Photographer Captures Muslims’ Self-portraits

Cecile Holmes


DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) Artist Todd Drake has aimed his camera lens at truck drivers, Alzheimer’s patients and employees of an exotic nightclub. But he’s trying to build interfaith bridges by asking Muslims to turn the lens on themselves.

Drake’s traveling exhibit, “Muslim Self Portraits,” started after he decided he needed to learn more about his Muslim neighbors.

“I just started cold-calling mosques,” Drake said during an exhibition of his work at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “I had an intuitive feeling that they would be interested in this project. I asked them to represent themselves, not to let me define them.”

Drake, an artist-in-residence at Rockingham Community College in North Carolina, has completed several fellowships at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Part of his project was based on a Fulbright fellowship in Bahrain. 

After studying the American South and then North Carolina’s undocumented farmworker migrant community, he decided he wanted to learn more about Muslims in the Tar Heel State, asking Muslims to photograph themselves.

The beguiling and often startling exhibit has been shown at colleges and universities in New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Michigan, as well as in Saudi Arabia and Canada.

In January, the exhibit opens at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures at Indiana University in Bloomington. St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, N.Y., will host the exhibit beginning in April 2012, and the University of Chicago also plans to show it next year.

Initial reactions from Muslims to his project have been positive, Drake said, but comical at times. “At first many people thought I was doing a paper for college and they said, ‘Yes, you may come to our mosques.’”

“Just about every stereotype one might have about the Muslim world I have found is not true,” Drake said. “I have also found a young people culture that cares more about Hollywood than Osama bin Laden. They are evolving.”

“I think there is a lot less to fear there than certain media or certain voices would have us believe.”

Drake hopes the exhibit will help viewers replace fear with openness and curiosity when encountering Muslims. “I hope they will see them as they see anyone else,” he said.