Identities of a Minority: Muslims in America
The commemorative seminar was held on December 4, 2022. A transcribed record and report of the event are provided below.
*Click the image on the right to open the transcription record (PDF file).
Encounters Involving Diversity
On December 4, 2022, a seminar was held to commemorate the publication of Rick Rocamora’s documentary photo book, The Identity of a Minority: Muslims in America, and the opening of a related photo exhibition. We were granted the opportunity to listen to Mr. Rocamora and other speakers who gave valuable talks in a bilingual environment. Herewith, I report and reflect on the speeches.
Dr. Emi Goto, the moderator and one of the photo book’s two editors, opened the seminar. She explained that the purpose of the series of events was to seek solutions to the modern world’s problems through Mr. Rocamora’s works: division and conflict among people.
Dr. Kei Takahashi, the book’s co-editor, was the first speaker. He is a researcher who studies Islam in modern and contemporary periods and works in Egypt and the United States. While conducting fieldwork among Muslim communities in the United States, he often participated in their activities and empathized with them, sharing their pain and troubles. Some of Rocamora’s photographs record Muslims and non-Muslims spending time together, reminding us that we live in uniquely diverse societies.
Mr. Rocamora, whose longstanding cause has been immigrants’ civil rights, spoke about the current inequality and human rights issues and his experiences during his activities. After 9/11, Muslim communities in the United States were subjected to prejudice and discrimination. In this context, Mr. Rocamora began to document people’s daily lives and feelings and provided information about their religion and culture to counteract the tendency of violence against them.
Professor Eiji Nagasawa, who specializes in Middle Eastern Studies and modern Egyptian socioeconomic history, is the principal investigator of the Islam and Gender Studies project. What impressed me most was his opinion that we can gain from meeting people and learning about their history as reflected in their way of living. He also described Mr. Rocamora’s photographs as works that approached people’s daily lives and lifestyles with a warm gaze. Photographs are one of the places people meet. They provide opportunities to think about relationships and history.
Until then, I always thought of Islam as something in a distant world. Through this emotive collection of photographs created by Mr. Rocamora (and the Japanese photographer Mr. Kenei Sato, who contributed one photo), I encountered contemporary Muslims and realized how ignorant I had been. Now, I would like to meet Muslims from diverse backgrounds with a range of identities and adopt the social issues surrounding them as my own.
Various activities have been restricted or changed in format to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. This seminar was a hybrid of on-site and online sessions, which allowed those who could not visit the venue to participate. The seminar was followed by a social gathering and autograph session in which we witnessed the initiation of new interpersonal connections and exchanges. I want to thank the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa at TUFS and the Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (A) "Research Project on Islam and Gender: Toward a Comprehensive Discussion" for providing us with this opportunity. After Dr. Takahashi met Mr. Rocamora at a mosque in the United States, the cooperation and support of many people resulted in a collection of photographs and an exhibition of his works. Through this, we were introduced to various Muslims vividly portrayed in the photographs. The power of these encounters is deeply felt.
Everyone is a part of diversity. Religious beliefs, interpretations of religion, sexuality, origins, physical and mental conditions, values, and ways of life differ among individuals. People are unique and irreplaceable; getting to know each other is the first step toward building a society where everyone is respected.
＊Eriko Nakano (College of Arts, Rikkyo University)
Mr. Rick Rocamora’s long history of documenting the American Muslim community was motivated by his concern for human and civil rights after witnessing repeated discrimination and violence in American society. The hatred of Muslims, which became more pronounced after 9/11, has created an ironic situation in which religious faith, or Islam, has become an element of division. American Muslims, like all Americans, are important members of society. By capturing their daily lives, Rocamora aimed to give American Muslims a significant voice.
What is important to Mr. Rocamora when he sets up his camera is capturing his subjects’ emotions. He says his photographs are black and white because when one looks at the photo, one can keep an eye on the emotions. His photos capture people full of vitality and maintain the moment’s atmosphere. Mr. Rocamora’s eye overlaps with the person in the frame of his camera through the lens, making us feel as viewers that we are confronting them. I was so convinced that black-and-white photography could capture an abundance of emotion that I tried to convert the photo settings on my smartphone, but, of course, the results were completely different from what Mr. Rocamora captured when he pointed his camera at an object or subject at exactly the right moment.
It is difficult to capture the emotions of a person through a lens. It is a matter of observing the person carefully and ensuring that they do not miss the moment when their emotions overflow. You must have a special flair to capture this. You also need to be able to touch the emotions of a person through a lens. Mr. Rocamora has said that, through photography, one can understand others, but to do so, one must have the capacity to understand others. What did Mr. Rocamora think as he looked through the lens of his camera? While he was taking these photos, what was he feeling at the moment he released the shutter? It might have been a sense of frustration in the reality of discrimination and violence or a sense of relief in the peaceful flow of the participants’ daily lives.
If we take a monolithic view of American Muslims, who are indeed diverse, what we are referring to becomes vague. The uncertainty that comes from vagueness and its fear may lead to discrimination and violence. This is why we should look at each individual human being there. We should respect them and be interested in them. I believe that Mr. Rocamora’s ability to capture a person’s emotions through photographs stems from his sincere attempt to deal with each person as an individual.
＊Haruka Kihara (Graduate School, Ochanomizu University)
Date: Sunday, December 4, 2022
Location: Main conference room, 3rd Floor, Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies
・Moderator: Emi Goto (ILCAA, TUFS)
・Speakers: Kei Takahashi (Toyo University), Rick Rocamora (Documentary photographer), Eiji Nagasawa (ILCAA, TUFS)
Organizer: Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (A): Research Project on Islam and Gender: Towards a Comprehensive Discussion