In 2017, photographer and videographer Sana Ullah was thrust into the national spotlight when her Places You’ll Pray thesis project—a multimedia project featuring Muslim-Americans praying outside mosques—went viral, earning her prestigious journalism awards and national media attention from the likes of Good Morning America.
While there is plenty of well-deserved press coverage surrounding the creation and impact of Places You’ll Pray, this article is about the creation and impact of the artist behind it, Sana Ullah.
Sana vividly remembers the first time she held a camera. She was eight years old, her elder brother had recently passed away, and her parents had sent Sana and her siblings to stay with their uncle in Oklahoma for the summer. Her uncle was preoccupied with his medical residency, so he gifted her a disposable Kodak camera and a green floppy disk, instructing Sana to document her days by taking photos and journaling on the computer.
“...He told me he had one rule: I couldn’t take photos of animals or people, so all of my first photos were of houses, gardens…it forced me to be creative. And I fell in love with it. Ever since then--on field trips, with my friends--I was always ‘the girl with the camera,’” she smiled.
When Sana graduated from high school, she attended Florida International University (FIU) and enrolled as a pre-med, biology major. “I was interested in the idea of being a professional photographer, but I didn’t think it was a possibility for a South Asian person like me, who didn’t know anybody who had gone this route,” Sana recalled.
However, Sana never gave up on photography. She started a freelance portrait and event photography business during college, cheekily named SUP? [Sana Ullah Photography]. She also joined her university’s student newspaper as a staff photographer. Increasingly drawn away from biology and toward journalism, Sana switched her major and graduated with a degree in Digital Media Studies from FIU’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
“[When I graduated] I went through what I feel like every undergrad goes through. I didn’t have a lot of internships and didn’t have a job lined up, so I was like, ‘what do I do now? Grad school!’”
Still facing internal self-pressure to pursue a more traditional career, Sana studied for the GMAT and began applying to business school.
However, encouraged by her friends, she submitted a sole journalism application to George Washington University’s Master of Arts in New Media Photojournalism program in Washington, DC. Sana was accepted.
Prior to starting at George Washington University, Sana took a gap year and worked as a full-time freelance photographer for her business, SUP. Within one year, she shot several weddings and many portraits, cultivating a strong reputation for herself within her surrounding communities of her hometown Davie, Fla.
There was no one [she personally knew] in her South Asian and/or Muslim community that had pursued a professional career in visual arts, so while heading off to grad school, Sana was eager to prove herself.
Walking into class on her first day of grad school, Sana was initially determined not to be pigeon-holed as “the Muslim journalist who only tells Muslim stories.” She prepared a diverse portfolio to present to her class, and quickly skipped through the photos focused on Muslims praying—ironically, the very same photos that served as the basis for her award-winning MA thesis. Thankfully, Professor Toren Beasley changed her mind.
“He [Toren Beasely] told me that if we weren’t telling our own [marginalized] communities’ stories, someone else would, and it wouldn’t be told as authentically or powerfully as if we had told them ourselves,” Sana said.
Prompted by the rise in Islamophobia following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sana ideated her Places You’ll Pray thesis project as a medium through which she could counter Islamophobia in the American public and inspire the Muslim-American community in the face of rampant discrimination.
While Places You’ll Pray originated as a personal project, Sana has since democratized it by creating an Instagram account to which Muslims around the world submit photos of themselves and others praying outside of a mosque.
“I know it’s kind of ironic that in trying to help people see the real Islam and how Muslim-Americans are more than just Muslims, I’d choose to photograph them praying, which is inherently ‘religious,’ but when people think about prayer, they think about peace. And since we pray five times a day--no matter where we are or what we’re doing--you get to see how easily observing our religion blends with normal American life: people praying in the middle of sports, in the library, or in my short film, for instance, my sister in the middle of making Thanksgiving dinner!”
Upon graduating, Sana was most lauded for Places You’ll Pray, but she also completed several other projects focused on elevating marginalized communities and empowering women and landed a position as a Photo Editor at Discovery. Sana is currently a Program Officer at National Geographic and continues to work as a freelance photographer.
While Sana continues to cover client weddings, she prefers portrait photography and visual storytelling. Sana’s approach to any shoot, whether it’s a wedding, portrait, or journalism project, is to sit down with her subjects beforehand over a meal or coffee to learn more about them. She does this in order to stylize the shoots on a more personal and photojournalistic level.
Many of Sana’s clients are Muslim and a majority of them are women. Sana’s female portraits are oftentimes focused on capturing not only her subject’s beauty, but their strength. “I try to capture the strength in women, rather than this timid image men often portray women as.
I don’t just want my clients’ to go, ‘wow, that’s me?’ because they look so beautiful in a shot. I want them to say, ‘wow, that’s me?’ because they look so strong and in control. That’s the kind of image we need to see of Muslim women,”
“Your dreams and priorities constantly change—no one tells you that. You get inspired by different people, different events,” Sana explained.
We are eager to see what inspires Sana Ullah—and how she will surely inspire us— next.
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