“When 9/11 happened, I was four, so obviously I didn’t really know what was going on. But in terms of now, of how Muslims are portrayed in the media, I think it’s a very one-sided story. We’re all terrorists, evil, who want to take over this country. I mean, thinking back now, I was only four, so all I’ve experienced is that this country hates me.”
So says one of the sitters in Mahtab Hussain’s You Get Me?, a series of portraits shot over nine years in Birmingham, Nottingham and London. It shows young, working class, British Asian men, a group which has been negatively depicted in the media since 9/11 but which Hussain hopes to portray in a more nuanced way.
Born in Britain with Pakistani origins, Hussain says he has faced many types of racism throughout his life. “When you are transplanted into a country you have two cultures coexisting in you, two conflicting different worlds,” he explains. “By British peers I have always been considered too dark, and by Pakistanis too British.”
This experience meant Hussain grew up feeling like an outsider, and he says this perception is only exacerbated by a media which fails to represent, or only negative portrays, young Asian men. The propaganda damages those affected by it, he says, “the most visible consequence of which are the high rates of unemployment among British Asians”.
The title of his series comes from the question, “You get me?”, a phrase common among those who find themselves out of sync, which sounds aggressive but “hides the sense of vulnerability of those who ask”. “They feel insecure, but in reality, they do not realise their strength,” says Hussain. “I think that they are hybrid beings containing the richness of more cultures. I believe that internationalism is the next level of human being.”
Hussain speaks about the actor Riz Ahmed as a positive example – having broken through in Hollywood in the film Star Wars: Rogue One, he was invited to give the annual diversity lecture in Parliament, and used it to highlight how the lack of media diversity pushes young people towards ISIS. The dangerous lack of perspective could lead to people from these minorities to switch off, says Hussain, “and retreat to fringe narratives, to the online bubble, and sometimes even off to Syria”.
Hussain’s work was shown in London at Autograph ABP this summer, and a book of the project was published by MACK in June. It is, says Mark Sealy, director of Autograph ABP, “a timely investigation into the current politics around migration and identity”.
Mahtab Hussain is signing copies of You Get Me? at the MACK stand at Paris Photo at 1pm on 12 November https://programme.parisphoto.com/en/book-signings.htm https://www.mackbooks.co.uk/newbooks/ https://www.mahtabhussain.com/