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Muslim Heritage Interviews 7: Peter Sanders We are very grateful to have Peter Sanders who is a well known photographer. He has travelled extensively across the Muslim World taking pictures of many shuyukh (religious leaders). Some of the countries that he has visited include Saudi Arabia (returning to Makkah and Madinah many times), Jerusalem, China, north, east and west Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia and Yemen and he is still to this day very active in this field....
We are very grateful to have Peter Sanders who is a well known photographer. He has travelled extensively across the Muslim World taking pictures of many shuyukh (religious leaders). Some of the countries that he has visited include Saudi Arabia (returning to Makkah and Madinah many times), Jerusalem, China, north, east and west Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia and Yemen and he is still to this day very active in this field.
The first question I would like to ask is that you embraced Islam in 1971. Can you explain for the benefit of our listeners how that transition came about?
It was really part of a spiritual search that I was on. I had my developing years in the 60s, and that was a period of time when people were rejecting materialistic values that had been around since the Victorian times and looking for something of a more spiritual nature. It was quite fashionable at that time to go to India, and I got to a certain point where I started asking key questions about my life such as ‘what was I doing’ and ‘where was I going.’ I decided to put on hold my photography of the musicians and travel to India. The main intention was to look for a teacher to answer some of the questions that I had. After an amazing journey, I ended up spending seven months in India. During that time, I studied most of the major religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and I also read a bit about Islam. Not a huge amount. After this, I came back to London and found that some of my colleagues from before, musicians and people that I knew, had become Muslim, and that was quite interesting for me because mostly I had been around the Hindu tradition in India, but I did not know that much about Islam. However, I had various dreams and indications about which direction to take, so I embraced Islam, it was really a leap of faith.
Was there any significant experience whilst you were in India that made you really begin to think about Islam as a faith to revert to eventually?
Not really. I remember staying in a small mud pump house in a very quite part of India. There was a Mosque nearby, and I remember when I used to get up to do my meditations in the morning, I would hear the Muslim call to prayer. There was one thing that happened that had an impact on me. I remember, one day I was on a railway station very early in the morning, surrounded by Indians with all their possessions. There were many people moving around, and it was fairly dark. I recall seeing a woman suddenly rolling out a prayer mat and began to pray. So if you can imagine amongst a lot of movement and activity and suddenly, there was this stillness. I became curious and asked what was going on. A young man said: “this is my grandmother, she is a Muslim and she is doing the prayer.” So God showed me, in a kind of snapshot, what the prayer was and the stillness amongst activity. It was only much later that I remembered this incident.
One thing that is quite prevalent in India is that there are a lot of opportunities to explore the spiritual dimension of Islam which is called Sufism and there is a lot of Sufi shrines. Did you actually visit any of these places by any chance?
Not at all. I travelled around a lot in the first months when I was in India and I went to Amritsar, Bihar state, and I also went to Allahabad at the time of the Kumble Mela, which is attended by approximately ten million people. After, I went to Hyderabad and then I ended up in the south, where I basically stayed for about six months. So I did not come across that side of Islam at all at that time.
What inspired you to produce works of photography and then relating it to Islam eventually?
I had started doing photography in the mid 60s and I fell into it to be honest. I bought a camera that was being sold very cheaply and I acquired a whole dark room from my landlord and everything kind of contrived to allow me to enter this field. I worked very simply. I had a box where I kept small change and that enabled me to go from one job to another. I knew people in the music business and with their help, within a year, I had a functioning business. Things opened up very easily for me. Photography has always followed my own interest. There was a period of time when I was interested in gypsy’s, and different kinds of nomadic people. I travelled to Ireland to photograph them. I also photographed people that lived on the streets, tramps, street musicians, vagrants. I earned my livelihood from the music business so when I went to India, I obviously took all my cameras with me.
One thing you have mentioned in your slides presentation of the book ‘In the shade of the tree’ is the Divine name ‘Al-Musawwir.’ How has this inspired you?
Well, Al-Musawwir is really one of the Divine names of God. He is the Fashioner. He is the most Perfect Artist. As photographers, we are not really Al-Musawwir, if anything, we are Abdul-al-Musawwir. Cartier Bresson was a great French photographer that I respect. He said that ‘photography was like tuning into the moment.’ How do you get to this point? When you begin, the self is very noisy and the mind is always chattering. You must allow the self to calm down to a point where it is just witnessing things, harmonising yourself to your surroundings. Then you can begin to start to try and capture what you see within a camera. There is a science to it and it takes years to discipline yourself. You certainly learn patience in the process.
When you begin to embark on taking a photograph of anything, what is it that you aim to achieve through taking that photograph? Looking at it not only from an individual perspective but also for the benefit of the people that are looking, the observers who actually observe your work.
To be honest, I do not analyse my work that much. The process is very instinctual for me. If I am drawn to something, its because that image speaks to me in some way. My role then is to capture it in a way that will communicate what I saw in the first place. I remember as a child squaring things up, and thinking if you eliminate this and that, you could see the subject very simply. That process has always been there since being a young child.
From your travels and experiences, which pictures that you have taken are your favourites or inspirational from a personal point of view?
I never ever studied photography, except when I was working on the haramayn [the holy shrines of Islam] project in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s. My employer sent me on a course in Switzerland to study the use of a 10″x8″ plate camera. This is often used for professional architectural work or studio work. It gives you a very large negative or transparency which has extraordinary detail. The first time I had to use the camera was in Makkah in the Haram to photograph the Kiswa, the black cloth that covers the Ka’aba. The light is only on the door for about one hour, early in the morning – so no pressure then! No-one was more surprised than myself that the picture came out well, sharp and correctly exposed. Allah is very generous. We have made six feet prints of this image and the detail is fantastic. You can see the individual gold threads. I have even discovered large moths that were sitting on the black cloth! You can also see the black Qur’anic embroidery on the black cloth. It’s a picture that hangs in my prayer room.
I think one thing which is quite interesting is how different people look at the same picture and draw different points of view.
Absolutely. One of the things that compliments this image is the series of hands hanging onto the base of the door. To me this gives perspective and reminds us of our condition. I notice when the Saudis printed this picture, they have taken the hands out!
I know you have also visited Spain, places like Alhambra. In terms of the tapestry and beauty of such places, do you have something to say about the Alhambra Palace?
Well, I heard a great photographer say that photographers never retire, they just go out of focus. In an ideal world, someone like myself would be given a small apartment outside of the Alhambra with a free pass to enter whenever I wanted. To me its one of the most inspirational places and I love wondering around there. Every time I have been there I have come across something new that I haven’t seen before. Also, I’m always recommending it to other people to visit.
Do you have any advice for the potential aspirant out there who may wish to specialize in this field at all?
Yes, it is definitely a calling. You learn it by doing it. And with the new digital age, you can see immediately if you have a shot that is interesting or not. Personally, I still think it is cheating a little bit. Previously, you had to wait to get the film processed and there was a long gap where you wondered if you had the image or not. I guess part of the benefits of the digital is that when you are learning, you don’t waste a lot of expensive film with mistakes.
Some of your recent works have been seen in exhibitions around the world such as the Shakespeare Globe Theatre. If you can briefly mention a bit about that and how that came about.
Yes. That was 3 years ago now. The Globe Theatre did a week on Shakespeare and Islam. As some people say, it’s a rather loose link, but there is a story that one of the early Moroccan ambassadors who used to wear traditional clothes was seen by Shakespeare and inspired the idea for Othello. The Globe Theatre held a week of events that included my exhibition inside, whilst I was invited to project some of my images from around the Muslim world onto the outside of the Globe Theatre. This was a great honour. Even from the other side of the Thames, one could see these images drifting across the front of the Theatre. There was also a series of events of Muslim plays and a market place over the weekend.
I did have the privilege to see that, and it was an amazing site, especially in the night time looking to the city. There is another programme which you have engaged, it is called ‘Salaam in the city’ in the Gulf?
Yes of course that was cooperation with the young graffiti artist called Mohammed Ali. He is from Birmingham. He has a company called Aerosol Arabic. We did an exhibition together in Dubai with some of his work and then some of my photographs. I kept teasing him saying it is the old and the new, and I am the new and he is the old. A lot of people really liked his work and for young people it is good to take something like that and then involve it into illuminating Arabic in a modern way.
I have read on your website that one of the impending projects that you are working on that is called the ‘Art of Integration’ in Britain’s Green and Pleasant Lands. If you can briefly mention a bit about this project and how it came about?
That is kind of a very small idea. I had travelled around Muslim world for 35 years. I really wanted to do a project about the Muslims in the UK but, for a couple of years, I was having a problem visualising it because most of the culture here in the UK is Indo-Pak culture or Arab culture, and I did not really feel that this truly represented Islam here. If I wanted to photograph those cultures, I would be better of going to Pakistan or the Middle East. As I have been going to China for the last seven years, I discovered the first Arab travellers did not export their culture to this land. They completely unified with the already existent culture, so you end up with the mosques being a complete fusion of Islam and Chinese culture. They did not even call their path ‘Islam’ but ‘the way of the pure’, which the Confucian Chinese could completely relate to. I really wanted to show something of the British Islam that I was beginning to discover, but only had a few clues to what I would photograph. I began to meet second and third generation Muslims, a lot of them were young people, enthusiastic and professional. They did not have a problem about being British and Muslim. Anyway, we worked on this project for three years. That has evolved into an exhibition that has been seen in over thirty countries, including Baghdad, Washington, Tel Aviv, Indonesia and Pakistan. There has certainly been a lot of interest in this project and we will be publishing the book of the entire project in the next few weeks.
I think the relevance of it is that in today’s day and age especially in the UK, the whole debate about integration and of Muslims integrating into society and through this medium of photography, you can actually achieve that purpose in a different kind of format, without in essence using words at the same time.
Yes. The difficulty is that a lot of people think that when you talk about integration you are talking about assimilation. These two things are not the same. One is a weakened version of something, the other is a strengthened version. There are a lot of aspects in Britain that we should respect and uphold. In fact when you look into the history of Islam in Britain, Muslims have been extremely well tolerated and respected. It’s up to us to build on this, not to destroy it.
You mentioned China, where people integrated there and a lot of it was down to trade.
Absolutely, because of the behaviour of the first Arab travellers to China, as traders with high standards, they integrated very easily and they were very well respected as human beings and were very successful.
If one wishes to learn more about Peter Sander’s works, you can access his website: