Under colonial rule, colonised people had little control over how they were seen. The lens through which they were seen was skewed by imperialism. Representation was partial, selective and decontextualised, giving way to blindspots. The arrival of photography in the early 19th century extended the range of those who could be represented – and therefore controlled.
However, the emergence of self-portraiture a century later gave marginalised folk a tool with which to document their own experiences, granting them space to steer clear of the colonial gaze. It’s an artistic practice that has continued to this day and is central to the work of 22-year-old London-based writer and self-portrait photographer Faiza Saqib. “When I take self-portraits, I have the means to direct the camera and control it,” she tells me.
She honours her ancestral heritage through photography, using themes of war and love to inform her imagery. “For the majority of my self-portraits, I look through the lens of my mum and through the story she tells me,” she says. In 1980 Saqib’s mother travelled from Afghanistan to Pakistan, eventually moving to the UK in 1996. “She went through hardships when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. I always feel like it’s my duty as her daughter to remind people that war is still going on.”
Saqib uses photography to memorialise her mother’s migration, symbolising her culture through deep red and green colourscapes. She also cites the legendary singer and songwriter Ahmad Zahir, known as the Elvis Presley of Afghanistan, as one of her musical icons. “He would bring out every form of poetry in his music and it was the most incredible thing.”
In 1979 Zahir was killed in a car accident. Critics still speculate that his death was a political assassination, provoked by the singer’s outspoken views against the Soviet-backed Marxist government that had taken power in Afghanistan after the 1978 coup. “It was a huge thing when he passed away because he was such an incredible figure. He was a charismatic soul who touched the hearts of many. His music still echoes brightly in the streets of Kabul through the valleys of Panjshir. When I look to artists for inspiration, I kind of dive into my own country. There’s so much beauty in my own people that is often abandoned.”
Saqib elaborates on her creative process and self-portraiture: “I like my own space when I’m doing my own work because I feel like there’s so much inspiration you can take from being with yourself because you’re reflecting yourself, you’re writing your own stories and there’s something so beautiful about it.”
Self-portrait photographers like Saqib have found space online to showcase their work. More than seven million pictures appear on Instagram with the tag #heritage and nearly 30 million posts surface with the hashtag #culture, depicting how users are employing the platform to celebrate multiple parts of their identity. Saqib emphasises the importance of highlighting her Afghani heritage, and not assimilating into whiteness. “We need to be able to love ourselves and teach young girls to love themselves a lot more. If I don’t use my platform to speak more of my culture then I’m losing myself,” she says.
Another creative who is equally passionate about embracing the intricacies of her culture through Instagram is 22-year-old student and photographer Simrah Farrukh. Born and raised in the Bay Area in California, Farrukh explains how her Pakistani heritage is her primary source of inspiration. She remembers exploring the artwork of calligrapher and painter Syed Ahmed Sadequain Naqvi as a child. “We’ve had a book of his work for as long as I can remember,” she says.
Sadequain grew up in North India and eventually moved to Pakistan in 1948 after the Partition of India, passing away at the age of 63. He draws on themes such as the condition of men in the natural world, a motif that can also be seen in Farrukh’s work. “My cultural heritage informs my work by the experiences I and many South Asian women face. I create art so people can see themselves in art and feel like art themselves.”
Farrukh often photographs women of colour, recording their beauty, joy and strength through the lens of femininity and nostalgia. “I draw inspiration from my own experiences, my friends, family and culture. I don’t have one source of inspiration which is nice because I can find beauty in everything.”
Saqib and Farrukh use self-portraiture in their photography, a trope that has garnered them 52,200 Instagram followers combined. When asked about this artistic choice both photographers explain how they break down Eurocentrism and embrace PoC beauty through their work.
By flaunting physical attributes that signify their Afghani and South Asian heritage respectively, Saqib and Farrukh are not altering their appearance in order to fit western parameters of beauty. “The colonisation of beauty has led non-white people to feel self-hatred,” says Farrukh.
Recent waves of anti-racism protests have spurred PoC, including South Asian communities, to reckon with the colourism that plagues parts of South Asian culture. The Indian fairness cream industry is worth approximately $450m, according to the Indian business website Moneycontrol. An investigation by the BBC found that the sale of products such as Fair and Lovely, which effectively bleaches the skin to mimic the appearance of a white complexion, outweighs the sale of Coca-Cola in India.
One of Farrukh’s first Instagram posts is of three darker-skinned South Asian women, which is part of a project to help bring the representation of darker-skinned women to the fore.
By capturing the beauty of people who do not fit western definitions of beauty, Farrukh is decolonising our perceptions of what and who qualifies as beautiful. “Decolonising beauty is about embracing your natural features and rejecting colonial standards. To me it would mean to stop contouring my nose or hiding its natural shape. Outside of physical features it would mean to be unapologetically me wherever I may be,” she says.
Thirty-year-old Dee Williams is a Jamaican-American fashion photographer and social media manager based in Brooklyn. She documents stories of PoC and black joy through art. Like Faiza and Simrah, the lack of people of colour on the internet and in magazines incentivised her to take photos. “I didn’t see people that look like me,” she says.
Williams’ passion is in using imagery to foreground people and stories from the African diaspora. “I started taking photos of beautiful people of colour, specifically black people, and flooding the internet with images that I want to see.”
She was introduced to photography by her uncle while growing up in the lush green valleys of San Luis Obispo in California. He travelled up and down the States in his RV and memorialised his hiking and surfing trips using a camera. “My uncle always had a little cheap point-and-shoot camera with him. He would take photos of everything. The excitement that he had in his face of showing me the images is what inspired me to pick up a camera.”
While her uncle focused on nature and landscape imagery, Williams is more inspired to shoot the people around her. “I draw beauty and inspiration from my friends, my family and from the people who I see every day walking down the street.
“I’m working to change the way black men and women see themselves in fashion and within day-to-day life through unique points of view and expert knowledge of the social media landscape.”
Williams captures the vibrant essence of African diasporic life in her imagery, photographing landmark cultural occasions such as the Notting Hill Carnival, the West Indian Day parade in New York and Christmas in Ghana. “I grew up in a house that was very loud and proud of being black and being Jamaican and African. That love of my different identities is very fluent in my work. I’m capturing the joy that I felt growing up.”
For Williams, celebrating PoC and black joy goes hand in hand with decolonising beauty. “I want to disrupt the status quo in the art world, which celebrates European features, tall skinny models, blonde hair, blue eyes, with imagery of people of colour who don’t fit the Eurocentric view of beauty,” she says.
“That’s what beauty is to me.”
You can find Sana here: