Carlos Khalil Guzman has been earning plenty of frequent flier miles lately. The photographer and Brooklyn native spent the past two years traveling the country, building a photo series which he hopes can broaden people’s minds when it comes to their perception of Muslims — particularly in this political moment, when our differences are used as a wedge.
Guzman, who reverted (the term “revert” is preferred to “convert” as it’s seen as a return to the natural state) to Islam in college after being raised Catholic, had heard stories about friends being detained while traveling and has been subjected to plenty of quasi-random searches himself. He has female friends taking martial arts and self-defense classes while others limit how they practice their faith — removing their hijabs before boarding an airplane to avoid being questioned. He explains that he noticed a spike in hate crimes against the Muslim community over the past few years, but feels like the 2016 Presidential election brought things to a head. After Trump took office, it became clear that the time was right to unveil his work.
“I’m a photographer. I thought, ‘How can I use my craft to educate people?'” Guzman explains. “Usually when mainstream media report something about Islam, they only associate it with terrorism, especially in the Midwest where there’s not a lot of diversity. If people don’t take the time learn about it, then obviously they’re going to have a bias.”
Guzman started recruiting friends in New York to take photos, so that he could show the diversity of his faith. Soon, those pictures morphed into a series he calls Muslims of America. The project features photos of Muslims from all backgrounds and ethnicities along with their favorite verses from the Quran and an explanation of how their faith has helped them navigate a difficult time. One entry may be a young doctor from California sharing verses that speak to the power of life and human creation; another, an online fitness coach from Oregon who uses her faith to help others get healthy and stay fit.
College students from Kentucky, science teachers from Illinois, software engineers from New York — they all pop up in the series, breaking stereotypes that Muslims only hail from urban centers and big cities.
“It opens one’s eyes to the diversity within the Muslim community,” Guzman said. “Not only diversity in terms of ethnicity, but in terms of profession, in terms of walks of life.”
Guzman travels on the weekends — he’s got a regular 9-5 job during the week, working for a photography studio — and self-funds all of his trips. He connects with people on Facebook, usually friends of friends or fans who’ve heard about the project and want to contribute. He plans to use the photos to create a traveling exhibit and a book is in the works, all in an effort to reach a bigger audience.
When he’s finally finished, Guzman hopes to combine two portraits from each of the 50 states with a selection of other images for a total of 114 pictures — symbolic since there are 114 chapters in the Quran.
Guzman has already seen a positive response from fans online, including plenty from non-Muslims who credit the project with enlightening them on themes of faith and acceptance. He hopes the photos will reach and influence the biased and bigoted most of all — like the group of men who accosted his friend, a nurse, in New Jersey recently, harassing her because of her hijab. The work feels incredibly potent right now, after a woman was recorded bullying two Muslim women in a parking lot in North Dakota and the terrifying terrorist attack at a Minnesota mosque over the weekend.
“Every 9/11, we would tell people, especially girls, ‘If you don’t have to go outside, don’t go outside, because you know that people are going to see you as a target and they might do something against you. If you have to go outside, travel with somebody,’” Guzman explains. “Then Trump got elected, and now it’s on a daily basis.”
He hopes that by peeling back the stigma that surrounds his Islam, he can change that.
“They’re all meant to spark conversations,” Guzman says of his photos. “Conversations that need to be had. I want people to take the time and see it as… I know it’s sad to say, but to see us as human beings. Not to just see the religion, but to see us as people with experiences, with aspirations, with dreams, and to know that we are your neighbors, your friends, your colleagues. We’re just like everybody else, we just happen to be Muslim, but we’re still humans.”
Guzman’s core belief is that by seeing, with our own eyes, how varied the followers of Islam are — his subjects might be Palestinian, Filipino, Ecuadorian, Somali, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Moroccan, Lebanese, or African-American — people might begin accepting how integral Muslims have been to America’s culture and the quintessential American way of life, one that embraces and encourages people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions. After all, the tenets of Islam that drew Guzman to the faith are ideals all Americans believe in: equality, justice, charity, and the pursuit of happiness.
At a time when many find it so crushingly easy to label minorities and entire communities as “the other,” sifting through Guzman’s portraits can serve as a reminder of the things that we have in common.
“We are literally the world,” Guzman says. “You come to the United States and you find the world. That is the beauty of a diverse country. A diverse country allows us to learn about each other but it also makes us stronger.”