An alumna’s photo series chronicling Muslims praying in public spaces recently won a photography award.
Sana Ullah, who graduated in 2017 with a master’s degree in new media photojournalism, will be presented with the Goldziher Prize, an award that recognizes excellence in coverage of Muslim Americans by U.S. journalists, next month. Ullah won the award for her photo series “Places You’ll Pray,” which highlights Muslim individuals praying in public places like shopping malls and wedding ceremonies.
Ullah, who practices Islam, is one of six individuals across the country to win the award, which comes with a $5,000 prize. She said the award emphasizes the value of Muslim storytelling in the United States, especially at a time when her religion is debated and criticized by Americans.
“It gives an eye into a part of Islam that a lot of people don’t see, or people that aren’t Muslim often times see and maybe if they do see it, they don’t know,” Ullah said.
Ullah began her photo series in 2015 after she and her sister stopped to pray in a dressing room for salat, a ritual prayer performed by Muslims five times per day. Ullah said the moment inspired her to capture times when other Muslims stop their days to pray.
She initially published a Facebook post seeking people who were comfortable having their photo taken during prayer. Ullah said she met with people who responded to the post at places where they typically pray in public.
Ullah said she was hesitant to make “Places You’ll Pray” the focus of her master’s degree because she did not want to be “pigeonholed into telling stories about Muslims.” But she said a professor encouraged her to continue the project to give non-Muslim individuals a view of the religion people might not see.
“He said, ‘You have to share your story or your perspective because that’s a truth,’” she said. “Someone else who’s not Muslim or someone else that won’t be able to identify won’t be able to translate their images like you can.”
Ullah shares her photos on an Instagram account dedicated to “Places You’ll Pray”, which has about 25,000 followers. Since its launch, she said she no longer needs to take photos on her own – people have submitted their own photos of Muslim individuals praying for the last two years since she began the project.
“I want to say the project is mine, but I also feel like it’s everyone’s,” Ullah said. “It’s nice to see that Muslim storytellers are getting awards for their narratives.”
“Places You’ll Pray” has also inspired discussions in the classroom about being Muslim in the United States. Ullah said she received a message from a photography teacher saying that one of her students found the photos and it was “the first time he could share a photojournalistic project that he identifies with.”
Ullah said she hopes her project will continue to give insight into the life of Muslim individuals in the United States.
“This project was inspired by encouraging people to talk about why Muslims are doing this and what is the intention behind this all, and for young Muslims to feel comfortable practicing Islam without fear,” Ullah said.