A different view of Islam
Photographer Marwan Bassiouni has spent four years taking images inside mosques around Europe that look out on to the outside world
Marwan Bassiouni says he has always lived “in between” places. Growing up in a small town in Switzerland, where he and his sisters were the only Arab children, he had a passion for poetry and was an avid music fan, but hadn’t yet picked up a camera.
“I was really into writing, and then eventually I did music and I wrote lyrics. I used to play in a rock band. It was a very different time, so photography came a bit later,” he said, speaking from Geneva, where work from his long-term project New Western Views was being exhibited at the Halle Nord Gallery. It can now be seen at Kunsthaus Zurich in the group show Re-Orientations.
It was while studying hotel management and working in a restaurant in the Alps that Bassiouni began to experiment with image-making. At the end of the day, when the ski-lifts were shut down and all the other staff had gone home, he stayed behind on his own and began to take pictures, using the three-megapixel camera on his phone.
“Every evening, it would be just the most peaceful experience. You’re alone on the mountain, the sun would set and you would see this beautiful atmosphere transform itself before you,” Bassiouni said. “It felt almost like a calling at that time.”
The opportunity to take his skills into the world came via somewhat convoluted means. First, Bassiouni landed a job as a photography assistant for a commercial studio in Geneva that specialised in promotional images of high-end watches. However, Switzerland mandates a five-month period of military service for men between the ages of 18 and 30. Bassiouni was called up in 2010. As a conscientious objector, he chose to volunteer for a human rights NGO.
Soon after, the Arab Spring started. Bassiouni, who is half Egyptian, moved to Cairo for seven months to work as an independent documentary filmmaker. The exacting, technical style of photography he had been involved with did not prepare him for the challenges he faced there.
“I went from photographing fashion shoots and watches for Rolex to documenting human rights abuses and hearing nightmare stories of life,” he said.
The experience showed Bassiouni both the power and limitations of the traditional photojournalistic approach, which fuelled his decision “to be more of an independent author-type of photographer”. He had also begun to take a more serious interest in Islam before going to Egypt. While attending juma prayers with a lawyer he was working with there, he felt that he had been “called back”.
In 2014, Bassiouni began a BA in photography at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, immersing himself in photographic and art history, Islamic art, aesthetics and theology. While completing his studies in the Netherlands, he began New Western Views — a project he has been working on for the past four years. He has now visited hundreds of mosques, looking for clear windows. When he finds one, he photographs the interior surroundings, then the view outside. The images are digitally combined, and each element is rendered in perfect exposure.
When they are exhibited, the pictures are printed large and hung close to the floor, so viewers feel like they are looking out on to another world. Bassiouni explained that the work is informed by the way that paintings and abstract art hold the gaze of the viewer.
“What if I could make a photograph that would make you look at it longer and therefore spend more time with the subject matter in a different context?” he said.
Bassiouni added that, in the beginning, the intention ”was not to make a project on Islam. It was always to make a project on the perception of Islam. I wanted to make images that could engage with all those other negative images, but in a different way.”
New Western Views includes work from the Netherlands, the UK and Switzerland. Now, Bassiouni wants to extend the project to France and Germany. On his travels, he has observed the similarities and the differences between Muslim communities in each respective nation.
“Dutch Muslims are pretty Dutch and the British Muslims are pretty British in a way,” he said, adding that mosques in the UK felt grander and more established than elsewhere in Europe — especially Switzerland, which has restricted their construction, often forcing them to industrial areas on the outskirts of towns. “That feels very new, very temporary, very much cast aside and, in a way, it does correlate with some of the stories of Muslims there.”
New Western Views can be seen in the following locations:
Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich (Switzerland), 24 March – 16 July 2023
Schloss Moyland Museum, Bedburg-Hau (Germany), 19 March – 20 August 2023
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