary nature of photography. While in a crowd, I can focus on searching for and composing a shot but can also be apart from them without anyone noticing, alone with my thoughts. Being from Rochester, NY, the home of Kodak, I, like the company, resisted the digital age.

After I converted to Islam, I moved to solidify my Muslim identity, and gravitated towards a very conservative form of Islam. Certain online fatwa websites became our bible and the opinions of a few overseas scholars the final word on any issue of dispute. Anything western or American was looked at with suspicion and disdain. Strange as it may seem, there were benefits to this ultraconservatism. I read a lot of books and articles and listened to many lectures. I formed an attachment to learning and seeking out authentic religious knowledge, and forged real bonds of brotherhood and community with other like-minded Muslims.

As I read online fatawa and listened to lectures, I learned of the difference of opinion about photography and my heart sank. I was so afraid of doing something wrong that I put my SLR camera away. I left rolls of film undeveloped and may have thrown some away. I resolved to follow the hadith about avoiding gray matters, so I stopped taking pictures and stopped allowing myself to be photographed. I was quite the buzzkill, always standing off to the side, neither taking pictures nor joining in group photos with friends and family.

I lowered my gaze from people but also from the dunya (worldly life) because it was painful to still see with the eyes of a photographer, noticing details, and composing the next shot in my mind without the aid of camera. Eventually, I stopped seeing those details, and when I went for my driving test, I discovered that my eyes had in fact deteriorated and that I needed glasses. I hadn’t realized that objects in the distance had become blurred.

Even as I learned more about the iktilaf (difference of opinion) over photography and no longer viewed it as prohibited or disliked, I still kept my distance from it. I relented in allowing myself to take photos if asked but would not consent to having my photo taken. I purchased a digital camera but never used it and sold it soon afterward to a friend.

© Mustafa Davis Photography

Several years ago, I heard an interview on NPR with Yusuf Islam where he described his return to making music with instruments after nearly 30 years. His son, inclined toward music, brought a guitar into the house. And one night, Yusuf Islam picked up that guitar and his fingers immediately and instinctively fell into place as he strummed a few chords. That experience led him to create his album, An Other Cup.

I was overwhelmed with emotion as I listened to that story. Some time later, in the darkness of the night, alone in my room, I gently unpacked my SLR that I had put away so many years earlier. I rediscovered some old pictures and rolls of film and with it my longing for photography was renewed.

I purchased my first camera phone, and then a second one and slowly began to take pictures. At first only nature shots, no people, but eventually even shots of people. I try to be sensitive to requests from Muslims who do not want to be photographed. More recently, I’ve allowed myself to be photographed. I find posing awkward and my friends know that the best way to get a shot of me is quickly, when I’m unaware, and before I can say no.

Since joining Facebook, I’ve allowed myself to enjoy the photography of others, and to begin to create photo stories of my own, usually taken quite informally with my camera phone. From time to time, I pour over reviews of digital cameras, point-and-shoot, mega-zooms, ILRs, and DSLRs. I’m still carefully wading into the digital era.

Last week, I spoke to a photojournalist and told him that I didn’t think my photos were much good and that I might not have an eye for photography. He said like any skill, part of it is natural talent and part of it is determination and hard work. He advised focusing on a niche, studying technique, and working hard at it.

Today, I purchased a camera and took my first shots with it.

I love this quote by James Balog:

Photography is thus an antidote to the disorientation of our time; it replaces fragmentation with focus, forgetting with memory, indifference with affection.