Danish-Iraqi photographer Lina Hashim (1978) undertakes daring photo projects on the topic of Islam. Her latest project, Unlawful Meetings, is a photo series documenting the amorous secret meetings of Muslim people. In this interview, Hashim speaks with GUP about hiding places for photographers and how her own struggle with Islam made her more passionate about making art.
When Lina Hashim answers the video call for our interview, she's in a sunny room in her home in Klampenborg, a suburb in the north of Copenhagen. “A lot of white Danish people live here," she says. “So whenever I see darker skinned people, I'm already guessing that they meet here secretly, because they know that their families won't find them here."
Hashim, however, does find them. Hiding in public toilets, behind trees and in cars, she photographs the Muslim couples who meet in secret, engaging in forbidden sexual acts in bushes and cars. Hashim's photos are often blurry, the subjects partially obscured by the leaves of a tree or car doors that cover the people's faces, though this is intentional: Hashim wants them to remain anonymous. “The way these people met, the way they felt and the way they touched is still visible in these photos. You don't always need to capture a face to depict emotions."
Like the people she photographed, Hashim too has struggled with the rules that many Muslim people live by. She was born to Iraqi parents in Kuwait, but when the first Gulf War began, they fled. “We arrived in Denmark by coincidence. Our smuggler couldn't guarantee a destination, so we knew that we would go to Denmark only when we got on the plane." As an adolescent in Copenhagen, Hashim became conscious of the differences between her own upbringing and those of her Danish friends. “I was struggling so much! I was ready to be with my friends and hang out at the beach and go to parties and kiss with boys... but it was a no-go. At the same time I didn't reveal to my friends that I was not allowed to do those things. When I couldn't go to a party, I would say 'Oh I'm sick' or something like that. I was ashamed to come from a Muslim family. But I managed to meet boys in secret, and I discovered I wasn't the only one."
She refers to that period as “a terrible time," but it was also the time when she started to draw and take photos. “I wanted to study art," she says, “but here in Copenhagen only fifteen students are accepted every year." Though she applied several times, she was not accepted and decided to move on to another field of study. “I had this energy that I wanted to do something with." She decided to study anthropology, because she was interested in how people's backgrounds influenced their present behaviour. “But it also helped me think about how I could use photography. I was very interested in fieldwork. For a photographer, as for a researcher, it's useful to understand in which ways you're influencing a situation, when you're part of it, but also when you have the aim to show it to others."
Yet Hashim also sees a clear difference between cultural anthropology and photography: “In anthropology you have questions, you study, and then you come to a conclusion. In my photography it's the reverse: I present the conclusion, and then let the audience ask the questions. For example, in Unlawful Meetings the conclusion came first: I know that people are meeting each other secretly. So I go to those places and I take the photos, and put them out there. They are the conclusion. When I present the work, people always ask lots of questions. Some questions are about authenticity, and some ask if my work is ethical, and some ask what my role in it was. I think that my work invites all of these questions."
Photography really started for Hashim when she made the decision to buy a good camera. “When I got pregnant with my daughter at 22, I remember that I really wanted to have a good camera," she says. “Of course I photographed my daughter a lot, but I also began taking portraits of other people. I remember that once I photographed my mother's friend. She was always sad and she had a lot of pain in her eyes. Then I realised that you can show stories in portraits, because when I showed that photo to other people, everybody saw the same thing: the sadness was very drastic, and the way she looked at the camera, it was almost like she wasn't there."
One of her first projects, No Wind, was a quite unusual portrait series: she photographed the hair of women who normally wear a hijab, a cloth that covers the entire body of hair in order to preserve her modesty. “I so often saw my mother and her friends taking their hijab off. I remember that it was fascinating, the way they changed, from having the hijab and all of these boring clothes, to wearing tight dresses, revealing a lot of skin. I never wore a hijab, but it fascinated me." Because the hijab is meant to protect the women's modesty, photographing them without the hijab presented a challenge, Hashim had to find a way to convince them that it would be OK to be photographed. “I'm a member of a chatting space that is guided by a young imam. He was very open, so I asked him: 'If I go to a hairdresser and I find some hair on the floor that belonged to a Muslim girl; would it be a sin if a man sees the hair? And then he said 'No it wouldn't, because no-one can see who the woman is.' Then I asked him if it would be OK to take a photo in which I don't reveal any of the skin or any of the characteristics of the woman. And he said that it's impossible to do that, but it would be OK. So I copy-pasted what he said in a document and showed it to all these girls I asked."
With this in mind, Hashim realised a way to accomplish exactly what she described to the imam: she photographed the women from behind, against a white background, with white scarves covering their shoulders, with the result that the women's hair seems to be hovering in the air, detached from any personal characteristics. “The first time I asked a girl if I could photograph her without her hijab on, I remember I was shaking. I would just ask them on the streets and then take them to a little studio where I set everything up. And I remember that after I photographed the first girl, and we said bye, she was outside again very quick and I was like [spoken hurriedly] 'Yes thank you, bye!' It felt so dangerous and secret what we were doing!"
During another portrait sitting from No Wind, she set up a studio on the rooftop of a building, with the ambition of photographing a woman's hair in the sunlight. “But nobody was allowed to see her hair of course, so I took my white scarves and I made some kind of a tent on that rooftop so not even people from other high buildings could see her. Then I put her inside of the tent and the light was on her hair from above. And she said, 'The wind is touching my hair, I hardly remember what that felt like!' I was touched, because the feeling of the wind on your hair is something I really love. That's where the title comes from."
No Wind is a continuing project, and one day Hashim hopes to go to Iran with it. “Iran is one of the most passionate places in the world for me. People in Iran live such double lives. I think these double identities do something to people. They push them in other directions, which can be very powerful. Take politics: people in Iran are very frightened to have an opinion about the political situation in their country, but they figure out other ways to express themselves, and they make great art, for example. The photography education and photo scene are really good in Iran."
Hashim believes that Islam and the tensions around it can make not only art more intense, but love too. She describes seeing this intensity in the encounters she photographed for Unlawful Meetings: “When the girls and boys met, the intimacy was really high. They were so much in love, and they could only meet if they had a lot of energy and power to make meeting happen."
Islam has been a central theme in Hashim's work, and will continue to be so. Her newest work is on suicide bombers, a project that will include photography and also calligraphy. If there were no Islam would she still make art? “That's a difficult question. Probably, yes. I always photograph what I'm concerned of. Unlawful Meetings started as a concern too. Concerns have this effect on me, that they push me to understand things better. So I photograph what I'm concerned about. I get closer and try to understand it."
See the images from Unlawful Meetings in our online portfolio, and view more of Hashim's work on her website: www.linahashim.com
A book of her project Unlawful Meetings is scheduled for later this year.