Wasi Daniju’s first exhibition is composed of portraits of black Muslim women and forms part of a broader symposium at Rich Mix exploring black Muslims in British history and heritage. Ahead of the day, we spoke with her about leaving her day job and ‘falling into’ freelance photography, creating the representation you want to see, the perils of the ‘good immigrant’ narrative as well as her plot to photograph Hamilton’s West End tour (Lin-Manuel if you’re reading this, get in touch).
Wasi got her first digital camera back in 2005 but if you asked back then whether she would be trying to go full-time as a freelance photographer years later, it would’ve been a no. From wanting to go into medicine when she was much younger, later qualifying as a speech and language therapist and then as a counselor a couple of years ago, photography was never more than a hobby.
It’s worth noting that what Wasi describes as a hobby includes a Flickr portfolio spanning nearly a decade from live events, Occupy LSX, Ritzy Living Wage protests, shoots for Media Diversified and their Trashies Awards Party (if you don’t know, check here), a vigil for Sarah Reed and a Trayvon Martin solidarity demo, to name just a few. Wasi’s work has also featured in the Occupied Times (now base publication) and Open Democracy.
It wasn’t until last year however, after leaving a Volunteer Coordinator role with the Refugee Council and later realizing the difficulty of finding a counseling job, that the decision was made to pursue photography fully. With that came the drive to focus some of the themes of her past work and begin developing projects of her own.
“I definitely really enjoy and want to continue with photojournalism-driven stuff, covering actions and protests. But now I also want to be a bit more thoughtful with my work, pursuing projects rather than just turning up and reporting on events. I’m working on an idea around ‘disappearing places’. I grew up partly in Kent, but also partly n Brixton. I moved up the road to Camberwell area and then back to Brixton a couple of years back. Even in that short time I was just hit by how completely different it is now and how massively it’s changed. When I moved back I started looking around to find older existing organizations, shops and cafes that have been there and lived through that change. Tied to that I want to document these changes as they happen. I’m also interested in street art and murals around the city, capturing things before they’re lost, having something to look back at.”
Her first exhibition came about almost by accident, after asking the organizers of an upcoming event at Rich Mix (An Exploration of Black Muslims in British History and Heritage) whether they needed a photographer for the day. Realizing that among an incredible line-up of speakers from academia, heritage, arts and media organizations, there was nothing photographic on the day, Wasi brought it up casually.
“From there I put a proposal together that while not massively coherent at that point, was expressing that feeling of not seeing myself and not being represented. For me this is actually quite a new realization. I grew up in a Nigerian mosque, so all the Muslims around me were black and growing up I was pretty sure all Muslims were black. It was only later in life where I realized ah, there’s this whole world out there. So more recently I’ve come to realize that while I know of this population of Muslims around the world and locally to me, that’s not who I’m seeing when I turn on the TV or when I see pictures or go online. So, the project really arose out of that process of realization and wanting to remedy it slightly rather than just notice it, complain about it and kind of feel quite helpless within it.
As soon as I had the idea and started thinking about it and working on it more, I discovered there are people out there who are doing it already, who are creating that representation more widely. You have filmmakers, poets and other photographers out there and lots of black women who are doing that work. It was then a case of understanding this is what I do, these are the ways I can work to add my voice.”
The proposal was accepted, the ideas and planning were underway but now the question turned to money. On February 10th, Wasi created a Gofundme page to seek out support. With an honest, excited and humble description and a goal of £1,000, the crowdfunder was completed by 73 people in 28 days, going above the target (it is still live for you to support and can be found here). So what did it mean for people to get behind the project and give their support?
“So I can be really cynical. I didn’t go into this cynically but I can sometimes get into this mindset of the world is terrible, people are rubbish, bring on another ice age. And yet, there’s another side of me that is hopeful and believes people can change things and is more ‘we can do this!’. I suppose that’s the side that just went ‘ok, if I’m going to do this I’m going to need money and I’m going to need to ask people for money because there’s no way I’m going to be able to raise it myself’. Behind that there was the determination that I’m going to do an exhibition, a real exhibition, not just a projector on the wall.
It’s been really amazing and I’ve been overwhelmed at times with how generous and supportive people have been, not just through donations but messages of support. I mean the response could’ve been like ‘print your own damn photos’, why should I give you money when you could theoretically just go down to Snappy Snaps and print them there.
While the project is clearly personal, there are broader conversations and questions driving Wasi’s work.
“So there’s been perhaps a more notable and longer conversation happening in America through the work of groups like Muslim ARC (Anti-Racism Collaborative), things like #BeingBlackandMuslim, a Twitter chat started a couple of years ago, but also more recently propelled by the Black Lives Matter movement. At the same time, this conversation has brought up this idea from some people that there’s these distinctions between being Black and being Muslim. Even recently on Twitter I saw someone saying something like ‘all you black people supporting Muslims because of this Muslim ban, y’know they wouldn’t have your back’ and so on. Again, there’s this massive erasure in saying there’s only one identity, either/or, as if they’re separate parts. While there is this background, I also feel that black Muslims in the UK are stepping up to also have their voice heard. The work of Halimat Sode, who founded the Black Muslim Times UK, has really summed up so much of what I’m trying to get at.
I want to also touch on one thing and I need to find a way to express it because I want to make it really explicit. So thinking about the recent Nike advert for example, with the Nike branded hijabs and Middle Eastern athletes, in one way, OK it’s visual representation but in another sense it falls into a kind of ‘these are people doing great things, things you wouldn’t expect a hijabi would do’. In my work, while not everyone is a hijabi anyway, I really don’t want it to be a sense of celebrating people because of what they do, I want it to be celebrating people because of who they are, their existence being enough to celebrate.
One of the things that I’ve deliberately avoided is having anything that describes who people are and what they do. Going forward I do want to think a bit more about how I incorporate that personal detail without saying yknow ‘this is their value, this is their worth’ – their pictures are being taken because they’re worth a certain thing. The Humans of New York project I think does that fairly well and is diverse about who it’s taking pictures of and gives equal worth to their stories and so on. So maybe doing something along those lines that incorporates an element of the person and their story. I don’t want to end up with a ‘good immigrant’-type thing.
I also think back to this photo campaign a year or so ago. It was very much centered around stories like “I’m a doctor, I’ve come to this country and saved this many lives”, I do this, I do that. On the one hand I understood it, it addressed the need to say look we deserve to be here, but I don’t think that anyone should have to prove their worth by what they’re doing. There shouldn’t be a line where you say OK, now you’re worthy of being appreciated. My drive is for the exhibition to be as accurate and honest a representation as it can be. It’s saying we exist, we are here, we’ve been here for a long time and you need to be able to see us. We’re not going to be as easily erased from the narrative and from future narratives as maybe you would like to happen.”
Thanks to the supportive response, Wasi has determination and growing plans for the near future. She has doubled down on her plot to do a photo-shoot for Hamilton’s West End tour at the end of 2017, even @ing Lin-Manuel Miranda on Twitter (“He hasn’t called me, I don’t know what I need to do!”) and is planning to take the exhibition elsewhere in the UK, maybe even to the Outer Hebrides.
“So, I’ve been speaking to two cafes, Maloko in Camberwell and Katakata in Brixton, both black-owned businesses. Katakata have said they’re happy to have my photos up from April so that’ll be a great chance for a lot more people to see them. If I can get the money together I’m planning to seek out café-gallery type places, I lived in Glasgow for a while so that’s a possibility. I actually started thinking about a friend who lives on the Outer Hebrides, Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. Some friends of theirs own a gallery so maybe I’ll be looking to take it to the Outer Hebrides, who knows! I’d really like to take it to places that are perhaps more out of the way, so it’s something new that people are seeing rather than in already multicultural areas.
Beyond that I want to widen things out so it’s not just photos of Muslim women but also creating some kind of archive of black women and girls, thinking through how that would work, through a website or another way. Beyond that there’s the question of is it just women and girls? Where do non-binary people come in, where does that line get drawn in my work, what language do I use. I’m very good at jumping into things, getting behind ideas and just doing them so I think I need to sit down and think about what I want this to look like and how I can make that happen.”
From the decision to leave the ‘day job’ and pursue photography full time to putting on her first exhibition, it’s clear the pace of Wasi’s work has picked up. The renewed drive from a supportive crowdfunder and different projects being worked out makes clear there’s more on the horizon. If a highlight reel of 2016 work is anything to go by, it’s certainly going to be nothing but good things.
A portfolio of Wasi’s work can be found here – https://wasidaniju.500px.com/
Images: Wasi Daniju