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Adding Islam to a Latino Identity

By James Estrin
Lens / New York Times
January 8, 2011

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?
A. My interest in Islam began after the attacks of Sept. 11, as I was interested in how the event affected the daily lives of Muslims in New York. Personally, I was interested in exploring Islam because my mother’s family is Muslim, from Indonesia. Being raised in Athens and baptized Greek Orthodox, I was never exposed to the religion. I desired to learn more about my mother’s culture, using photography as my guide.

Q. Is it different being Muslim in America than in other countries?
A. The main difference is that in America, Muslim society does not have a homogeneous ethnic identity. There are communities of different cultures and backgrounds that embrace Islam. This creates an layered Islamic society where all voices of Islam are represented. In Indonesia, most Muslims live in the same moderate religious lifestyle within the same cultural framework.

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?
A. There is a strong sense of community among Muslims in America and a common responsibility to educate non-Muslims on their religion, mainly focusing on breaking the negative stereotypes. Converts are attracted to this sense of unity and are drawn to the supportive framework.

Q. Why Latino Muslims? Why do you think so many are converting?
A. Many describe disillusionment with the practices of Catholicism and the church establishment. These Latinos are lured by Islam’s simplicity and the Muslim’s independence from a mediating clergy in his or her relationship with God. Converts are seeking a different identity. Islam provides a moral code of conduct in everyday life, providing them with a more regimented and disciplined lifestyle.

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?
A. Wearing a veil or growing a beard means Latino Muslims can face the same negative stereotypes and prejudice that may challenge any other Muslim. The largest challenge specific to Latino converts is to be accepted by their immediate families after conversion. Their families gradually accept most, but there are rare cases where converts have been estranged from their families.

Q. Are they accepted in the Muslim community?
A. From my experience, Latino Muslims are embraced in all corners of the Muslim community. This is one of the many reasons why Latinos convert. There are some cases where their devotion or education on Islam is doubted or tested, but this is very rare.

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?
A. I found it was more important to photograph what I was intuitively drawn too, without focusing too much on making sure that there was an Islamic element in an image. It was difficult to show that they were Latino through the images — because of their Islamic dress — but I realized it was more important to simply show their way of life. Focusing on nuance and small details can reflect much more than things that are more straightforward and obvious.

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.

Lens is the photography blog of The New York Times, presenting the finest and most interesting visual and multimedia reporting — photographs, videos and slide shows.

Lens / New York Times link