I acquired Mahtab Hussain’s You Get Me? as part of a Contact Sheet subscription renewal. Copublished by Mack and Light Work, the book is beautifully printed,* and the project itself—portraits of young, working class British Asian men and boys—is hard for me to talk about with any clarity.
From the publisher’s blurb:
Bringing issues of identity, masculinity, displacement and belonging to the fore, [You Get Me?] addresses concrete experiences of these men against a backdrop of derogatory media representations. Confronting the politics surrounding immigration and identity in Britain, Hussain at once celebrates the implicit agency of his photographic subjects, while recognising their struggle to determine a sense of self.
Now, my darling, adorable wife has two sons, and both of them were born in Britain in the mid- and late-1990s. At time of writing, Firas is 23 and Samie is 21. Here are the three of us, as we were back in December, 2014, when Firas was 19 and Samie 17. Since then, Samie has probably grown nearly a foot, and they’re both deep into the process of “growing up.”
When I first heard of Hussain’s project, I thought it might help me gain some insight into their experience as young British Asian (now British/Bengali-American) men, but I’m not sure they’ve had quite the same experience as the men Hussain photographed.
From what I understand, the South Asian diaspora in Britain is largely working class, with a large unemployed contingent. In the US, thanks to our immigration policies (and the H1b visa), the South Asians here are, on the whole, far more affluent than their British counterparts. Most here work in IT and healthcare, and the percentage of unemployed is low relative to people of other skin colors and cultural backgrounds.
In an introductory essay, Hussain writes about his upbringing, partly spent with his father in a predominately white area, and partly with his mother in a majority South Asian area. Having gone through most of elementary, junior, and high school with white kids, he had a hard time when he showed up to a school full of Pakistanis with rings in his eyebrow and lip. For them, he was too white. For him, they were too black.
Firas and Samie also grew up in a predominately white area, and moved to a new school (and new country) in High School, and they had something of a rude awakening too, but they were a minority in both. The shock for them was in how minorities were treated. They didn’t have huge groups of Bengali kids telling them they were too white, and they just kept on being Firas and Samie. They didn’t take on African American cultural identity as Hussain’s subjects seem to.
Hussain attributes this adoption to their marginalization in society. Insofar as the African diaspora in the UK is othered, and insofar as African American culture has been one of the most successful exports ever, young South Asian men in the UK look to that culture for inspiration. To put it very simply, and probably inaccurately, South Asians are brown and therefore excluded from white culture, so they look to black culture. Add to this 9/11, 7/7, and all the other violence perpetrated by brown people from the Middle East and South Asia in the name of Islam over the past 20-odd years, and the related largely one-sided portrayal of South Asians in the media, young South Asian men need some heroes and models, and it seems like the only ones available to them come from the Black tradition, or so says Hussain.
Sure, I get that, but I’ve seen the same thing from the Hispanic and poor white populations here in the US, and I would guess the white working class in Britain has similarly adopted the empowerment narratives in Black culture. And Firas and Samie haven’t, nor have many of the teenage and young adult men I see at the mosques, and the ones that have are predominately from the African American community, and are therefore largely poor, put-upon, and subject to violence from the state that members of other communities do not face with such regularity.
So in looking at Hussain’s pictures of young South Asian (largely Pakistani) men and boys, taken over a 9 year period, mostly in London, Nottingham and Birmingham, it seems to me that the only “sense of self” available to working class kids are the expropriated clothing, hairstyles, gestures, projections of the African American community.
But that’s all about the content of the photographs, rather than the photographs themselves.
Really, this is a book of fashion photography, showing off clothes, physiques, haircuts. Most subjects are dead center of the frame, cropped just below the waist. A couple hold large, friendly-looking dogs; many are heavily muscled. Some are pensive or curious, some look vulnerable, most appear confident, assertive. When there is an off-center subject, or a full length, or one with someone lying down or with some foreground interest, I find myself pausing. They seem important, while the others just fly by, and the most interesting part of the book, really, are the little statements from subjects and others.
The men feel marginalized. They don’t have role models. They’re British Citizens, born in Britain, and people tell them to go back home. They want to hold on to the traditions of their parents and relatives back in Pakistan; they want to be British, or at least British Muslims. They encourage worship of God. They encourage exercise, fitness, strength of body, mind, and will. They emphasize strength and fidelity and masculinity.
I asked my wife to spend some time with the book. She guessed at the cultural backgrounds of the subjects (he’s Pakistani; he’s Bengali; this one’s a Bengali; etc.) and looked at the signage and buildings in the scene. She tried to guess where the pictures were taken. We talked a bit about her sons: had they grown up in Bradford or Birmingham (both working class cities), they might’ve grown into these sorts of young men; instead, they grew up in a more affluent area, among middle class white kids, and so they have a more middle class, upwardly mobile mindset. I hoped she would find something in the photographs that I didn’t. Perhaps I should ask Samie to take a look, but I sorta know what he would say.
Anyway. The book is well printed and the project is worthwhile, though the execution is a bit hit-and-miss. The discussions focus mostly on race and religion, with class far in the background. Yet similar clothing, expression, and gesture is visible in working class youths of other cultural backgrounds, both in the UK and elsewhere, so I don’t think the Asian deployment of it is unique or particularly noteworthy. Seen as a commentary on cultural expropriation of African American identity, You Get Me? could be something else, but I’m probably missing something and I while I get it, guess I Don’t Get You.
Overall, I’d give You Get Me? a middling 3.2 stars.
*Are any photobooks produced in the second decade of the 21st Century poorly printed or bound? Frankly, I’m not sure. Digital printing is quite good these days, and high quality binding is fairly easy and cheap, especially for major publishing houses. Anyway.