Photographer Sana Ullah got the idea for her “Places You’ll Pray” photo project while shopping with her sister, who ducked into a fitting room once to pray as part of her Muslim faith, and so, it’s fitting that the first photo she took for the series several years ago was in a shopping mall.
Armed with only a Nikon D90, a kit lens, and an Alien Bees Strobe, she stealthily took photos of her subject stopping to pray in a local mall. It wasn’t stealthy enough; they told her never to come back.
“They said I was banned after that, and I was like ‘I’m not banned, you’re not going to remember me,’” said Ullah, who now works as a program officer for National Geographic. “I came back; it was fine.”
That kind of impromptu approach to the first portrait in her series embodies the spirit of the entire endeavor: Muslims of all stripes and colors, peacefully praying wherever they may happen to be when the time comes, whether that’s outside a grocery store, at the train station, or on top of a beautiful mountain range. “I recognize praying in places that are awkward and having to stop everything you do and pray, and that was because I grew up with a family that prayed all the time,” Ullah said.
And it’s a series that has gained traction; the Instagram account for Places You’ll Pray is at 37,000 followers and growing, with a hashtag, #PlacesYoullPray, to allow the faithful to submit their own images. Photographs have come in from around the world, a diversity of Muslim representation Ullah said she was careful to cultivate.
“I have tried to share Muslims of every race, every ethnicity, and every sect of religion,” Ullah said. “It’s very conscious.” She’s careful to select images that don’t look like people have been “crept” on. “I make sure the images are composed and clear, because I do get a lot of snapshot photos that are like people are zooming in and it looks like you didn’t get the person’s permission,” Ullah said.
It’s a very “Humans of New York” vibe, but with a twist that many Muslims across the globe can relate to. That said, Ullah wasn’t initially keen on the project. “I was really afraid I would get pigeonholed into telling stories that are just particularly about Muslims, and I saw it as a bad thing,” Ullah said. “I saw it as like everybody that’s not Muslim is like" ‘she’s only going to tell stories about Muslims.’”
It was a conversation with Newhouse News Service’s Toren Beasley, where he told her that he felt he could tell the stories of black people effectively because he himself was black, that convinced Ullah that the project made sense. He said that she shouldn’t let non-Muslims tell what should be a story to be told by a Muslim photographer. The series started as a side project in 2015 at the start of her photojournalism graduate studies at The George Washington University, and she made it her master’s degree capstone project in 2017. Now, it’s a labor of love for her.
“Some days are good and some days are bad. The worst is not actually the people that are not Muslim that criticize me. I get all these comments like ‘Muslims are the worst,’ you know? I’m like 'OK that’s fine, I grew up hearing that,'” Ullah said. “But when it’s a Muslim creative that says it, it gets to me.”
Ullah notes that there aren’t many South Asian photographers in the U.S., and so that kind of criticism from her own community can be difficult to hear. Photography gates have largely been kept by white males that don’t always treat black and brown subjects with the same respect that members of those communities do, and so, this project has taken on extra meaning for her in light of that.
“If I was this white woman and you parachuted me into a Muslim community and my name was like, Amy or something, and I took pictures of Muslims and put them in this positive light, you would revere me,” Ullah said. “But because I’m this visible Muslim, you see it as a threat. You see it as me trying to ‘Muslimize’ everyone or convert everyone.”
She said that because of her background as a Muslim who is photographing Muslims, editors have passed on her project as a piece of photojournalism, but that doesn’t deter her from continuing the work, which is now crowdsourced from around the globe in addition to her own contributions.
“This is an important conversation,” Ullah said, "whether I’m Muslim or not.”
(All photos used with permission by Sana Ullah.)