Peering Behind Perceptions: A Look at German Islam Through the Viewfinder

An estimated 4 million Muslims live in Germany, but what does Muslim life really look like in the country? Eighty-four German photographers recently set out in search of answers -- and came up with some surprising results.

What does Islam look like in Germany? Can you tell if somebody is Muslim just by looking at them? These are the questions that Zenith, a German-language magazine specializing in Middle Eastern issues, challenged German photographers to consider in a recent photo contest.

The first-ever Zenith Photography Competition, offering prizes worth €4,500, was awarded this week, and attracted professional photographers as well as amateurs from around Germany.

Many of their images dismantle traditional perceptions of Islam and offer a more rounded and complex picture of the faith. The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees estimates that there are 4 million Muslims living in Germany, only half of whom have German citizenship. Islam in Germany is often viewed with suspicion, which can make it hard for Muslims to integrate with those around them.

German media personality Hadnet Tesfai says the competition is an important platform for photographers as it gives them "the courage to present new, unbiased images of Islam in Germany."

The Zenith editorial team found that the competition entries "support what has already been widely discussed in the media, but which we weren't quite sure was true: that Islam in Germany is colorful, diverse, and most of all, can't be captured in a single image. What Islam is, and what it is not, is interpreted very differently in the submitted photographs, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike."

The submitted images were not simple snapshots, but rather narrative photo series approaching the same theme from different perspectives. "This applies especially to the three winning entries, whose aesthetics and originality managed to convince the jury," lauded the Zenith editorial team.

Searching for Something Familiar

The contest's first prize went to Kai Löffelbein, a German freelance photographer who was awarded the UNICEF photo of the year in 2011 for an image of a boy in a toxic waste dump in Accra, Ghana.

Löffelbein's photo series "Foreign Homeland" was praised by the Zenith jury members for not just illustrating Muslim life in Germany, but for creating images that give viewers the sensation of being present in the scenes themselves.

Agata Szymanska-Medina, whose black and white photo series, "In Search of" won second place, tells the story of a young Palestinian named Ali. Ali has been living in Germany for the past year, brought to Berlin by an academic exchange program. It is the fourth country he has called home.

Szymanska-Medina documents the gradual process of his integration and accompanies him as he flits between work and leisure. She captures him spending times with others, and his moments alone. According to the jury, Szymanska-Medina's pictures evoke compassion in the viewer, which "is a basic requirement in understanding a different culture."

Third place was awarded to Feriel Bendjama's work ,""We, They and I." It features the 31-year-old photographer herself in 12 different photos. In each image she stands in exactly the same position, and is seen from the waist up and wearing a headscarf. The only thing that changes is the color of her veil and the expression on her face. "On the one hand you see the headscarf from the desired perspective of Muslims, while on the other you see it from the cliched perspective of non-Muslims," says Bendjama.

The winner of the Zenith online reader prize was Lukas Fischer. In his winning entry "Berlin - Gropiusstadt" he tells the story of a Berlin suburban settlement, where more than 50 percent of the inhabitants are immigrants. The photo series shows a housing area where most of the residents themselves feel like guests. By juxtaposing the inhabitants with the buildings they live in, he creates a haunting but varied picture of life for Muslims in the Berlin suburbs.

The competition's jury was made up of a number of prominent German media personalities, and Spiegel Online was a media partner of the prize.

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