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America 2.0 is a translation through representation of what a dynamic American community looks like. This project, Mark Bennington’s newest body of work, began over the summer of 2016 and is a direct response to the politicized images of American Muslims depicted as a plagued foreign diaspora. It is about the universality of youth – young Muslims who are vivacious, earnest and informed and eager to participate in their American democracy. Shot in the studio and painted with only natural light, the images are meant to invoke the timelessness of the first American portraits taken by Matthew Brady in New York City. Against a neutral grey background, the vibrancy of each subject stands out in sharp relief, symbolizing clarity in the midst of all the political noise. This is our young complex America, simultaneously integrated, independent, and highly networked. These images are Bennington’s attempt to harness concerns into the normalcy of daily life and start to shift the national dialogue to one of unity.
All photographs: pigment prints 14″x11″, editon of 10, framed 20″x16″, $400
See bio, below
Hagar, 22, Health & Science major at New Jersey City University: “My dad watches the news like 24/7. He watches Al Jazeera. He’s from Egypt. I think it’s important to vote, but our options this year are … we didn’t have much choice! I’d have preferred not to vote but I don’t think that’s a better option either. I wanted Bernie, he just seemed kind of down to earth unlike the other two.”
Fatima, 16, student at Raising Star Academy: “I was born and raised in New York City. I want to wear a hijab, I’m looking forward to doing it, but I don’t think I’m ready right now. First, I need to make sure my belief and faith are straight- I need to make sure it’s strong enough for me to put it on and never want to take it off again… so, I don’t want to just do it now and then someday be like ‘no I don’t want to do this anymore’. I want to make sure when I put it on, I’m ready to keep it on.”
Abdelrazaq, 25, NYU Dental student: “I believe my individual vote for the President doesn’t matter… New York State is a blue state and is going to Hillary no matter who I select. I’m of the opinion that voting for local positions is more important, and that the Muslim community like any minority community should show up and vote, not in the hopes of determining the winner, but to show our presence. We are part of this country, part of this community – a large part – and voting is a way for us to show those who run for governmental positions that ‘Hey, we are here. We matter, we carry weight and you can’t make a political career out of marginalizing us and communities like us because you will not succeed.’”
Hanan, 24, NYU Dental student: “I have a pretty positive personality- my nickname is Happy Panda. I try not to think too much, because sometimes I have a tendency to do just that. I always tell everybody, there’s not just two parties [so] why don’t you break the system a little bit? So I’m going to vote for any other random person on the list and not just go for a Republican or Democrat, cause honestly they are both horrible people – one is fake and the other one is pretty ‘out there’ and blunt and his mind set is pretty bad… and hers is conniving. Sometimes I’m surprised at people, at who they’re voting for but I don’t push my views on anyone else.”
Hany, 27, General Manager at Cairo Dental in Queens: “To be honest, I was for Trump. I’m excited about him. I love his passion to change the country because it needs a lot of changing. If I were him, I would let in visitors but put a tracking device on them … because so many immigrants overstay and don’t pay tax. Believe in the magic !
Helda, 29, full time student at Rutgers University majoring in Public Health and works full time as a Healthcare coordinator: “So you have Muslim religion and Muslim culture. The thing with our religion and culture is that they are so intertwined. People mistake a lot of culture things to be religious and they’re not.
Iman, 23, Bio-medical Engineer for a Healthcare tech company: “I’m originally from Nigeria but moved to the United States 5 years ago for my formal education. I initially got accepted for Biochemistry at Temple University and then I applied to transfer to Drexel because I got a scholarship. After my third year, I had done some “soul searching” and realized pursuing medicine will not provide me with the options, lifestyle or fulfillment that I would be seeking. I decided to pursue Bio-medical Engineering instead because I believed it would be more challenging and it was! My dad being a doctor himself knew how stressful that lifestyle was and was okay with my decision to switch as long as I knew what I wanted to do with engineering. He thought hopefully I would pursue a Ph.D.! And I’m not surprised! I grew up with expectations of excellence in academia, where you couldn’t come home with a ‘B’. When all my friends bought iPods, I wanted to get one too, [but] my father insisted I read 3 books first, underling all the words I didn’t understand, then write it out and go a dictionary and write out the meanings. So, at an early age I was taught to value of education and work ethic. When it came to making independent decisions of whether we wanted to play or work, work always took priority.”
Jannah, 19, student at Hunter Community College: “I did wear a hijab a long time ago when I was little, but people would tell me to take it off because I was too young (pre-puberty) Now I’ve just have gotten used to not wearing it. But, I still try to dress as modest as I can. Modest means not showing too much skin, no cleavage, not too tight… if it’s hot though, it’s a different story. I’ll wear a tank top but it would show too much. I won’t wear very short shorts… In my house, of course, I wear whatever I want.”
Jenan, 25, Brand manager at a law firm and creator of the blog MissMuslim.com: “As a Muslim woman there were a lot of things that we were told we cannot talk about… Things that were seen as inappropriate like dating, going to college, traveling on your own, starting your own career… the stereotypical notion that you grow up, you get married, you have children, and that’s your life- you don’t have sex before marriage, etc. I appreciate my religion and it is a huge part of my identity, but, I think I have found a really good balance between my American identity and my Arab Muslim identity. Plus with this blog, I found that there are [many] girls who are at the same level of religiosity as I am and it’s so nice to connect with them.”
Joshua, 28, college counselor at a high school in Queens: “I was born in the Bronx, but grew up in Queens. My Mother is from Puerto Rico, my Father is from Bangladesh. I was a typical kid, a Nicks fan- those were the glory days! I grew up with a lot of Eastern European kids, the area had a lot of Albanians, Romanians and [also] Nigerians. I grew up with all these different cultures… I think that’s really been a huge part of why I’m able to just adapt, [and] learn about other cultures, going [through life] with an open mind. One thing that I really appreciate about Islam… and it’s something that is not always practiced in the community, I’ll be honest about it… there is this thing where you are supposed to, no matter who your neighbor is, no matter who lives in your community, whether they’re Muslim or not Muslim, from your country or not… you’re supposed to respect them. Islam is about community. I think a lot of people that came here – like the Bangladeshi community for example – they stuck together because they were not that many Bangladeshi people in New York City, especially in the 80s. My father was different, he married a Puerto Rican woman, he lived in the Bronx, he lived in Astoria, and was exposed to different cultures. But I’ve seen how people even in my own family, they come here and they have a hard time interacting with other cultures, other people. They just feel [more] comfortable dealing with people from their own community. I identify as being a Muslim, but there are just certain things like this ‘closed mindedness’ that happens in the community sometimes that I can’t really identify with. To be honest, I’m not the most religious Muslim, but I’m still Muslim nonetheless. And this is my experience.”
Marina, 28, works at the United Nations: “I’m from Hungary. My grandparents were refugees, political refugees, so they took part in the revolution. They fled eventually. So, I’m very strongly connected with that identity. Coming to the US was a huge transformation for me in terms of my religious identity. I reverted to Islam, and it happened when I was searching for my cultural roots and I discovered that actually, Hungary itself has a history with Islam, it’s a strong history and it goes back way before even the Ottoman Empire. I always identified as Muslim growing up, but only wore the hijab for five years and it was actually when I moved to the US that I stopped. It became this intense fear that I had, a kind of paranoia I guess, [so] I took it off. And I ended up having this identity crisis because people in the US have a stereotype of what it means to be a Muslim, and they associate that with certain backgrounds or regions of the world, they associate it with foreignness, and I had a really hard time with no longer visibly identifying as a Muslim, wearing a hijab. I found myself sort of stuck, not really being able to integrate with the Muslim community here in New York City and at the same time having people not understand that I did identify as a Muslim. And the thing is – every time there’s been some sort of incident that happens in the media, whether that’s abroad or here, the Muslim community is very traumatized, over and over again. And I don’t think that individuals outside the community, in the American society, understand that. We are living under siege sometimes and that is very difficult to cope with, mentally and physically.”
Mohammed, 22, Environmental engineering major at City College of New York: “i’m trying to push myself into doing things that I’m not really comfortable with- like getting my photo taken!!… I’m not really a social person, but I’m pushing myself to getting involved socially.”
Mosammet, 17, Brooklyn Tech High School: “We are a nation of immigrants. I do not accept someone who calls my fellow brothers and sisters of color ‘murderers and thieves’. I do not accept someone who utilizes fear mongering to turn half the country against the rest. I will not stand my mother or my sisters being forced to remove their hijab and I will not stand my father and brother being called ‘terrorists’. I LOVE LIFE, but as an American citizen, I have never been so disappointed in America.”
Najwa, 16, Miraj Islamic High School: “My all time favorite subject is science! Learning about the different elements that make us think or act in certain ways fascinate me, that’s the main reason why I want to study medicine once I graduate.”
Rayan, 23, student at New Jersey City University: “I think a lot of non-Muslims get mixed up about the fact that women want to get married right after high school. But that’s a cultural thing, not a Muslim thing. A lot of Palestinians, their parents will tell them right after high school, ok, now you have to get married. But our parents are more lenient, open-minded. So we weren’t like that when we got done from high school. School is important in our house. That was the most important thing. Finish school… We went to an Islamic school here in Jersey City. We learned Arabic, we had Islamic studies, and then we had regular classes. We had a strict dress code – it was navy blue pants, like suit pants, and a navy blue jumper under which you had to wear a T-shirt. And then we had a school sweater over the whole thing. Almost everyday, our headmistress would look under the sweater to make sure you were wearing a long-sleeve white T-shirt, even though you couldn’t see it from the outside! And like kids in school, we would always try to go against the uniform! We’d try to wear different shoes or mismatched socks … anything to get us into trouble. We were basically trouble makers.”
Shahid & Hanzalah, 18 & 20, College students (Information Security & Android Development): “So, we met initially back in Brooklyn Tech High School at the MIST Club (Muslim Interscholastic Tournament- a state/ national level tournament where Muslim high school students compete in 40 different competitions ranging from debate and improv, to spoken word). We were talking about software engineering and complaining about teachers, term projects, etc. At first I was thinking, ‘Ahhh, a mini me! I’ll take him under my wing!’, but then the more we hung out, the more it became clear that I was usually the one who needed more help between the two of us. Nowadays, Shahid is the kind of guy I’ll message at 2 am with some strange insomnia induced epiphany and he’ll take two seconds to tell me the massively obvious hole in my logic and tell me to go to sleep. I’m amazed we’ve known each other for so many years because in many ways it still feels like we only recently met- there’s a timelessness to it and honestly, it feels more like family.”
Shannon, 24, freelance Film & TV production assistant: “I’m 100% Puerto Rican, grew up in the Bronx and co-run a blog called MissMuslim.com. During college, in freezing Oswego, I was going through a ‘dark time’ mentally and I was like, ‘Do I really believe in Jesus Christ as my personal savoir?’ Because I was raised in the Christian faith – my Mom’s a pastor- [in fact] growing up everyone in my family played a role in church, my cousins were singers and dancers in a popular Christian dance team called Inner Shout and I was even a Bible School teacher at age 14. So, when I went to college I didn’t have that Sunday thing to do anymore and it gave me the time to think [about] ‘why am I doing this?’ I was lost.
Then I met this young man, a strange man … he believed in all the religions! He had a Quran- he wouldn’t let me touch it though, so I googled it and read about it… and there was this portion that spoke to me and it basically said, ‘There is only one God, who has neither begotten nor begat’, meaning there is one God source who was not born or gave birth, like no son… It was the oppositee of what I had been living my whole life. I read that and I thought, ‘That makes perfect exact sense!’ That was the moment and a year later that I converted to Islam in my bathroom.
The appropriate way is that you should have a religious cleric present but you can do it without one. You make the declaration of faith – ‘There’s no God but God and Mohammed is his slave and messenger’ and you perform Wudu which is the cleansing of yourself. And because I didn’t know proper Wudu methods, I took a shower. Then a year after that I told people I was Muslim.
I did wear the hijab for a while, but was doing it because I thought I should, not because I wanted to. A lot of my thinking was based on other girls [who I thought were proper] and what they were doing and saying. Then I got to know them and saw who they were in public versus who they were in private
Syeda, 21, Math & Physics major at Hunter College: “I’d love to teach. It’s been my dream for the past couple of years to open a school actually, for [young] kids. I feel there is this huge stigma towards math and physics or just math and science. Especially in math! Where a lot of kids feel like they can’t do it and the steer away from it because they don’t think they are capable of doing it. For starters, to give kids earlier exposure to things like fundamental concepts. I took chemistry when I was in high school, in 10th grade, and that’s when I learned what an atom was. That is something I could have easily learned when I was a kid. When I was in bio I learned what a cell was, when I was in physics I learned what vectors were and it wasn’t till I went to college that I really learnt what all that meant. I think the older we get the more we question things, the more we need rationales to explain things. But as kids, we’re willing to just take things and run with it and let our imaginations play.”
Mark Bennington is a portrait photographer based between New York City and Mumbai. He travels often and widely for commercial/corporate/editorial assignments and his personal projects. America 2.0
has been featured in PDN Photo of the Day
, UpWorthy & Haute Hijab, CNN’s “Parting Shots” , The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, CairoScene, SkyTG24, EmiratesWoman,
His first book “Living the Dream: The Life of the ‘Bollywood’ Actor
” (HarperCollins) is now available.