Photographer Interviews

Book and Exhibition Explore Identities of Young, Muslim British Men

June 16, 2017

By Dzana Tsomondo

London-based photographer Mahtab Hussain’s project “You Get Me?” is a portrait series depicting young, Muslim, British men. A Briton of Pakistani heritage, Hussain knows community well. His generation of young men has come of age in a post-9/11 world in which thorny ideas of identity come with far more barbs. For Hussain, these young men represent a “voice of hybridity” that ultimately is the future of the world but they are at present besieged by reactionary forces. Hussain’s portraits, which were exhibited this spring at Autograph ABP gallery in London and published by MACK, show how this population chooses to define itself amid this uncertainty and hostility.

Hussain’s childhood gave him a sense of this identity crisis when his parents’ divorce left the family ostracized within Birmingham’s tight-knit South Asian Muslim community. His father moved to a white working-class neighborhood and his mother to one that was primarily black and Indian. When he was 7 years old, Hussain and his brother moved in with their father and the boys were suddenly confronted with racism in a way they had never experienced.

“I was aware of racism before but that was the first time it was really ever directed at me,” he remembers. “Words like ‘Paki go home’ and violence and threats were a normal part of my life for ten years.”

© Mahtab Hussain/Courtesy of the artist

“Young man asleep,” 2010. © Mahtab Hussain/Courtesy of the artist

That sense of being an outsider, of his skin color as a barrier to Britishness, would stick with him. Hussain is quick to point out that it was not all bad. He did make friends across various cultural divides and was a generally happy kid with an aptitude for the arts. That talent led him to Goldsmiths, University of London, where he pursued an art history degree. In a sense, “You Get Me?” began with a postcolonial studies course he took as a sophomore in 2003. A professor introduced Hussain to black artists who were challenging ideas of race, class and gender, and the work inspired him to “question the absence of British Asian artists,” he says. As he grappled with ideas of identity and representation in school, outside of the classroom he sometimes drew ridicule from other South Asians for being too “white.” He would retort that his detractors regularly used Jamaican slang and “black” affectations, which led to an important realization.

“The only way we were able, in our totally different ways, to connect to Western society and contemporary culture was through the black experience because we didn’t actually have a voice,” Hussain says. “I don’t see myself reflected on TV, I don’t see myself on billboards, I certainly don’t see myself in the art world.”

Hussain spent his post-collegiate life in that world, working at galleries, studying in art schools and making it to as many exhibitions as he could. The nagging sense of cultural invisibility he had always felt increased. Fittingly, Hussain was working at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2008 when he started taking the photographs that comprise “You Get Me?”

Hussain’s images are bold, colorful and confrontational. His subjects strike defiant poses: a hulking shirtless man in a backyard; a weightlifter with tattooed teardrops under one eye; a stoic little boy atop a mini-dirt bike; a man in a bespoke suit, gazing coolly from beneath an immaculately coiffed pompadour.

Hussain says his compositional style is heavily influenced by 16th century portraiture, which was what he saw every workday at the gallery. “The three-quarter length portrait, the gaze directly at you; when those portraits looked at me, I was very aware of their power.”

© Mahtab Hussain/Courtesy of the artist

“Young boy in pink and grey beanie,” 2014. © Mahtab Hussain/Courtesy of the artist

Hussain traveled around the city, trying to strike up conversations with people, who often ended up influencing the direction the project took. “A year into the project, a particular chap wanted to be photographed and I said I was specifically focusing on British Pakistanis. I felt comfortable in focusing on ‘my community’ but he questioned why I was focusing on them alone.” Hussain recalls, “He said to me, ‘Look, I’m from Iraq but we are all Muslims, you should focus your work on Muslims.’”

Hussain was hesitant to approach the work from that angle because the word Muslim is so “charged,” he says. In the end, the importance of Islam to the identities of his subjects was inescapable, and he widened his focus to include men from Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Bangladesh.

“Are you a Muslim?” was often the reply when he asked if he could take someone’s photograph. He would say yes while making it clear that he was non-practicing, an admission that often set his subjects at ease and facilitated discussion. When he got worn down approaching people on the street, Hussain would go to gyms, restaurants and shisha lounges for a respite, hoping to make a portrait.

“I would attend Friday prayers at various mosques, praying with these men and afterwards have heated debates about religion and life. I simply built the work slowly, not rushing, but gaining the trust of the community while hoping to understand them better,” he explains.

When Hussain began the series he was using an analogue, medium-format Bronica. While cumbersome, the camera brought with it an aura of legitimacy that helped a young photographer secure access. A lot changed in the six years he worked on the project, however. The ubiquity of smartphones and the rise of Instagram meant that subjects expected to see their portraits right away. Hussain switched to a Canon 5D Mark II
with a 50mm prime lens. He did so reluctantly at the time, but now considers it a crucial turning point. “The LCD screen allowed the sitter to see their portrait instantly, which created a type of exchange and broke down the power relationship between artist, sitter and spectator.”

“You Get Me?” examines male identity at the intersection of colony and metropole, Muslim and British. There is a thread of performative masculinity running through these images, but for Hussain, these portraits must be viewed within a context of the enormous pressure on young, South Asian men ratcheted up in the wake of 9/11. “If you are very honest, this is part of the struggle. We are struggling with our own identity, and we are so confused that we latch onto simple ideas of what it is to be a man.” Hussain doesn’t want people to feel sorry for his subjects, however. On the contrary, he wants to acknowledge them as “proud and dignified people, albeit with complex and often conflicting identities.”