August 8, 2014

Philip Montgomery: From a Harlem Frame Shop

(click for larger size)

I’m not sure what kind of stock you put in polls, but according to Zogby (commissioned by the Arab American Institute), American’s attitudes toward Muslims and Arabs is getting worse. Based on the survey, favorability toward Arab-Americans has dropped from 43% in 2010 to 36%. Favorability dropped for Muslim-Americans in the same period from 36% to 27%.

I saw first this photo three week ago. Taken by Philip Montgomery, it was part of a slideshow published in the New York Times. It accompanied a background piece on Montgomery’s now five year project photographing Islamic communities in the New York metro area. With the kind of hatred being spewed this past month between Israeli and Palestinian partisans, and now, with an active military action announced by Obama last night being initiated against the Islamic State (and, how’s that name for coloring a sentence?), this photo sprang to mind again.

In the HuffPost post on that Zogby poll, the write-up cites recent factors such as the rise of ISIS, the abduction of the Nigerian school girls, and the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya as having likely impact. The fact the survey was conducted at the end of June and Gaza and the Iraq (re-)incursion weren’t even on the radar makes me wonder if there isn’t always going to be something(s) prejudicing perceptions of Muslim and Arab Americans.

The caption of the photo reads:

On the wall of a frame shop in Harlem in 2010, a framed photograph of Souleimane Konaté, imam at Masjid Aqsa.

What’s impressive about the photo is how it has both a pre- and post-9/11 meaning. Considering the juxtaposition of the child in the skull cap with the towers when they were still standing, there is zero irony there. Rather, it’s a straightforward identification with what’s distinctly American. Knowing that the photo was taken in 2010, however, almost a decade after the terrorist attacks, all the innocence might be drained and the presence of the photo (especially next to the business license) might even read as partly defensive or patronizing. But ultimately, I believe, it’s there as collective memory, and much more so, to affirm (with the imam, too) an enduring connection to this soil. Lest I sound too simplistic about the connection, however, looming shadows and the preoccupation with shadow figures persist.

(photo: Philip Montgomery)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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