‘We Belong Here’
Documenting Arab American and Muslim American life without stereotypes
Wesaam Al-Badry was born in Iraq, where he and his family might have stayed if not for the Gulf War, which began when he was 7. In 1991, the family landed at a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. There, Al-Badry got his first camera, a Pentax K1000. “I didn’t understand the numbers on top, shutter speed, and aperture, but I understood, over time, composition,” Al-Badry told me. Even without regular access to film or any reliable way to develop what he shot, he saw in his hands a tool for telling his story as it unfolded.
Eventually, Al-Badry’s family was relocated to Lincoln, Nebraska. “When you come in as a refugee, you think everything is beautiful. You think you made it to the promised land; everybody’s equal,” he said. “But then you realize there’s little hints.” As he grew up, Al-Badry became more aware of racism. Teenagers mocked his mother’s hijab; many Americans, he realized, had been conditioned to see Arabs and Muslims as intrinsically strange, angry, or violent.
The images in Al-Badry’s series “From Which I Came,” many of which feature his own family and friends, might easily be marshaled to represent a cultural clash—but his work asks you to focus on the individual, the intimacy of daily life. The people in these photos are rarely smiling. Al-Badry’s aim is to present them as resilient and dignified, even if it makes the photos less immediately inviting to his audience. His allegiance is to the people he is photographing; he wants his subjects to see themselves in the absence of imposed stereotypes. “We belong here,” he said. “We bring this very rich culture with us. But we’re not archaic figures; we’re not stuck in the past.”