Artists around the world use pens, brushes, instruments and cameras as the canvas of expression. Capturing any moment, emotion or idea and translating it into an unspoken medium has long held the power to transfer messages, spark change or simply draw an asterisk on something special. Photographer Claire Beckett, who now lives and works in Boston, has a new series of photographs set out to answer a big question and what she found has challenged anyone who sees them.
Claire Beckett’s Big Life Question
After completing two successful series titled In Training and Simulating Iraq, Beckett takes on the idea of American identity and its meaning. In The Converts, photographs are concentrated on Americans who chose the Muslim faith much later in their life. Using photography as a method of exploring a personal interest, Beckett wanted to understand “What does it mean to be an American? Who are we as a people and how do we define ourselves? How do we understand our country in relation to other nations and cultures?”
It was a difficult question to answer, especially when most Americans believed that the polar opposite of “American” is “Muslim.” Nevertheless, in an effort to discover answers, Beckett looked in hard places and found exactly what she was looking for.
Her portraits are of Muslims. Some are dressed in prayer beads, men wearing turbans and taqiyah and women draped in richly colored burkas. Others are in business suits, t-shirts or parkas. Each person is different; they share no one skin color, eye color, height or build. They only share the Muslim faith that brought them where they are now. They are neither more American nor less than they were before; their identities are founded on both foundations and it is not evident that by choosing the Muslim faith, they had to compromise any part of their American self.
These photographs are images and cannot speak. They cannot change people’s minds or beliefs. But without muttering one word, they successfully challenge perceptions and views on the American. For more than lasting moment, it forces the mind to open and consider what was left unknown or misunderstood before.
A Different Way to Open Doors
Beckett’s interest in cross-cultural topics stemmed from her time at Kenyon College where she earned her Bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology. Before pursuing her Masters in Fine Arts for Photography, she spent time serving in the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa between 2002 and 2004. Her spectrum of exposure to different countries, cultures and people inspired many of her subject pieces. In an interview with Big Red & Shiny, Beckett says of her work, “For myself, I generally believe in making work about things on which I feel strongly. Those things are frequently political, but not necessarily.” Her past two series revolved around new US soldiers and pre-deployment training where soldiers role-played between Americans and the Taliban, raising a question on morality. Both series had political undercurrents. Yet the intent was not to send one correct message or answer; rather it was to provoke thought and consideration on part of the American people.
In the same interview, regarding Beckett’s work as a photographer she said, “…I think that individual viewers can bring their own experiences and beliefs to bear when thinking about my work. I think it is important to provoke thought, not to dictate what the thoughts should be.”
Beckett’s photography has achieved just that. With the newest installation, The Converts has prompted much needed dialogue concerning the identity of non-traditional Americans and religious stereotypes. Since its debut, it has garnered hundreds of viewers and comments online, starting conversations that would otherwise absent.
Arts Culture for Dialogue
What is unspoken of, what is out of sight oftentimes incorrectly translates itself to that which is nonexistent. Yet these photographs, among many other pieces of artwork from worldwide artists, challenge communities and peoples everywhere to consider what was not considered before and to accept the existence of possibility in broadening the understanding of culture, religion and national identity.
Differences within culture, religion and nationality often lead to complete shut-downs and rejection of the other party, starting an invisible war that continues to divide communities. Reasoning is proven ineffective because no one wants to listen. For many Americans still, accepting Islamic practices in the homeland is difficult and filled with wary. For a great period of time, any discussions aimed to assuage hatred or discrimination were proceeded with caution.
But the nation is changing. It is important to realize the efforts of the national community striving to educate itself and reach a level of appreciation for diversity that contributes to the global society. The works of Beckett are only a small contribution to that effort, but arts as a means of word-less dialogue has triumphantly reached audiences that would otherwise never receive such information.
The potential remains for distinctive groups of identities—Muslim or not—by using the arts as a mode of communication. It is through a universal culture that what is divided grows to become one as minds and hearts are opened to what was unacknowledged before.