“Exotic”: An Interview With Imrul Islam

Credit: Niki Hrusa, Vassar ‘16.
Soraya Perry sits down with Vassar student and photographer, Imrul Islam for an interview on his new photo series, “Exotic.”

How long have you been a photographer?

It’s been five or six years now. But I’ve only started to more seriously get into it in the last three years. It started because, in Bangladesh— where I am from— there are a lot of really good photographers; world class photographers. I knew some and would see others on Facebook or Flickr. I started wanting to take photos as well. So, then you take photos and put them up on Facebook, and people start telling you it’s pretty cool. And then you think, “Maybe I can do it a little better,” so you start start watching YouTube videos and tutorials, learning from other people, and just getting inspired by what’s happening around you. For me, it’s all about telling stories.

Is there anything that you like to photograph in particular? Is there a specific subject that you like to photograph?

Absolutely. There are loads of different photographers…food photographers, nature photographers, landscape photographers. But I think people are the thing for me. Even within “people” there’s stuff I don’t want to do— portrait photography, wedding photography. I’ve done that and I don’t like it. Documentary photography is what I’m really interested in. It’s about telling stories— the stories you want to be told. You go in and research stories, talk to people, and just tell them through your lens. Basically, it’s about the way you look at things. That’s what I’m really interested in. And you prefer to tell these stories through a set of photographs? It’s usually a series of photos. Eight to twelve, though it can go up to 30.

What inspired you to start “Exotic”?

I was born in Bangladesh. I grew up in Bangladesh and moved to New York three years ago. New York has a booming Bangladeshi population…so, everyone knows what’s up [laughs]. But, at Vassar, Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis–people from very different nations with very complicated histories— are all thought of as “brown people.” Cultures and foods and traditions get mixed up. And that’s kind of weird, because things that are important to Pakistanis may not be important to [Bangladeshis] at all. Like, a professor asked how my mom cooks curry, and I was like, my mom doesn’t really cook [Laughs]. Here, the general understanding of what the world looks like is very, very wrong. It’s too generalized, it’s too exoticized. I’ve seen people’s entries [for “Exotic”] come in, and they’ve been asked questions like, “Hey, you’re from Turkey, is that a country full of Islamists and terrorists?” It’s like, come on, look at a map. Turkey’s not even in the Middle East, it’s more in Europe. It’s just questions like that. So, it started because even in places like Vassar, which prides itself on understanding more than generalizing, this is something that’s not addressed at all. Not at all. There’s quite a large population of people who feel like others don’t take the trouble of trying to understand their roots and where they come from. Which is not very cool.

Where do you feel brown bodies fit into vassar?

Where do we fit in? I mean, we don’t fit in. That’s the problem. And even within brown bodies, there are so many sub-groups and subcultures within this label. At some level we’re over-generalizing instead of talking about brown bodies as individuals whose experiences really matter. If you go up to, suppose, someone who’s from India and ask them if they’re from Pakistan…there’s history there! You’re disregarding conflicts.

What has the process been like so far?

Something that comes up quite a lot for brown bodies who’ve been born and brought up in the US, is that people go and ask you where you’re from, and it’s like… “I’m from Chicago.” And then they ask again, “But no where are you really from?” It goes on and on because they’re looking for an answer. And after five different questions, they get, “Yeah, my family’s from India.” “Oh, so you’re Indian.” That’s an issue that has come up quite a lot in conversations with friends. At some point, I totally related to what that was. Everything I photograph is important to me…that’s when I really get invested in it. So, I was talking to a friend about this and asked if they would like to be interviewed, because again, it’s something that needs to be brought to attention. I put [the interview] up on Facebook, and students who don’t even go to Vassar felt that it was important. People wanted to be interviewed and the series just started. That’s where it stemmed from.

Building off of that, what have been some reactions to “Exotic”?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive. People have sympathized and said that this is important. And related to a very large degree. And it’s not only been brown bodies [who have sympathized], it’s been people who think that this is a problem. There are also instances when someone has said that this is trivial. At a personal level, I feel like that is degrading. Someone is bold enough to come out and say, you know, this is how I feel…I feel marginalized; I feel like I’m being exoticized. I don’t think we should ever point to something and say, “Your problems are trivial.” That’s just weird. But again, when that happens people have sympathized. And that’s good to see. It’s been overwhelmingly positive.

How do you think the use of social media as a tool has influenced your work with “Exotic”?

Very, very much. I don’t think “Exotic” would have happened if I didn’t put it up on Facebook. And that’s how most of my work has been — especially projects that I’m not sure of. Because I didn’t know whether, at a place like Vassar, “Exotic” would be widely accepted or widely contested. And it can be contested, that doesn’t really matter…reaching out to people is the meaning of any artistic work. And social media played a big part in that. It doesn’t really matter about the likes…if people engage and talk about it, that’s when you know that it strikes a nerve.

I think, for me, when people hear that I grew up in the Middle East, or when they hear that my mother’s Iranian, the first thing they say is, “Oh, so you’re Muslim?” And I feel like there’s an immediate connection between Middle Eastern, East Asian, South Asian countries and the religions that are associated with those countries. How do you see the intersections between religion and national identity? Do they play a part in navigating these issues at Vassar?

For sure. My last name is Islam. I’ve been called Middle Eastern— I’m not from the Middle East. And when they’re talking about the Middle East, they’re not talking about this beautiful part of the world, they’re talking about countries which are in conflict; which breed radical Islamists. So you get put into that group because your mom and dad thought that name was cool [Laughing]. That’s what’s happening. The first few times you laugh but at some point, it’s not funny anymore. It’s not funny to have that association with your name. And the double standard is ridiculous. Americans, white people, foreigners, whatever–everyone who’s not a “minority,” take great offense when we don’t say your name correctly, or a city’s name correctly. But I’ve had Dhaka spelled “Dacca,” which is the spelling the British used when they colonized us. And this was by a professor. Who wrote it on the board. Then he came up to me and said, “I’m very interested in the Indian subcontinent.” And I was like, “You should check your spelling, you should check your history.” Names matter. Names matter very much.

A lot of people, especially those coming into this school, like to think of Vassar as this liberal and accepting bubble. Vassar advertises itself as such. But, I had a friend say to me the other day, “If I had known that Vassar wouldn’t be a super liberal and accepting paradise, I wouldn’t have applied.” I see that all the time. I see many POC feeling unsafe in way that they didn’t think they would feel, because we came here hoping that the real world won’t bleed through. Where do you think the real world ends and Vassar College starts? Where is the overlap?

Undoubtedly, the minute you step off the train and into New York City, you’re in the real world. And, when you come back, you bring parts of the real world with you. The Vassar Bubble, in a utopia, would be accepting. It would be full of people who understood each other or wanted to understand each other. But I don’t think that its possible, and I don’t think we try enough. Because Vassar does advertise itself as one of the most accepting liberal arts institutions in the world, we don’t recognize people coming in— professors coming in— and saying [racist] things. Last semester, my Poli Sci professor talked about “Black Lives Matter” and told me that the hashtag should be “All Lives Matter” because that would generate more traffic, I felt like he didn’t have an understanding or knowledge to talk about these issues. I feel that our professors need to understand what the right ideas are even more than students. They need to understand how every contentious and very sensitive subject should be approached in the classroom. Because you can set the tone as a professor. And our professors fail a lot of the time.

Looking at your work, you embody the trope of the enigmatic photographer, particularly because your subjects provide their own narration. Why is it that you step back?

At some point, I want issues that I feel are very, very important to come to light, and I feel like when I get more invested, it becomes more self-centered and takes me away from trying to portray the whole 360. And it’s very important that I [do so]. I don’t want to taint my work with personal beliefs or ideas. In “Exotic,” it would be really easy for me to come out and say, “This is bullshit, don’t do this.” But, that could be the end of result of people viewing my work. I’m not going to tell them anything. It has to be a journey. The journey is very important to me.

Do you feel like your own thoughts do carry through somewhat?

In every series, I start with a brief description. I explain why I started [the series]. I don’t tell people what I want from it. In the end… if the work is good enough, more often than not they understand. Yeah, I feel like the voice carries through. If it’s accepted, if it’s contested…there’s something there that’s striking a nerve, that’s stirring up debates. And that’s important. More often than not, the side I’m rooting for comes out on top [Laughing]. But I’ll keep that to myself [Laughing].

What do you want people to take from “Exotic”?

Just the idea that they have to push themselves more…and not see a brown body and go up to them and ask where their parents are from, or if they wear the hijab. Children look at objects and put them into categories. And I feel like that’s what we do with people when we’re adults. And that is ridiculous. If Vassar is as accepting and open-minded as we think it is, you should look at a person and learn about that person. Talk to them without bringing religion or family or politics into it. Humans are more than that. So, I guess those are the questions that I want “Exotic” to stir up.


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