If you haven’t heard of Alia Youssef yet, you will. The up-and-coming Canadian photographer is on a mission to not only blaze a trail for Muslim women in the industry, but also totally flip their image on its head. Her latest series, “The Sisters Project,” profiles Muslim women in a way that might make you think twice before you judge a book by its cover. Or, in this case, its photo.
“The Sisters Project combats negative stereotypes of Muslim women by showcasing the diverse stories of inspirational women across Canada, while also creating a space of inclusion and belonging for all self-identifying Muslim women to embrace and celebrate their unique identities,” Alia explained to Muslim Girl.
And it’s been resonating. So far, her work has been showcased at the Parliament of Canada, the Aga Khan Museum, and Nuit Blanche. Alia has also been recognized with both the “Combating Hate, Advancing Inclusion” award and the Dr. Julius Lukasiewicz Award for “producing photographic work that reflects the unique ability of photography to capture images which normally escape the naked eye, and with the touch of a finger, record beauty as it exists everywhere.”
Oh yeah, and did we mention she shot for our Muslim Girl x Getty Images stock photo collection?
Below, Alia talks to Muslim Girl about the inspiration behind her work, how anyone can get involved, and her advice for Muslim women trying to break into the field.
Growing up as a Muslim woman, in some cultures practising creative talents are admonished because of enforced gender roles. Who or what inspired you to learn photography?
My mother was always passionate about photography and studied filmmaking at London Film School before I was born. As I grew up, it was clear how creative I was so she knew I would inevitably also become an artist. Although I tried many forms of art before finding photography— I dabbled in acting, playwriting, painting, and drawing, but quickly pushed everything else aside when I first picked up a camera. The moment I picked up a camera was at a children’s birthday party. My mom handed me her point-and-shoot and asked me to snap some photographs of the kids. I got very entranced with my assignment and spent the rest of the party taking photographs. When we got home, my mom looked at the photos and acknowledged that I had talent in the area so she fostered it. My mother and father quickly helped me get my own DSLR camera and I began becoming the neighbourhood photographer: I did everything from birthday parties, to family sessions, to headshots, to a CD cover, to shooting my first wedding within the first couple months of that first event. Since I was making money from photography and winning awards from the very start, I believe there was no reason to not support me as I grew as an artist. My father’s sole request was for me to take it as seriously as possible, so that’s why I ended up moving to Toronto to go to Canada’s top school for photography.
The Sisters Project has become more than a photo series. Your subjects link up and foster sisterhood. Did you expect such growth?
When I first conceptualized the project, I had no idea it would be anything more than a school thesis project. Everything that came next has been a huge surprise and a blessing. When I started to realize that the women in my photo series were connecting, supporting, and speaking with one another I was elated. One of the core reasons I began the project was my craving for a deeper connection with Muslim women, and my hope to one day feel that sisterhood. The fact that it has happened for me and for the women in my project is incredible because I think this sisterhood is what’s most needed right now.
How did you come up with The Sisters Project?
I took a “Women In Islam” course in my final year of university and we were speaking a lot about Muslim women’s representations in historical and present-day media. One class, our teacher invited a guest speaker from a local Muslim women’s organization and one of the speakers said: “I’m tired of Muslim women being painted with the same brush.” I had wanted to start a portrait series for my next school assignment, so I decided at that moment that I would start a photographic portrait series that showed how diverse Muslim women were. Before I began taking any photos I did a lot of research on how the community was feeling and if this project was something the community would appreciate. One of the books I read was actually Amani Al-Khatahtbeh’s book “Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age.” What she spoke about struck a chord with me that my feelings on media representation and growing up post 9-11 were shared. I began photographing my mother and sisters and quickly started meeting women of all ages, backgrounds, and careers in Vancouver, BC and Toronto, ON and started asking them similar questions about how they feel they are represented, perceived, etc. I then took all the photographs and interviews and started the Instagram, which I have been updating once a week for a year now with inspirational Muslim women.
As a Muslim woman who is projecting Muslim women as themselves from a diverse range, how do you deal with negative backlash in response to sensitive subject matter?
The internet can be a very mean place, especially to Muslim people. I’m creating a positive, empowering space on the internet that showcases amazing Muslim women and I will do my best to keep the internet space I occupy safe for the people in my project. What I’ve also learned is, I can’t control what gets said when the project is shared through other channels and media, all I can do is hope that my project has affected more people positively, and changed more minds, than what I can see from certain comment sections.
What advice do you have for Muslim women going into artistic or creative fields?
My advice to everyone, not just Muslim women, is to hone your story and figure out how to communicate it with your passion. I believe that this project is as successful as it is because I am so passionate about the message. A portfolio of photographs, paintings, songs etc. that you have no personal connection to or that anyone else could make, won’t be what’s successful. Viewers, as well as people in the industry, want to know your motivation and why this particular story is important to you. So if you care about environmental issues, create art about it. If you’re obsessed with animals, make art about it. If you care about mental health, make art about it. Just make sure that you’re in your own art somehow, and make sure you care. Also, remember the purpose of why you’re doing it, because if you stay true to WHY you’re doing it, then nobody’s negative responses can phase you. Remember why you’re making it for yourself and for people like you.
What’s next for you?
In March I will be having my first public artist talk at the Ryerson Image Centre (Toronto.) I’ll be talking about Muslim women’s representation pre and post 9/11, I will be talking about my collaboration with Muslim Girl and Getty Images on their campaign to flood the web with positive images of Muslim women, and of course, I’ll be focusing on The Sisters Project. After that, I’ll be co-teaching a digital storytelling course at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (Surrey, BC) designed specifically to empower Muslim women to tell their stories through photography and film. In the summer, I’ll be embarking on a cross-country trip in hopes to meet, photograph, and interview more incredible Canadian Muslim women. As well I’ll be creating a short film about the trip which will be published in the fall. Come September, I’ll be exhibiting The Sisters Project in a solo exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre (Toronto) which is very exciting for me, as I’ve been looking forward to having a solo exhibit of the project since I began it.
If other sisters would like to participate or support you, what is the best way for them to do so?
The best way to support me personally is to follow and share. I created this project so that it could be viewed and interacted with, and sometimes it’s difficult to get that attention no matter how much media coverage gets placed on the project. It means the most to me when people put my project on their stories or repost some of the images because it shows that they believe in this project enough to attach their voice to it.
If any Canadian women would like to be involved I’m doing a cross-country tour this summer. If they follow the Instagram page and DM me, or email me through the website www.thesistersproject.ca I will for sure get in touch with them.