A photographer who captured a series of images of a woman wearing a blue burqa in locations across Australia has spoken about the inspiration behind his work.
Fabian Muir is the award-winning Australian photographer behind the photo series Blue Burqa in a Sunburnt Country.
He said his project was ‘spawned by the increasingly hostile treatment of refugees’ coming to his homeland and a ‘local rise in anti-Muslim sentiment’.
”Different’ newcomers don’t have to be regarded as incompatible and can complement Australian society better than some people fear,’ the photographer said.
‘Unfortunately the series seems only to have grown in relevance in the meantime.’
Having lived in several European countries himself for several years – most prominently Germany – Mr Muir said most of his previous work had been done abroad.
However, as he maintained a ‘very close bond’ to Australia, it was important to him to do project that ‘engaged with the country that most shaped me’.
‘Some people in creative fields seem to leave Australia and never look back, but I try to remember where I come from since it’s such a unique continent and a key part of who I am,’ he said.
The photos in his series, which feature the same model wearing a blue burqa in a range of locations – including the milk aisle at a Coles supermarket and on a packed Bondi Beach – were shot across five months, mainly in Western Australia and New South Wales.
The photographer and his muse had travelled more than 10,000km by the end of the project – with Western Australia leaving the most ‘profound’ impression, he said, because it is ‘so vast and elemental’.
‘Perhaps the most memorable shoot was the image with the reflection, where we were positively surprised to be given permission by a gold mine to take the picture,’ he said.
During the photography process, Mr Muir said he was often approached by ‘European’ people, asking questions about what he was doing.
‘If Australia features prominently on the news in Europe, it’s usually about Manus Island or indigenous issues,’ he said.
‘Australia’s participation in Iraq also attracted a lot of coverage back in 2003.
‘When people interrogate me on these matters they express surprise and disappointment because there is otherwise an impression that Australia is a kind of free-thinking utopia, so these crueller sides are jarring.
‘My response is one of embarrassment, especially when I’m in a country like Germany, which has learnt from history, strives for an open society and has been handling its immense refugee problems far more compassionately.’
As for what he hopes people will take away from his series, the photographer is clear.
‘I hope people will think beyond the blatantly obvious interpretation of the burqa — that of female oppression — and open themselves to a more nuanced symbolism that feeds into themes of assimilation, alienation and understanding,’ he said.
‘Ultimately everyone except indigenous Australians is a guest in this country, so those who would now see refugees turned away might do well to ask themselves what ‘right’ they have acquired to exclude newcomers of any background.
‘Too many ignore the horrific conditions refugees have left behind in order to come to Australia or other countries, as well as the fact that most are perfectly willing and able to integrate and contribute to the nation.’
Previously, Mr Muir has been quoted as saying that he is riled by discussion of a ‘burqa ban’ in Australia and he said it is something he remains passionate about.
‘I believe in self-determination, so if a woman wishes to cover herself, no one should deprive her of this right since it harms no one,’ he said.
‘That said, the key here is that a woman truly desires to cover herself; again in the spirit of self-determination, I’m completely opposed to the imposed patriarchal compulsion of women to cover themselves as one sees in Saudi Arabia or certain other countries.
‘Coverings of these kinds exert a fascination because of the mystery and curiosity about the person behind them. In the context of this project, the unknown individual can be taken to be anonymous and faceless people forced to leave their homes in search of security and a better life.
‘The ‘classic’ blue Afghan burqa was an obvious choice since the colour is calm and peaceful, like the sky or water, as well as a perfect tonal complement to the settings.’
One image in the series captures the bikini-clad bathers of Bondi Beach captured through the eyes of the woman wearing the burqa.
‘This is an image that represents in a visceral form some of the cultural differences that inevitably have to be dealt with and asks questions without presenting the answers,’ Mr Muir explained.
‘”What is the woman’s opinion as she contemplates the beach scene? Is she perhaps about to remove the burqa herself or will she leave it on? Is the ‘barrier’ between her and this environment insurmountable or will it erode over time?”
‘It invites the viewer to wonder what will happen next. The image also suggests that integration and acceptance is a two-way street, and the woman is going to have to do her part as well to assimilate into her new world.’
Mr Muir said that there was no reaction from the public during that shoot – aside from one ‘astonished youth originally from Kabul, who couldn’t believe what he was seeing’.
The photographer said that, having concluded his project, he had been left with a greater appreciation of the Australian landscape.
‘When you’re out there, all the constructs and stresses of big cities melt away and seem irrelevant, and for a time you have a humbling sense that you’re a speck upon a living entity that demands respect,’ he said.