Minneapolis Somalis

Photojournalist Arthur Nazaryan captures the splendour of festive Somali dress against the backdrop of a working-class neighbourhood in the American Midwest.

© Arthur Nazaryan

When in the late ’80s, footage of skeletal toddlers in Somalia filled TV screens the world over, along with reports of tribal factions committing systematic killings, peacekeeping missions set about arranging humanitarian relief for tens of thousands of victims from the failed stated.

The US was central to this relief effort, and in the 1990s started taking in Somali refugees, many of whom settled in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Today there are an estimated 30,000 Somalis and Somali-Americans living in the twin cities of Minneapolis-St Paul, in what is the largest Somali community in the country.

Initially welcomed by apple-pie Americans, the first wave of refugees was greeted with food parcels, household sundries and baskets of clothing. Two decades later, the tide against Islam turned Midwestern hospitality into reactionary hostility; tensions were further heightened recently when three Somali-Americans were accused of – and pleaded guilty to – conspiring to join ISIS.

After a brief spell filming a documentary in Mogadishu in 2012, photojournalist Arthur Nazaryan wanted to shoot a broad body of work on Somali culture. Unable to return to Mogadishu, he turned his attention to Minneapolis. ‘I wanted to do something long-term about Somali people ­– something removed from the media frenzy surrounding the men who were charged with supporting ISIS. I wanted to show what the community is really like day-to-day,’ says Nazaryan.

‘Understandably, people were initially quite hesitant to let me photograph them. Many members of the community feel the media only takes an interest in them when there’s bad news to report. They feel the news paints them all with the same brush. To get past that required a lot of time just hanging around, making friends, often not even taking pictures. It also helped that I had been to Mogadishu and could talk to the locals about that,’ explains Nazaryan, who, as a Russian native, understands the often fraught immigrant experience in a nation that’s ironically founded by immigrants.

It was Somali Independence Day in 2015 when Nazaryan took this photo – a festival that celebrates Somali culture, when Lake Street in South Minneapolis comes alive with music, art, traditional dance and food stalls. Part of a wider series called Minneapolis Somalis, the contrast in the picture is striking in that it captures an exquisitely dressed family ambling down an urban street, against the backdrop of uninviting tenements and overhead wires and opaque sky. ‘Somali Independence Day is a pretty big deal in Minneapolis; they shut down a large part of the street for it. The two children in the picture are holding the woman’s gown as she’s preparing to take her place in the parade down Lake Street. I was standing off to the side when I took this picture. I didn’t have a flash with me or any lighting – I only ever use natural light.’

Nazaryan is currently based in New York City, where he works as a freelance photojournalist and videographer for numerous news outlets and non-profit organisations. His work has been published by The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC Online and Toronto Star, among numerous other publications.

‘Photography is gratifying, to say the least. It’s a productive outlet for the way I like to interact with the world. I mean, even without a camera I’m curious about people’s lives, what they’re going through, what their history is, what challenges they’re facing. Photography allows me to create something “tangible” out of that curiosity and, hopefully, share it with others.’

To learn more about this project, visit Arthur's PHmuseum profile

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