Mark Bennington says the inspiration for “America 2.0,” his series of happy portraits of American Muslims, was an article and photo essay that ran in The New York Times shortly after the Orlando nightclub massacre last June. In it, young New York Muslims describe the discrimination and isolation they face as a result of growing anti-Muslim sentiment. While the subjects in the article describe harassment and stress, Chang W. Lee’s photographs show teenagers laughing and kicking a soccer ball on a Brooklyn sidewalk. Bennington tells PDN by email, “I was very aware of the fact that these were the first images I had seen of a woman in a hijab smiling in any major American news outlet.” Bennington, a portrait photographer, set out to expand on that story, making images that were “a direct response to, what I felt were, politicized images of American Muslims continually being depicted as some plagued foreign diaspora.” He wanted, he says, “to not only immerse myself in understanding ‘the other side’ of Muslim life in America but moreover capture the joy and harmony of it.”
Bennington found his first subjects through a series of serendipitous connections that started with a Muslim friend in Syracuse and led eventually to the president of the Muslim Student Association at Brooklyn Technical High School. “From there on out, the project mostly unfolded through word-of-mouth,” he says, although Bennington recruited several subjects on the PATH train to Jersey City, “amazing young ladies” wearing backwards baseball caps.
Citing Irving Penn and Civil War-era portraitist Matthew Brady as visual models, Bennington posed his subjects in front of a neutral gray background, and photographed using only natural light, “allowing the vibrancy of each subject stand out in sharp relief, symbolizing clarity in the midst of pre/post election noise,” he says. Bennington’s subjects’ share an animated disposition, in part the result of his commitment to “making people laugh and feel comfortable. It’s all about ‘good energy’ and I consider myself a thoughtful goofball on set, so I think that vibe translates. I really believe if you have the right intentions—positive intentions and are inquisitive and genuine, you will always get images that shine.”
Bennington says he hopes his images can contribute “by changing the narrative with positive imagery.” Bennington is planning an outdoor exhibition of the series in Washington, D.C., and says, “These images represent the youth of America (that happen to be Muslim) and they deserve to be seen and celebrated.”