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Meet Sana Ullah: The Inspiring American Muslim Photographer Behind #PlacesYoullPray


 •  Mar 15, 2017


Prayer is one of the most important pillars in Islam and this does not change even while we travel. We'd find any space we can to pray at - places which are not limited to designated ones such as mosques. Capturing of all this in the form of photographs, Sana Ullah started an Instagram page dedicated to the #PlacesYoullPray movement, where she encourages other Muslims to share their own pictures of people praying. Read on to discover more about this Muslim who's changing the world - one photo at a time?

1. Tell us a bit about yourself 

My name is Sana Ullah and I was born and raised in South Florida by two wonderful, hardworking Bangladeshi parents. I am currently a graduating MA student from George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, D.C. and am studying new media photojournalism.

During my free time—if I ever have free time—I look for hole-in-the-wall restaurants, visit museums, attempt to read a new book, occasionally kayak, and/or find a way to get out of the city. In fact, if I could drop everything right now, I would pick up my camera, travel and tell stories of all the people I meet. 

2. What inspired you to start #placesyoullpray?

As I got older and became more passionate about storytelling, I became interested in visually narrating people from their own perspective. I’ve always believed that everyone has a story to share. That every individual has felt happiness in his or her life, and every individual has felt sorrow. The moments may not be identical, which is what makes us unique, but the experience of these sentiments is what connects us.

Not being able to create an image of myself before someone else was something I always ended up struggling with. Hence, the reason I turned to storytelling. I wanted to take images of people in a beautiful manner to remind them that beauty can be found in anyone if we know where to look.

It wasn’t until college that I finally began to accept the other identities of who I am, aside from just being American. There was so much more to who I was and it was okay. It always was. I wanted to start a project that incorporated my vision of Islam, but in a way that no matter what religion you are from or what you believe in, it would still spark interest.

And with the encouragement from my peers and advisers, I came to the realization of who better to build a bridge of communication through art and Islam than a Muslim like myself? If you cannot relate to your work, how can you expect others to relate to it? You are your own best narrator. You know yourself more than anyone else and you can tell your story the best.

And so I began to brainstorm. My idea for Hijabi fashionistas was already getting extremely popular over Instagram and the idea of taking images of professional Muslims that contribute to our everyday society was just as tempting. But one day, I was at the mall with my sister and it was time to pray.

We grabbed the first outfit near us, went straight to the dressing room, and prayed. And then the idea came to me. Why not share images of Muslims praying in locations outside of a designated prayer area, or a mosque?

What seemed so simple to me became so important to the idea and image of Muslims around the world. I began to ask Muslims in the community to take me to a place they remembered praying and asking if I could take their image there again. From basketball courts, to libraries, to wedding halls, to even the highway—the list went on and on!

 In my mind, this project called Places You’ll Pray is an artistic bridge for people that want to educate themselves more about what is often times misunderstood. 

3. What has been the most rewarding experience for you since you started #placesyoullpray?

Honestly? The response. As an artist, it is true that I am my biggest critic and I hesitated for a very long time in sharing this project in fear that I would receive backlash from someone somewhere—Muslim or non-Muslim alike. I tried to work out all the possible things that would stop people from being unnecessarily critical or offended, yet no matter what I do [or what any of us do in any project we pursue], you cannot please every one and that is the utmost universal truth. 

But despite the tiny amounts of deconstructive criticism, I received so much more kindness and inspirational messages from all over the world. My non-Muslim friends and colleagues were becoming more aware of prayer and it’s importance to Muslims. People who knew me began asking questions and engaging in conversations about religion, spirituality, Islam, etc. I received stories from people around the States sharing their own personal experiences with prayer and I even got a message from a high school photography teacher sharing a story about her Muslim student who was inspired by Places You’ll Pray.

It’s the little things that are rewarding. It’s the contributions through the hashtag on Instagram. It’s the sharing of stories and reminding one another that we’re not alone. It’s the community love. 

4. What’s next for #placesyoullpray?

As of right now, Places You’ll Pray is preparing to exhibit at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, D.C. from April 12, 2017 to May 14, 2017 as part of my thesis requirements. It is also in the works with other organizations and publications, both domestic and international and I hope to continue taking photos for this series. 

As for the hashtag, it will continue to live on and I am looking forward to seeing more and more images!

5. What are some of the challenges you have faced while travelling and what did you learn from them?

Traveling is tricky. Sometimes it’s smooth and security doesn’t look your way. Other times, your Muslim-name or garment causes red flags around the airport.

From being asked to take off my hijab, to having my hair bun undone because security needed to pat it, to being stuck in U.S. customs for 4 hours, to being “randomly checked” in a separate room, to being stuck in Israeli customs for 2 hours, to being threatened that I won’t be able to leave a country, to being interrogated in another - the list goes on and on. And if I were to list every challenge I’ve faced while traveling, we would be reading a book. 

However, I would never allow these challenges to stop me from traveling all together. These challenges have in fact taught me how to travel more efficiently. For example: don’t wear too many clothes. Avoid wearing jewelry. If you are a hijabi, try to keep your hair as loose as possible without it completely falling out. 

And not only that, there have been extremely wonderful experiences as well. I am almost always sitting on a plane with a stranger who wants to chat. Sometimes about Islam; most of the times about themselves. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a journalist, people love to share their stories. Unfortunately, not many care to listen, so if you lend your ear, you’re bound to make quite an impression. I was once told that we have one mouth and two ears for a reason - use them proportionately. 

Salah can sometimes be a challenge. Most, if not all, international airports have prayer rooms and almost every international flight I’ve taken has allowed me to pray on the plane. If I need to pray on a domestic flight, I try to plan out which prayers I’ll need to do beforehand or make-up when I land. There’s always a way.

Aside from the challenges, traveling is nothing to fear. Do your research, be comfortable with yourself, be respectful and you will be okay.

6. If you could teleport to a new place now, where would it be and why?

This is such a difficult question. As of right now, one of my top places I’d like to visit is Peru. Mainly because of the food, but also because of its history.

7. What are 3 of your favourite destinations and why?

With regards to the places I’ve been, these are my top 3:

  • Morocco
I went to Morocco for work in March 2016 with a few classmates on a collaborative project with the U.S. State Department’s Center of Diplomacy. We were put in pairs and assigned a diplomat from either Spain or Morocco where we followed them around for a week and documented their lives through video. We also took environmental portraits of each individual in specific locations that spoke to their career. Though my diplomat was the U.S. Cultural Attache to Spain, I worked as a crew member in Morocco so I was able to visit Casablanca and Tangier while staying in Rabat. Being the only Muslim on the trip was also a plus - it allowed me to connect with the locals on a more personal level, but also threw them off because I couldn’t speak Arabic. I always feel extremely comfortable in Muslim-majority countries and it makes my heart smile when the common greeting is “salam” rather than “hello". The food was incredible and the blue walls of the Casbah blew me away. I know it was no Marrakech, but it was still incredibly gorgeous in my eyes. I can only hope and pray that I can bring my entire family with me next time and enjoy Morocco fully [without work].
  • Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina - USA
Then there’s the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. The Blue Ridge is a popular spot in the U.S., but not popular enough for it to be crowded by people. I recently visited with a few friends and went hiking almost every single day. We would find a waterfall or a creek and spend hours walking through it. We white-water-rafted down a mountain stream and jumped off miniature cliffs into the natural spring water. We would sit at the edge of the parkway and watch the sunset below the mountains. There is something so extremely peaceful and beautiful about nature that is untouched by mankind. I remember looking out across the Pisgah National Forest while standing on the parkway and feeling extremely emotional. It was this indescribable feeling that I could only associate with the memory of my first time walking onto the cool tiles of Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.
  • Jerusalem

Lastly, I would say that Jerusalem is one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited. It may not have been full of happy memories, but it will always be one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had. I was only there for two weeks on a scholarship program, but I learned more about Jerusalem in that short period of time than I’ve learned in the 24 years I’ve been alive—and still, I can confidently say that I barely know anything. It broke my heart more than filled it, but the moments I shared with the people that opened up to me—Israeli and Palestinian alike—remind me of why my heart will always have a place for Jerusalem. No matter who I spoke to, there was a story to be told and I was solely there to listen.

I received gifts upon gifts from almost every Palestinian I met and I grew to love my Israeli classmates and their honesty. I would eat kunafa in Bethlehem and share a Palestinian lunch in the home of a woman I just met. I would visit the wall on both sides and immediately see what was being hidden. I would talk with a man inside his shop and be gifted a Palestinian coin to give to my Bangladeshi father. I would feel sorrow for my professor who is trying to find a way to leave so that his son would not have to join the Israeli Defense Force.

I felt torn more than half the time I was there, but at peace the minute I heard the adhan on top of an Austrian hospice and then stepped foot into Al Aqsa for prayer. I felt conflicted by my lack of understanding of the political atmosphere, but joy when I stepped into the Dead Sea that touched Jordan from across. I didn’t know how to feel or what to say most of the time, but I wanted to hug the man who made dua for me at Nabi Musa and allowed me to befriend his camel, Pistachio. I felt pain, anger, love, and joy almost every single day. And because of all of that, Jerusalem is easily on my list of favorite places I’ve ever been.

8. Amidst all the chaos in the US now, could you tell us an insider tip or two for Muslims travelling to the US?

Unfortunately, I do not think I am an expert in how to travel to the U.S. from another country. I believe an immigration lawyer would be able to answer this more professionally than I ever could.

However, if you’re a Muslim and from a country not listed in the ban, I would recommend traveling in a group and keeping the number of a friend or your embassy at hand. No matter how unfortunate and ridiculous vetting could get, always stay patient and answer questions with clear and precise answers. You don’t have to answer anything that wasn’t asked. I am so sad that this is a continuous fear, but the least I could say is that I love you and stay strong. 

9. What’s your favourite travel photo and why?

This is one of my favorite travel photos because it makes me smile. I grew up around a large Hispanic community in South Florida so when I visited Spain, it felt almost familiar to me. Luckily, I was in Madrid during Palm Sunday where I got to witness a large parade throughout the neighborhood I stayed in.

A bunch of older women stood outside their balcony and threw rose pedals down while speaking to one another from each others apartment. It felt like a scene from a movie or a telenovela, but also as though I was somewhere in Hialeah watching the Cuban abuelitas enjoy their summer breeze. 

10. Fill in the blank: My hope for the world is that…

We listen more than we speak so that we may open our hearts to those we fear and understand the difference between empathy and sympathy so that we will know when to use each properly.