Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 March 2006
Issue No. 784
Profile
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Peter Sanders

Peter Sanders: Chasing a moment

Life behind the lens of a photographer can be enigmatic; not so with Peter Sanders. His work is designed to wring from his Muslim subjects their deepest inner feelings -- and it yields many secrets and hidden treasures. He has emerged as one of the most skilfull practitioners of camera art in Britain today -- his focus: the Muslims of his island nation and those overseas. His images betray his own unique way of looking at the world. Sanders sees the world through Muslim eyes, and from an Islamic perspective he documents the individuals, communities and architectural treasures that touch him. He is a serious artist. Illustrating the subtleties of a faith is no easy task, especially in these touchy times when there appears to be a crisis of confidence between Islam and the West. The most recent sign of this were the worldwide protests against the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohamed as a terrorist swept through the Muslim world. The 12 cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohamed were first published by the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten last September and have since been reprinted in numerous European papers, including Germany's Die Welt , Volkskrant of the Netherlands and Italy's La Stampa . No British paper published the cartoons, widely considered deeply offensive to Muslims, but the British Muslim community has staged angry demonstrations in London and elsewhere in the country. It is at this historical juncture that the work of Sanders assumes special importance. As a British Muslim photographer he documents the lives of contemporary British Muslims, historical facets of British Islam and the cultural heritage associated with it. Sanders' work has appeared in Time Magazine , the Sunday Times and the Observer of Britain as well as in the Saudi weekly Al-Majalla . Among his best-selling books are In the Shade of a Tree , based on his travels in the Muslim Heartlands, and Meetings with Mountains , portraits of Muslim scholars and sheikhs.
Interview by Gamal Nkrumah

Click to view caption
Peter Sanders and his wife, Hafisah (top); and some of the photographs of Sanders depicting the lives of Muslims in contemporary Britain -- a woman beautician in niqab applying make-up to a model; Cat Stevens alias Yusuf Islam; and a Muslim woman behind a screen

"Photographers are attracted by light, they are very sensitive to light -- physical light. But, there is also spiritual light -- the light within," Peter Sanders peers expectantly at me as if he wants to know whether I, too, have seen it. "I am especially drawn to this spiritual light that emanates from deep inside," he smiles faintly.

"There is something in the religion that generates beauty and light." Sanders is disarmingly genuine and I have no reason to believe his piety is feigned. "I try to capture in camera that spirituality." His is a career that defies convention.

His works are dedicated to "dispelling stubborn myths."

Which aim could be a metaphor for the creative life of Sanders. "I now use photography as a way to illustrate Islam." Portraits, architectural studies and the documentation of cultural icons he presents in visually stimulating forms for the glory of Islam. Whether shooting on the streets of Casablanca or of Cairo, Sanders attempts and manages to capture the experience of Islam in a precise way. His style can be intricate but he often resorts to simplest route possible to sketch the rich and varied lives of modern Muslims. He works consistently within the confines of his faith and without compromising his own standards of precision and concision.

More importantly, he is at ease with himself. He enjoys his work, both the process of undertaking it and the fruit of his labour.

Sanders is in the business of making eloquent images. The onus is always on the spiritual quality of photography. His work has won him international acclaim, for he creates images that are at once life-enhancing and discerning. "Islam in China is Chinese, in Africa it is African and in Britain it is British," he says nonchalantly. This unassuming, albeit indefatigable professional has created a major body of photographic work marked by psychological penetration. His focus on conveying the inner spirit or soul of Islam is unique in itself. He never misses a prayer, nor an opportunity to capture an especially beautiful edifice or façade of the Islamic faith.

"Islam is a science," he says. "Photography is an art."

Islam, for Sanders, is a way of living. "In Islam," he insists, "one triumphs over his own instincts." He strongly believes in the soothing and calming influence of prayer in Islam. "Islam is really a science if you practice it properly." His deepest concern at the moment is to bridge the cultural divide between the secular West and Islam. He sees the Muslim community of Britain as more markedly integrated than that of continental Europe.

That is not to say that there are no challenges among the British Muslim communities. However, aside from the cultural challenges of integration, there is the need for better understanding, sensitivity to the sensibilities of other cultures and the necessity of adopting an all-accomodating, multi-layered vision of contemporary Britain. "Islam is here to stay in the West. And Muslims must be integrated into Western society."

It is for this reason that the Nazra exhibition is very dear to him. This exhibition brings to a head more than a year of preparations. "What I am looking for is a fusion of contemporary British culture and Islam." His guiding principle ever since has been not just to take images that gave him pleasure, but photographs that have a purpose, that further the knowledge and understanding of Islam in the West. "Islam isn't on the fringes of British society. Rather, it has become part of the very fabric of society." At first he had come in contact with first generation British Muslims, and they had problems integrating. "Then I began to meet second and third generation British Muslims, many of them young, professional and artistic -- young people who did not have the fears and concerns of previous generations. Within them was a confidence that to be British and a Muslim was not a problem," he points out. He cited the example of the new Islamic Centre in Oxford. The architect who designed it, Abdel-Wahed Wakeel, a student of the celebrated Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi, laid out a plan in which the centre blends in with its surroundings, but it is obviously Islamic. "And yet, it is part of the British landscape."

Sitting next to him in a room in the British Ambassadorial Residence in Cairo, I sift through a sample of his work. What is so marvellous about his photography is that it is both varied and variegated; Sanders never repeats himself. Every photograph is very new, fresh. "I have spent 25 years documenting the end of traditional Islam." He feels that Egypt, and the customs and traditions of Egyptians, embodied much of what he considers "traditional Islam." Egypt for this reason holds a special place in his heart. This is not his first visit to the country. He first came to Egypt two decades ago. "Egypt was one of the first Muslim countries I visited after I became a Muslim. The country provided me with a nice introduction to Islam." He stayed for a month. Sanders then embarked on a career of capturing the spirit of Islam in photography. He does not just takes photographs; he travels, he explores, he does everything the hard way. "I felt I had to show the world, to represent in photography the beauty of Islam because it is a kind of world that is veiled from the outside." He so desperately wanted to see the beauty of Islam from within, and to share it with others that he developed his own theory of photography to this end. A good photograph, he insists, has to be experienced. His are inordinately satisfying.

"Ultimately," he responds to all praise, "everything is from God."

An encounter with the Kaaba helped form his sense of being. It was quite unusual for a Westerner to photograph the hajj in 1971. "Now you encounter many Westerners on a hajj, but then there were very few Westerners who went on the pilgrimage to Mecca. I had no preconceptions before I went to the hajj. I had no preparation inwardly to what I was about to encounter."

What or who else shaped his thinking? China, he confides. "When the Arabs first travelled to China nearly 1,400 years ago, they were not introducing an alien culture to an already long- established civilisation. In fact they called their Islam 'The Way of the Pure', a name and an ideal that did not conflict with the Confucian beliefs which were prevalent in China at the time. In fact their early mosques looked like Chinese temples and pagodas and the same style is still in use today." At a time when Islam is perceived as a threat to Western culture -- its values widely regarded as fundamentally contrary to Western values -- it is well to find someone, a Westerners, aware enough to point out that, "The Muslims of China were masters of integration and diplomacy."

How did Sanders become a Muslim? "My early formative years were in the 1960s," Sanders muses, quickly adding that he was not particularly interested in the period's most daring ideas in drugs and sex. He turned instead to music, and then religion and photography. He photographed the pop stars and bands of the swinging sixties. Like most of his peers, he was into music -- those were the golden days of rock and roll. They were the also early beginnings of his photographic career and the images he produced had a snapshot quality. He was later to offer far racier fare. "My photography has always been an extension of my life," he explains. Sanders explored world music while looking into eastern religions for guidance, for certainties. He was searching for spirituality as an alternative to conventional Christianity. He spent seven months in India, and became better acquainted with Islam, Budhism, Hinduism and Sikhism. He delved into different aspects of these religions, but it was Islam that truly touched him. Sanders found a lot of friends through his interest in the music world and religion. He wanted to understand the world around him. He also wanted to make eloquent images. When he became a Muslim in 1971, his life changed beyond recognition. It was then that he discovered Egypt.

Sanders sounds exceptionally excited about being in this part of the world. Egypt, for him, held a special fascination and appeal. Besides, "I love Arabic. It is an amazing language. It is a language of the heart. Arabic is a revealed language. It is important to understand what you are saying in prayer. When I was first introduced to Islam, I had the prayers all written out. It is important not to recite words without understanding," he cautions. "I knew someone some time ago who was arrested in Morocco on a drugs charge. It was in Ramadan. That man became a Muslim later primarily because of the recitation of the Quran by another inmate, a Moroccan who recited the Quran all day long. Something in the pious recitation touched my friend. I, too, was inspired but more by the blinding light that emanates from pure faith."

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