Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
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A group of Syrian refugees goes on a tour of the Statue of Liberty and New York City landmarks, including the Museum of Natural History, with Real New York tours.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic

Why This Photographer Set Out to Break Muslim Stereotypes

Lynsey Addario talks about her experience working within these communities across the U.S. during a years-long reporting project.

This story is part of Diversity in America, a National Geographic series covering racial, ethnic, and religious groups and examining their changing roles in 21st-century life. Tell us your story with #IDefineMe.

When Lynsey Addario moved to India in 2000 and began covering Muslim communities throughout Asia, she was introduced to nuanced views of Islam and the people who practice it. After returning home to visit the U.S., she saw the religion portrayed in a generic, one-dimensional way that didn't capture what she viewed elsewhere in the world.

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Students at the City of Knowledge School. The Pomona-based school was established in 1994 by individuals who were looking to enrich their children spiritually and academically.
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Muslim women pray at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California, on Eid al-Fitr, a celebratory holiday marking the end of Ramadan.

That disparity pushed her to work with Muslim communities across America in an effort to tell their stories in a broader way. Addario’s images appear in the feature story “How Muslims, Often Misunderstood, Are Thriving in America,” published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine. She talked with us about her experience documenting these communities and how it has encouraged her to examine her own faith.

JEHAN JILLANI: You have been photographing the Muslim world for over eighteen years now. What made you want to turn the lens on this community within your own country? And what was it like covering this topic?

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Hannah Ajrami, a student at University of Houston, laughs with her friends on her college campus.

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Black-belt Muslim sisters train and spar in Katy, outside Houston, Texas.

LYNSEY ADDARIO: I grew up in the United States, but have been living abroad since 2000, when I moved to India, and started covering life under the Taliban in Afghanistan. That was the first of many trips all over the Muslim world–I then moved from South Asia to the Middle East to Africa. Each one of these trips introduced me to a more nuanced view of Islam—from the various interpretations of the religion to the diversity of the people who practiced Islam. And each time I would return home to the U.S to spend time with my family, I would watch the news and listen to surrounding conversations, and would almost inevitably see a very one-dimensional view of the religion, and Muslims in general. It was surprising to me, because there were these sweeping generalizations being made about Muslims, as if everyone was the same, and it seemed extremely ignorant. It is why I decided to pitch this story several years ago to show the breadth and diversity within the religion.

JILLANI: Islam in America, as Leila Fadel’s piece explains in greater detail, is one of the most diverse religions in the United States. How did you select which communities to photograph?

ADDARIO: Well, first of all, there are so many thousands of pictures that I shot, and people I focused on who never made it into the story, mostly on account of space. I tried to photograph the spectrum, from the very religiously conservative to the more liberal, from surprising scenes—like a family of five sisters, three of which were black belts in taekwondo—to the more typical scenes we see—like prayer, to women with and without hijab—to show, basically, that these stereotypes [that are] often perpetuated just don’t often hold.

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Muslims gather at a farm in Tomball for a Texas-style picnic.
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American Muslims attend the Houston Astros ticker-tape parade in downtown Houston, after the Astros won the World Series.

As in any population of people who fall under any religious group, from Christianity to Judaism to Islam, there is diversity within. There are those that are more devout, and those who more loosely observe; there are incredibly accomplished, respectable people, and then there are criminals. It is important to recognize this. In America, I often see Muslims in the same sentence as the word terrorists, and this is just too superficial for a diverse country like America. Yes, there are Muslim terrorists, but there are also American terrorists who have been responsible for many mass shootings across the US. But surprisingly, they aren’t often referred to as terrorists.

JILLANI: On a related note, could you speak to what you observed about the racial diversity of Muslim Americans?

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On the anniversary of Malcolm X’s birthday, May 19, Muslims make a pilgrimage to his grave at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, following traditions that evolved in the years after he was assassinated on February 21, 1965. Pictured here, Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid from the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem presides over a prayer service as the elder. He later notes in an interview the importance of Islam in African American communities “there were Muslims on the slave plantations of America along with other Africans. As the African identity was slowly transformed into African-American or black American ex-slave identity the Islamic consciousness part became deeply rooted in our community.

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Friends and family in Dearborn, Michigan, hold a traditional martyr’s funeral for Ali Qasim al Khafaji, who was fighting with the Iraqi security forces when he was killed in Mosul by Islamic State militants. The attendees prepare to dine on masgouf, or grilled fish, an Iraqi specialty.

ADDARIO: I think there is a large misconception that Muslims are often Arab or South Asian, but 13 percent of the Muslim community is African-American, originating back to the time of slavery in the U.S. and to those who brought their religion over from Africa. There was also great proliferation among the African-American community at the time of Malcolm X and the civil rights movement, and today, there are a huge number of converts to Islam–almost 23% of the entire Muslim American population–from every ethnicity and a range of communities across the country. I wanted to include this racial diversity in the piece.

JILLANI: This is a pretty personal question, but given the nature of this story, I am curious to hear: What is your relationship to faith?

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Muslim children play at an arcade in Orange County, California on Eid-al Fitr. Eid-al Fitr marks the end of a month of fasting from dawn to dusk during Ramadan and food and fun are key parts of the festivities.
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IMAN conducts the Ramadan challenge, where they promote the healthy eating of fresh fruits and vegetables in front of a corner store on the south side of Chicago.

ADDARIO: I was raised Italian Catholic, with the tradition of going to church every Sunday, before a big family lunch at one of my grandmothers', and religion classes on Tuesday afternoons. But as I grew into a young woman, I identified less with Catholicism, and learned to appreciate different aspects of different faiths. I am a spiritual person, and I have great respect for all different religions, but I personally no longer go to church every Sunday. It’s interesting, because I have been photographing in relatively dangerous places for a long time now, and have spent a great deal of time with people from different faiths. I often receive messages or emails or calls from friends around the world, saying that they are praying for me—whether Christian or Catholic or Muslim. My grandmother, who is 104, always prays to Saint Ann for me, and my close friend Lubna, who lives in Saudi, will literally go to Mecca to pray for me when I have gone to Syria in the past. I love and respect that about faith, that everyone has his or her beliefs which carry them through difficult times.

JILLANI: In journalism, one will inevitably have to cover communities that one is not a part of. But I doubt that it is always an easy or comfortable experience. How do you navigate that line between being both respectful and inquisitive?

ADDARIO: I have always believed that it is important to be inquisitive, to ask questions, to educate oneself about the unknown. I think so much hatred and misunderstanding stems from ignorance and arrogance, and that is a shame. Yes, I felt strange as a non-Muslim, shooting this comprehensive piece on Islam—but I don’t feign to know what I don’t know. I just shoot what I see, and what I believe is a fair representation of a story.