When British photography duo Amit Amin and Naroop Jhooti searched for “Sikh men” on Google a few years back, they got mostly stock images of traditional men in the streets or countryside of India.
But Amin and Jhooti, both Sikhs, knew these images didn’t reflect the diversity of Sikh identity or experience. The Sikh Project, a free exhibit of 38 stylized portraits of American Sikhs from all walks of life, including a boxer and an army veteran, running from Sept. 17-25 at 530 Broadway. The images fuse the duo’s sharp British style and commercial aesthetic with their knowledge of Sikh heritage and culture.
“The idea was for these visuals to really inspire people, and photography can really allow that to happen,” says Jhooti.
The exhibit is an expansion of Amin and Jhooti’s portrait series on British Sikh men. For the U.S. edition, the duo partnered with the nonprofit Sikh Coalition and also included women, putting their goal of increasing cultural awareness through art front and center.
“It’s also an educational piece for people who are not quite sure why an individual wears a turban or grows a beard,” says Jhooti. “They can come to it and understand a little bit more about Sikhism.”
Subjects were solicited through an open call on Facebook; each portrait highlights a Sikh American who “had a story to tell” — which, in some cases, means a narrative about how bullying was a formative experience. During the exhibit, a projector will play interviews in which subjects address questions like, “What does it feel like to be a Sikh American?” The project has also launched a Kickstarter to preserve their work in a book.
Particularly since the 9/11 attacks, American Sikhs have been caught up in the rising Islamophobic sentiment, facing misunderstandings and outright discrimination because of their distinctive beards and turbans, or dastars, two fundamental elements of their religion. “It’s not a like a baseball cap that someone can take on and off on their head, you know; if someone removes a Sikh man’s turban, it’s the worst disrespect you can possibly show them. It’s part of their body,” explains Jhooti.
He’s hopeful that the exhibit will be a vehicle for raising awareness and effecting change.
“Sometimes, if you read an article it can be changed or manipulated, or people can take it in a different way than it was meant to be written. But with visuals and art, I think it’s always very pure,” he says.
As for what he’s most looking forward to? The response among non-Sikh Americans: “What excites me is that these people are going to get an opportunity to see something that’s never, ever been done.”
Perhaps change is already here: Google “Sikh men” today, and you’ll find some of Amin and Jhooti’s portraits.