Iman – a Muslimah in Tijuana

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It’s hard to describe or categorize my hometown. One thing I can say is Tijuana is truly everyone’s land. This insane (but, oh, so amazing!) city is often compared to a mother, who can be tough to you, but will always wrap her arms around you with nurturing care. It’s a highly diverse place, and the fact that it borders with the USA is likely the main reason for this. There’s one discrepancy I have noticed, though, especially since I was very close to a specific religion during my University studies.

Where are the Muslims? If you were to ask any Tijuana native, they will probably tell you there’s no such thing as Muslims in this Northern Mexican city. That is, if they even know what Islam is. Due to its rarity in the country, a huge percentage of the Mexican population is ignorant about the Islamic religion. The National Statistics and Geography Institute (INEGI) 2010 census corroborates that there were about 3760 Muslims in the country at the time, out of which only 190 resided in Baja California.

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Even though it’s one of the largest religions in the world. holding 23% of earth’s population in its pocket (as of 2010, according to Pew Research), Islam has struggled to reach this nation, which just so happens to be dominated by the Catholicism. This makes Muslims a very rare breed, not only in Tijuana, but in all 32 states. Having the chance to work with a Muslimah should be a blessing to any Mexican photographer, and I considered myself honored to have crossed paths with henna tattoo (mehndi) artist Iman, who allowed me to capture a glimpse of her religion, culture and art through my lenses.

Here are my two favorite images (left one is my #1):

It was a completely different experience for me. I usually work with technology and gadgets; these inanimate objects can be manipulated at one’s will, and the best part is they have no feelings! Not only am I not used to working with fellow human beings, but I have never worked with a modest woman. I made an effort to be as respectful as possible, and I also took another female friend with me, so she would feel more comfortable (I know many of my Muslim friends will get on my case about his photo shoot, so I just wanted to put that out there).

All things considered, I loved the shoot and feel like results were great. The session was divided in two. First we went to a cousin’s house, flipped the whole place upside down and turned it into an improvised studio of sorts. A full studio would have definitely helped, though. Regardless, we made it work. You will notice that these images were a little less adventurous. We can call them… conservative. And that’s because that was my purpose. As with any religious person, prayer is a very serious matter for Iman. I simply didn’t want to step across boundaries that I shouldn’t. These images show a sense of respect, so to speak.

Things did get more engaging once we rode over to the beach. She changed garments, switching from her abaya (the long, dark clothing you see in the prayer images) to a colorful sharwal and kameez with intricate designs. You probably know Islamic clothing – it’s very aesthetically pleasing and makes for great images, as well as being modest.

The main focus was obviously to capture her mehndi art. I will accept some of these poses were a new to me, but we shot some good images that resonated with her religion, the henna tattoos and other cultural aspects. And as you may have noticed, Iman happens to have very interesting eyes, which I believe really helped make some of these images much more compelling.

As it goes with most of my photo shoots, I focused on the basics here. The plan was to have a good composition without focusing too much on other factors. I did take a flash and other lenses, but there was no need for many of them. At one point I undocked the flash and put it away too. So this leaves us with only a few pieces of equipment: the Nikon D3200, a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 lens, a Nikkor 40 mm f/2.8 macro lens and a reflector, which my beloved friend Monica helped me with. We also used a soft box while taking the prayer images. The whole setup was simple, but effective.

And so after a long day of running, jumping and crawling around a sand hill at Playas de Tijuana, I can say I walked out with some valuable work. It’s my way of documenting a little bit of Islam in Mexico, while helping an artist promote her work and get some interesting photos to keep. I can’t show many of these images, out of respect, but please do share your thoughts on these with me. Would you have done anything differently? Which are your favorites?

By the way, those in the Tijuana/San Diego area who want to get a henna tattoo can reach out to Iman through her Facebook page! I happen to love her work, so at least go check out her gallery and you may become interested in a little adornment.

P.S.: Special thanks to my friend Yvette, who helped me edit a few images. Also, much love to Monica for bearing with me and carrying that reflector around!

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