Photographer EMAN MOHAMMED knows what it feels and looks like to be deemed the other. As a Muslim woman in America and in a male-dominated profession, she’s a trifecta for prejudice, but that’s not something to stop her. Indeed, it’s quite the opposite: exploring how we divide ourselves, be it along political, cultural, religious or economic lines, became a main factor fueling and informing her provocative, award-winning work.
When she arrived in a conservative American town to take photographs for a new project, the looks she encountered indisputably telegraphed how unwelcome she was, before anyone even had to open their mouths to say it. For Mohammed, this wasn’t unprecedented—but it still stung. But thanks to a lifetime of experience, Mohammed understood that, even here in this new place, what initially appeared to be dislike was in fact based in fear—and fear was something she could work with. So, when one of her American subjects wouldn’t let her past his front porch, she knew it was because, as she puts it, “it was his first time seeing the other side”. Mohammed captured her American subjects’ faces—from the moment they met her, and then after they had had open, honest conversations together—and the inner change in them is strikingly evident in their expressions.
Mohammed was only 19 when she began shooting photos for a news agency—and became the youngest female photojournalist in Gaza when the war broke out. She set out to capture the aftermath of war, more specifically, the human side of it: how ordinary people rebuilt their lives once the fighting stopped. Her camera was able to bridge the cultural and political divides between professed enemies, and explore their shared humanity instead. She’s an expert at revealing human nature by inviting you to look through her lens and share the stories of her subjects, not just observe. Mohammed uses her art as a device to develop mutual respect—and in a world where words and images are so powerful, she’s keenly aware that how we wield them really matters.
In her engaging, compassionate and even humorous talks, Mohammed reveals how she became a powerful journalistic voice, and explores all the ways we separate ourselves with an “us” versus “them” mentality. Despite the intolerance her work may depict, Mohammed offers an optimistic, vibrant image of how even the most biased people can find their views shaken when met with an “enemy” face-to-face. For many of these people, they’ve only ever encountered the “other” in their imagination, and all it takes is one in-person encounter to kickstart compassion and empathy, and start their journey to becoming more open-minded and accepting.
In 2019, Mohammed was announced as a TED Senior Fellow. This distinguished position is offered to select individuals who “embody the spirit of the TED Fellows program.” Mohammed has photographed a diverse range of communities recovering from war for publications like The Guardian, The Washington Post, CNN, and organizations like UNESCO. She has exhibited in New York, Montreal, Dublin, and The Hague, and has had a selection of her work acquired by the British Museum of London.
Seeing the Other Side What Do You Wish You Could Ask Your Enemy?
When Eman Mohammed first started documenting international conflicts with her camera, she quickly realized that she wasn’t interested in the headline-grabbing items, but the humans behind them. In her work, she sets out to capture the nuanced dynamic of a community, and uses her art as a way to work to change the “Us vs. Them” outlook she encounters all too frequently. While her work shines a light on some of our darker truths, Mohammed’s talk illuminates our incredible potential for positive change. She shares years of pictures that represent her efforts to bring warring factions together, whether that means an Israeli and a Palestinian, or a white American meeting “his first Muslim”—Mohammed herself.
With humor, empathy, and dynamic imagery, her talks lead audiences through a living journey of growth and change, and invites us to think of our own “others”, whoever they may be, as people we can engage with—and understand. As Mohammed persuasively posits, it’s also in our best interest to take the time to step outside our comfort zones and try to make ourselves better: there’s tremendous value in learning from people different from us, if we want to see and be seen ourselves—without the specter of fear holding us back from creating meaningful connections.