Adding Islam to a Latino Identity
By James Estrin
Eirini Vourloumis is a freelance photographer who has focused on Islamic communities in the United States. She is now in Greece, where she was born, to cover the economic crisis. Ms. Vourloumis is a graduate of Parsons and the Columbia Journalism School. Her work has been published on Lens and in The New York Times, New York Magazine, FT magazine and The Village Voice. Her conversation with James Estrin has been edited and condensed.
Q. What got you started documenting Muslim life in America?
Q. Is it different being Muslim in America than in other countries?
It is challenging to live in the U.S as a Muslim. There is a heightened sense of Islamophobia, which can be aggravated by the general portrayal of Muslims in the media. Negative images of Islam — drawn from associations with fundamentalism and terrorism — have begun to marginalize Islamic communities, accentuating the prejudice that many Muslims face in their daily lives. This is why I believe it is important to document Islamic communities in the U.S., to simply show everyday life without focusing on politics or race.
Q. What did you learn as you explored Islam?
Q. Why Latino Muslims? Why do you think so many are converting?
I met women who were affiliated with the North Hudson Islamic Educational Center in Union City, N.J., which has a large Latino Muslim congregation. They have created an extended family for themselves. I was fascinated by the duality of being Latino and Muslim and how religion could bring two disparate cultures together. Most converts were still immersed in their original culture — through food, music and closeness to their families — but had created a Muslim identity through their daily devotion to the religion, modest dress, prayer, preaching and fasting.
Q. Are there any issues that are specific to Latino Muslims?
Q. Are they accepted in the Muslim community?
Q. Many photographers rely on clothing, prayers and the time-tested cliché of a large number of shoes on the floor outside a mosque. What did you do to get past the stereotypical images?
The biggest challenge with photographing Islam is having to respect each individual’s concerns. For example, some women could not be photographed without their veils, which made photographing intimate moments in homes difficult. There are a few photographs I had to omit from my final edit. One showed a couple salsa dancing at a family gathering. The subjects did not want to be shown dancing publicly, since this went against their conservative Islamic principles. It was important to respect their decision, retaining the trust between photographer and subject. Also, it shows the complexity and challenges that some converts face, straddling two distinctly different cultures.
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