Opening the door to Hidden Islam

Hidden Islam by Nicolo Degiorgis
Hidden Islam by Nicolo Degiorgis

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.

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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.

Hidden Islam - 479 Comments. Image taken from the photographer's website.
Hidden Islam – 479 Comments. Image taken from the photographer’s website.

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.

Newport’s Class of 2014

I managed to go along to the University of South Wales, Newport graduation show to see the work of this year’s batch of Documentary Photographers.  The standard was really high and there are several series that I can easily imagine seeing in the Guardian or being made available as books in the very near future.  The exhibition, We Are This, is being held on the third floor of Jacobs Antique Market in Cardiff but the last day is 14 June 2014 so you will need to get your skates on. The We Are This website has images from each of the 31 graduates and contact information should you want to know more.

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In order to better see some of the works I’ve taken images from their websites – click on the photographers name for direct links:

 

Triin Kerge Kodukoht (Place of home)

This work visits the homes of Estonian residents. Estonia, a country that was occupied by the Soviet Union for nearly 50 years, regained its independence in 1991 and in 2004 it joined the European Union. It has attempted to leave the past behind, however there are still elements in the country reminding us of the history. The project takes place between Autumn 2013 and Spring 2014 showing the changing seasons captured through the windows of the homes visited, reminding the viewer of the continuous change taking place. This work will be shown in the Estonian National Museum.

I love the soft pastel colour range of this series and the careful framing of each room is really well thought out. I find the images appealing because they remind me of kitchens from the UK in my youth – the screen images do the prints no justice, the level of detail is incredible. When talking about her work a few months ago Kerge saw the project progressing to focus on the tower blocks that dominate the Estonian urban landscape.  I don’t think that this is necessary as it would detract from the grubby charm she has captured already.

Sam Peat Nothing Like It

Peat’s project is about the challenges facing the NHS and how these manifest themselves in Accident & Emergency (A&E) departments. The images focus on the Royal Gwent Hospital, Newport. On average this A&E department sees a new patient every six minutes and thirty seconds, every single day of the year. Like most A&Es that have to cope with additional stresses from the reduction of services elsewhere in the NHS, the department is under constant pressure to perform despite the limited numbers of staff and resources that they have.

Peat has spent several weeks building up a rapport with the staff of the Royal Gwent and this has given him great access for his photography.  He quickly discovered that the night shift staff tended to be more approachable (perhaps because they were more tired) and meant he was better able to portray the environment as run down and harshly lit. Each day staff are put under more demands to pick up, patch up and push patients out the door. In instances where Peat had to maintain patient confidentiality he has used clever framing and blurring to make the patients anonymous. The series is stronger as a result, we don’t need to see every face to be able to imagine ourselves, friends or family being part of this giant NHS machine.

Sissel ThastumI Am Here When You Are Here

Through the nature, the landscape and the feminine form, I am here when you are here mediates a close and intimate relationship between mother and daughter. It is a bond that is found within the return to the familial; the home and the mother. Portrayed through a melancholic language our relationship to each other, to our age, our gender and our identity become underlying themes.

This was one of the most intimate and ‘quiet’ projects I have seen this year. Thatsum, working in conjunction with her mother, has produced a series of images that are memorable and thought provoking. As part of my own research I look at a lot of documentary photography and this series struck me more as fine art work – and is stronger as a result. It reminded me of the Sabine series by Jacob Aue Sobol but has a much more delicate and feminine touch. The large gallery space didn’t really suit this work (and the images from her website don’t do the prints justice); I would love to see how it would be presented as a book. If you are having problems viewing her website and you use Chrome you may need to switch to another browser.

 

Laura Böök – Pudasjärvi

There are more reindeer than people living in Pudasjärvi, a small town in Northern Finland. With the local population drastically shrinking, the town has set the exceptional goal that in 2018, one in ten residents will be an immigrant. This ongoing project focuses on Congolese families who have moved to Finland to start a new life after fifteen years of living in refugee camps.

Böök’s images are the result of a project that she has been working on for some time and she has made repeated trips over to Pudasjärvi. The wider body of her work includes family album portraits from the Congolese migrants and these are a mix of happier times and harsher life in the refugee camps. These images, when added to the current environmental portraits, work really well to show the stark difference of the lives of the subjects.

This work deals with a really contemporary issue and I love that Böök has found somewhere that is actively looking for migrants at a time when Europe seems to be trying to close the doors. There were only a few images form this series on display from a much larger collection so hopefully the entirety will make it into print soon as I’d love to see the project when it is completed.