It was a combination of circumstances that set American photographer Robert Gerhardt on an epic journey to record on camera the lives of Muslims in America.
The first was the attacks of 9/11; then followed the uproar about the proposed Islamic community centre at New York’s so-called Ground Zero. Gerhardt followed closely similar protests in California, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Florida and other places where there have been attempts to stymie efforts to build new mosques or expand existing ones.
A recent flare-up in the construction of a new mosque in Pocatello, Idaho, which upset some members of the public, was also followed by Gerhardt. Now, in a kind of dialogue-making effort between communities, as a remonstrance against those who object to mosque-building, and also as a tribute to the undefeated spirit of American Muslims, he is showing, for two weeks, starting Jan. 12, 2015, his exhibition ‘Muslim/American, American/Muslim’ at the Idaho State University’s John B Davis Gallery.
The show features photos from more than 17 different Muslim congregations and communities across the United States. It is primarily being hosted by Gerhardt with the hope that it encourages dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims and dissolves the concepts of “them” into “us”.
“On September 11, 2001”, says Gerhardt about the project, “there were innumerable casualties: lives claimed both among the towers and in the aircraft, loved ones shattered by grief, and an iconic city skyline, forever altered.
“Even with the passing of the 10-year anniversary of the attacks, a certain casualty of this tragedy still struggles to even be acknowledged. Muslim Americans have faced the brunt of serious cultural misunderstanding, discrimination, and acts of violence due to their perceived relation to the attackers”.
He first became interested in the subject after reading a report about Muslim Americans in 2010 over a controversy about converting an unused convent on Staten Island in New York into a mosque and community centre.
“Many local residents vehemently protested the intended repurposing at various community board meetings, including the shouting-down of a US Army officer who simply asked if people would be willing to be good neighbours with the mosque”, Gerhardt says.
“My goal for this project”, he continues, “is to try to understand and document the intersection between “Muslim” and “American,” since the latter part of this community’s identity is often forgotten. I began photographing for this project on the first night of Ramadan in 2010, and I continue to make photographs through the present day”.
He contacted the Muslim American Society — the one which was being pummelled on the mosque project in New York — about doing a year-long reportage of a mosque and community centre that the organisation was running in Brooklyn at a re-appropriated catering hall.
He began interacting with and making photographs of this community at the start of Ramadan in 2010, and continued through the end of Ramadan in 2011. With this first part of the broader project complete in terms of the original one-year reportage of the MAS Masjid and Community Center, he continued to photograph other Muslim communities both in New York, and in different cities where he travelled, with the goal of eventually photographing communities in all parts of the United States.
So far, he has photographed mosques and Muslim communities in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Virginia, Kansas and Tennessee. “And while documenting these other Muslim communities may be over a shorter period of time, in some cases just a few days, together the photographs create a more complete story of Muslim American life around the United States”, he says.
Along with these shorter trips to other mosques in cities around the country, he was also granted permission to spend most of a year documenting the American Muslim population that calls Park 51 in Lower Manhattan, New York home (otherwise known as the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’) — the first photographer to have been given such permission.
“The reason I was the first photographer given such permission”, he says disarmingly, “was simply because I was the first person to ask for it”. With this access, he spent time documenting a Muslim community that has been in the limelight nationwide more then any other, yet whose members most people know next to nothing about, according to him.
“For me, being a photographer is more than just making photographs of what I see before me”, he says. “Rather, my photography is an expression of how I empathise with the world and how I relate to what I see in my viewfinder.
“I desire to look into the stories, people and places that others only glance at, or overlook completely. For me, it is not a matter of visiting a place, making photographs and leaving. It is about getting to know the people and places I photograph, which can only be accomplished over extended periods of time.
“It is about trying to step out of my world and into theirs. To sometimes stop being a photographer and know when to put down the camera, and listen and talk instead. Through my photographic expressions, I show both the beauty and the sadness of the world as I see it. I do not expect the viewer to relate as I do to the people, places and things in the photographs.
“But if the viewer comes away having seen something that has made them think or feel in an unexpected way, then my photographs have been successful.
“The media portrays things as if every Muslim is in the Al Qaeda, especially the right-wing press, and that’s just not the case of course,” he said once in a newspaper interview. “I mean, I grew up Roman Catholic, and there are crazy fundamentalist Roman Catholics who blow up abortion clinics or whatever else. There’s always going to be an extreme element in any religion, but it’s a minor group that has that violent bent. And you’ve gotta separate that from what the religion is.”
Gerhardt was born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1977, but grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From an early age, his parents exposed him to the arts through many trips to museums and galleries in both Philadelphia and New York, as well as during trips to Europe.
His first exposure to photography came during his junior year in college, when he took his initial photography class. In 2007, he received his MFA in Photography from the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University in Boston, Massachusetts.
His work has been in numerous solo and group exhibitions in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and is in a number of private collections. He has lived and worked in New York City since 1999.