Ones to Watch 2021: Muhammad Salah

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Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of 20 emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 450 nominations. Collectively, they provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Throughout the next few weeks, we will be sharing profiles of the 20 photographers, originally published in the latest issue of BJP, delivered direct with an 1854 Subscription

Based between Berlin and Khartoum, Salah uses photography as language, writing ‘visual poetry’

Born in 1993 in Sennar, Sudan, Muhammad Salah lives between Berlin and Khartoum. His work explores identity, masculinity, memory, time and space, distance, healing, and the expanse between birth and death. Salah uses a variety of media to express himself, including sound, text and archival material, as well as his own carefully considered take on photography. “I work a lot with configurations and metaphor,” he says. “I explore the medium of photography as a form of visual poetry.”

Salah grew up living with his mother in Khartoum, and his grandmother in the Sudanese countryside. He became interested in photography after his grandmother died in 2013 and realised, too late, that he did not have any images of her. At the time, he was studying linguistics but happened to be living next door to a photographer, Ala Kheir, who taught him that photography is a language as well and lent him books that further explored this. Today Salah says he has still “read much more than I’ve seen”. The photographer references thinkers such as Edward Said and Simon Njami as influences, alongside photographers Santu Mofokeng and Akinbode Akinbiyi. He also looks to the teachings of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that emphasises the inward search for God and the limits of human understanding. Salah’s concerns also include the conceptual framework of photography, the violence at its centre and in its history, and the ongoing process of “not decolonising but repairing my own broken imagination,” he explains, which is necessary as a result. 

© Muhammad Salah.
© Muhammad Salah.

Salah took part in The Photographers’ Masterclass organised by the Goethe-Institut South Africa in various African cities from 2016 to 2018, and went on to gain a two-year scholarship at the Berlin Center for Arts and Urbanistics and SAVVY Contemporary, which started in November 2019.

When Salah moved away from Sudan he started a project titled Homecoming. In it, he looks back at his life but also explores the idea of ‘home’, “as a philosophical, spiritual, emotional, and physical construct,” he says.

The project compiles his images of people and places, as well as photographs from his family’s album, and found family photographs he has collected over the years. There is an image of a soldier, for example, taken in 2019 when Sudan was rocked by revolution; Salah was there during the protests, but says this photograph makes him think of his father, who also served in the army. Salah was only 10 when his father died, and says he can barely remember him.

© Muhammad Salah.
© Muhammad Salah.

“Muhammad Salah makes work about the politics of space. Fragments assembled denote on a deeper level. A poem. As an outsider new to a city, in this case Berlin, a sense of disorientation. To connect with the space is to have agency.”

Emma Bowkett, Director of Photography at the Financial Times Weekend Magazine

In 2020, Salah also participated in World Press Photo’s Joop Swart Masterclass, where he met Emma Bowkett, director of photography at the FT Weekend Magazine, who recommended his work for Ones to Watch. “Muhammad Salah makes work about the politics of space,” she says. “Fragments assembled denote on a deeper level. A poem. As an outsider new to a city, in this case Berlin, a sense of disorientation. To connect with the space is to have agency.”

“I grew up shaken by the fact that I can’t really tell what’s going to happen tomorrow,” says Salah. “But there is also a sense of longing in me, a search for purpose. I want to get to know who I am, beyond the constructed identity. I happen to be male, my name’s Muhammad, and so on. But what lies beyond that?”

© Muhammad Salah.
Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy