Whilst working for the Italian Contrasto photo agency Nicoló Degiorgis was given the task of photographing the Muslim community in Northern Italy as part of an international project. Although the wider project fell by the wayside little did Degiorgis know that his work would actually take five years and end in the critically acclaimed book Hidden Islam.
When he turned up to photograph at the first mosque location he was given Degiorgis discovered the worshippers were actually not in a ‘classical’ building but were using a temporary space inside a converted warehouse. In Italy the main religions have good representation with the government but Islam still remains mostly unrecognised. The number of official mosques in Italy numbers only a handful but, in the small region Degiorgis was working in, it is believed that there were almost two hundred ‘unofficial ones’.
Using maps, interviews and newspaper articles he was able to locate many of the temporary mosques. Whenever an application was made to build a permanent mosque there was often complaining letters and articles in local news papers and these were a rich source of information. Using this method he was able to find, visit and photograph around twenty makeshift mosques in two years.
The advent of Google maps and Street View made his research task far easier.
With information from the newspapers he was able to use Street view to get a feel for the area and better locate the mosques. As is only right many of the worshippers wanted to spread word about their mosque and provided interior shots of the buildings for use by Google.
You can check this out for yourself with just a few mouse clicks. If you go to google maps and enter ‘Centro Islamico do Spinea’ you are taken to the exact spot of the mosque. With street view you can see outside and if you select the photograph option you can see the interior images. Degiorgis’ photograph of this space appears in the book on page 15.
By saving all of the places he was able to create a large catalogue of different building types in use. Working through Hidden Islam you can see that a different photographic strategy was used to frame each of the types. In the case of apartment buildings, for example, the camera was placed directly in front of the building and the frame was cropped on the floor that the prayer room was located – if the room was on the 2nd floor then the higher floors would be missing. The communities he works in tends to be those of migrant workers and second-generation immigrants. These communities often have little money and generally live on the poorer fringes of cities. Industrial units tend to be the cheapest places to rent for the mosques.
The book itself is cleverly designed by Degiorgis himself. On flicking through the pages you are presented with endless non-descript black-and-white shots of the exteriors of buildings. From this casual flick through it is easy to miss the point of the work. A second reading of the book an you discover that every other page is actually folded over. When you open out these pages you are presented with colourful and vivid shots of the hidden mosques and their worshippers, usually on their hands and knees in the act of praying.
Degiorgis is sensitive to the needs of those he has photographed and has shown all of the images in the book to the communities involved. If there were any concerns about the images he would drop them. Several images were dropped before the first print run and even now, with a third edition, three of the original images have been swapped out at the request of the communities.
Despite this close cooperation with his subjects, Degiorgis still receives some criticism about his work. It has been argued that the kneeling, head down, position that fills so many of the interior pages makes the subjects look awkward and submissive, more so as the majority of these shots are taken from behind and so we as viewers are presented with rows of raised bottoms. Degiorgis sites several reasons for this approach. From the purely aesthetic capturing this moment allows him to get more people into the frame than if they were standing, it is easier to see how the worshippers fill the space. When he first started visiting the mosques it was the moment of synchronised prayer that struck him as a powerful visual symbol of the act of worship. From a practical point Islamic law strictly forbade him from taking pictures from the front of the mosque during the ceremonies.
After the book was reviewed by Sean O’Hagan for The Guardian website the article received 479 comments in the five days that followed – The Guardian closes off comments after this period for all of it’s stories. These comments have been collected together alongside some of Degiorgis research to make the book Hidden Islam – 479 Comments. This book is intended as an appendix to the main work but only 300 copies have been printed so you may have to move quickly if you want a copy. You can read more about that book on The Guardian website.
Hidden Islam is an example of a great photobook, Hiding the colour images inside bland grey exterior shots is a brilliant stroke of design. Degiorgis is able to deal with the subject of religion, isolationist policies and migrants forced to live along the fringes in a seemingly simple series of photographs. First editions of the book have increased in price but the current, third edition, can still be bought from the Rorhof website for the original price of £35.
– the bulk of the information in this article has been sourced from a presentation given to photography students, including myself, by Nicoló Degiorgis at the University of South Wales, Newport in February 2015.