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Speaking for Ourselves

Capturing the human in us all: Sara’s story

Capturing the human in us all: Sara’s story

Anna Marsden

 Migrant Voice -
 Migrant Voice - Capturing the human in us all: Sara’s story

Challenging stereotypical views and exploring identities and diversity are key features in the work of Sara Shamsavari, a well-known British-Iranian photographer and multimedia artist.

“A lot of people judge others just by appearance, on the basis of their age, skin colour, gender, dress, etc,” she says. “I’m fighting against this way to look at people, thinking you know them while you don’t. My work is much about inviting people to take a second look. The idea is that of getting us seeing each other as human beings, rather than polarised groups who are represented, or misrepresented, all around us.”

One of Sara’s most famous works is ‘The Veil’, a collection of over 100 photos of women wearing hijab in five cosmopolitan cities: London, Paris, New York, Toronto and Dubai – “places where women were not forced to wear the hijab, they chose to,” Sara explains.

The series, showing joyful young women, colourfully dressed and wearing a multitude of bright and varied hijabs, was first presented at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 2013, then in several other places in the UK and abroad.

Sara started this series in 2010 by just wandering the streets of each city and approaching women who she wanted to include in her project. After the exhibition in London her work became so famous that many women from different parts of the world contacted her asking to be included in the series.

“This is probably the most impactful of my works,” says Sara. “The images of these women are so different from what you generally see on the media.

“Many people see the hijab, not the woman, but a lot of visitors of the exhibition changed their perspective and said that they were previously walking as with their eyes closed. A comment that sticks in my mind is that of a man who said that he had no idea about women in the veil but when he saw these girls he thought that they were just like his own daughters.”

She’s also happy to have seen so many changes since she started the project, with the first hijab models and hundreds of hijab fashion blogs around the world.

“It’s becoming a movement,” she says.

‘The Veil’ also had a powerful impact on Sara’s team, composed at that time of a dozen of people from many different backgrounds. By working on this project they became closer to one another and new friendships appeared, including that between a non-religious, British gay person and a Muslim woman who wears hijab.

Sara is proud of that impact.

“We spend time with someone we think is not like us on all perspectives, but things can flip.”

Sara’s art is strongly influenced by her personal background as a Londoner who moved to the city with her family (after a short period in Brazil) when she was two years old. The feelings of both exclusion and rich multiculturalism that she has experienced in the city have had a big impact on her life and contributed to the passion for humanity, equality, and unity in diversity that characterise all her work.

“Since we moved here it has been made clear to me and my family that we are foreigners. I remember that when I was at school, just seven or eight years old, a little boy told me that he liked me but I could have never been his girlfriend because I was a foreigner. So, from a very young age, it was very clear to me that ‘you are not one of us’.

“Later London and Britain became more and more diverse, as I grew up,” Sara adds, “and this is a rich experience to me.”

To Sara, it is this richness of diversity that defines Britishness, as she explores with Britain Retold, a collection of over 100 photos of Londoners from many different backgrounds, with the British flag incorporated into each picture.

The series, first exhibited at City Hall in London in 2011, represents “British identity as told by many different individuals and cultures that make up London,” Sara says. “It’s the idea of Britishness by Londoners, a message that is probably even more important now, in this Brexit time, than it was at that time.”

Emphasising the diversity of individuals and their beauty is a constant feature in Sara’s work. Her portraits contrast with stereotypes of misrepresented people and invite the viewer to reflect on who they really are – as in 'The Dandy Lion' (a series curated by Shantrelle P. Lewis, to which Sara contributed) that is focused on black masculine identity, or in 'In Nero: Black Girls in Rome', that celebrates the presence and contribution of these women that may often “not be seen, acknowledged, welcomed or truly understood”.

Sara sees photography as “a way to instantly connect you to the person that you photograph and create bonds in seconds.

“It’s also an amazing way for elevating the person that you are with,” she adds.

But this is not her only form of art. Some of her series are also films, and recently she has started to explore how we can use all our senses with different forms of art to get a deeper understanding of certain things.

Last year she conducted a multimedia experiment based on ‘The Veil’. At a private event in her own home, she selected the stories of five women, projected their photos on the walls, and created an installation based on the bedroom of one of the women. For each of the five, a musician improvised a piece of music and a chef translated her story into a dish.

Sara is also expanding her activities as a singer, pianist and songwriter. In 2018 she joined the 'Citizens of the World' choir, composed of immigrants and refugees.

The name of the choir reflects her own identity as she perceives herself as a citizen of the world and finds herself feeling less British than in the past following the Brexit referendum.

“I feel very upset about what is going on in Britain,” she says. “I feel traumatised, or re-traumatised as it reminds me how things were in the 1980s and in the 1990s. We are taking a step, or even more than one step, backward.

“As a result of Brexit there are increased attacks on people of colour and Muslims, and a rise in the legitimisation of prejudices. That’s very disturbing to me and that’s why I’m feeling less British. I don’t think I’m unique in feeling like this; a lot of people feel excluded in Brexit Britain.”