When Robert Gerhardt photographed a van- dalized advertisement in late November on the train platform
heading from the Bronx into
Manhattan and posted the picture to
Instagram and Facebook (India
Abroad, December 6, 2013), he had no
idea that his morning commute sighting would create such an Internet outrage.
By the next morning, the picture had
gone viral after Arslan Ifktikhar, journalist and media commentator on
issues related to race and ethnicity, saw
Gerhardt’s Facebook feed and tweeted
it to his 40,000+ Twitter followers.
The ad was a landmark one by GAP,
featuring Sikh American designer and
actor Waris Ahluwalia with
model/filmmaker Quentin Jones.
The word ‘love’ in the ad’s ‘Make
Love’ holiday slogan was crossed out
and replaced with the word ‘bombs.’
On the white space of the ad, the words
‘Please stop driving taxis!’ was scribbled in Sharpie.
“This guy clearly defaced it thinking
they were Muslims,” Gerhardt says. “Since I’ve been working
on this Muslim American project, I’ve sort of developed a
sense of what anti-Muslim stuff looks like. And when I saw
that, I thought it was once again that confusion between
Sikhs and Muslims. There’s a lot of misplaced hatred — not
that any hatred is good, but it’s completely misplaced.”
Gerhardt, a New York photographer, has been photo-
graphing Muslim Americans around the United States since
2010 as part of a project titled Muslim/American,
He was introduced to his craft while double-majoring in
art history and sociology with a concentration in anthropology at Holy Cross, Massachusetts. When a professor suggested he take a photography course just for the purpose of
being able to document what he observed while doing
anthropological fieldwork, he got hooked immediately to
the work of Harold Feinstein, a New York street photographer in the ’40s and ’50s.
Since then, Gerhardt has photographed both here and
abroad, capturing people in their natural environments and
depicting, very simply, their humanness.
“There are a lot of humanitarian issues overseas that I
could photograph of course, but I also think there’s enough
in this country, enough other issues to cover,” he says.
“Sometimes you have to look in your own backyard versus
the world at large to find things to photograph.”
And simmering in this New Yorker’s backyard was the ten-
sion surrounding Muslim Americans in the post-9/11 era. It
led him to document the community and what they were
going through, hoping to bring greater understanding and
tolerance of people who were being stereotyped and profiled.
“The media portrays things as if every Muslim is in the Al
Qaeda, especially the right-wing press, and that’s just not
the case of course,” he says. “I mean I grew up Roman
Catholic, and there are crazy fundamentalist Roman
Catholics who blow up abortion clinics or whatever else.
There’s always going to be an extreme element of any reli-
gion, but it’s a minor group that has that violent bent. And
you’ve gotta separate that from what the religion is.”
Gerhardt grew up outside in Stratford, Pennsylvania, an
area that he describes as mostly white and certainly without
Muslims. But he is naturally curious about people and dif-
ferent societies. That, plus calling himself a news junkie —
which inevitably means being aware of how much we have
collectively equated Islam with terrorism in America —
drove his desire to spend time in mosques, get to know the
culture, and ultimately show that to people through his pic-
Mosques were not meant to be the focal point of this project, but as they provide a community space to meet people and a setting for the subject matter,
they made sense as a place to begin.
In the summer of 2010, Gerhardt heard about the uproar
over the sale of a church to be converted to a mosque on
Staten Island. This prompted him to contact the group that
was hoping to open the mosque, the Muslim American
The organization has a subchapter
in Brooklyn, and Gerhardt was invited
to shoot there for a year. This provided
a base that helped him find his comfort zone and led to his shooting elsewhere.
“I had always wanted to do some-
thing in a mosque, but I never had an
in and I didn’t just want to show up at
a random one with all my camera
equipment,” he explains. “That’s not
exactly a good thing to do, especially
with all the surveillance issues and
He ended up spending multiple days
a week at the Brooklyn chapter, and
slowly he was not so much of an out-
Over time, Gerhardt says, people
forget the camera is there. They’re
more willing to let you see things that
they wouldn’t otherwise if you were
there for one or two days. This continued to hold true as he traveled the
country — spending time in mosques
in other parts of New York,
Connecticut, New Jersey,
Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee,
Indiana, Illinois, and Kansas.
Those who got to know him invited him into their schools
and even homes. Young people told him stories of being
picked on and bullied. His photos portray subjects candidly,
in their everyday environments; he captures the moments
as they come.
Throughout this time, Gerhardt has learned a tremendous
deal about a community he had had little exposure to.
He says many people, even other photographers sometimes, are often shocked when he tells them the focus of the
project, asking surprised questions about how he gets
access, whether it’s weird being the white guy in the
mosque, and even if he has been asked to convert. The general mystique that pervades our society when it comes to
Muslim Americans has become even clearer to him and it’s
what he hopes he can change with his images.
“I want to show that it’s a diverse community; there are
Muslims of all kinds of ethnic backgrounds,” he says. “But
more than that, I want to show that people are not all that
different. I do hope that the photos can affect people’s mind-
sets. That’s why I do what I do. I hope that somewhere along
the line, it makes somebody think differently about all this
stuff. That’s sort of the goal behind it.”
“Whether it does or not, you’d have to ask the people who
see the photographs.” ;
Robert Gerhardt’s photograph
of the vandalized GAP ad featuring
a Sikh might have gone viral
recently, but he has been
documenting stereotyping, focused
on Muslim Americans, for years.
Chaya Babu meets the photographer
Student Reading the Koran Before Friday Afternoon Prayers, Islamic Society of Wichita, Wichita, KS, 2013
PHOTOGRAPHS COUR TES Y: ROBER T GERHARDT
Turn to M12 for Robert