The 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is just around the corner, and for many in the Sikh community, the past decade and a half has been one of many trials and tribulations.
Just four days after 9/11, a 49-year-old Sikh, mistaken for an Arab, was fatally shot outside his gas station in Arizona.
In the years since, the Sikh Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group, has recorded hundreds more cases of violence and discrimination against Sikhs in the United States.
Now, in the context of what some would describe as increasingly toxic political rhetoric, often directed against minorities, the Sikh Coalition is organizing a photo exhibition showcasing nearly 40 portraits of American Sikhs from all walks of life.
The exhibition, titled the Sikh Project, will be held in New York City from Sept. 16 to 25, and will be free to the public. The location of the exhibition is still being confirmed.
The goal, said Sapreet Kaur, executive director of the Sikh Coalition, is to “highlight the beauty of the Sikh faith” and to “spark conversations across the country on what it means to look like an American and to humanize communities who are too often regarded as ‘other.’ ”
The photographs are shot by British photographers Amit Amin and Naroop Jhooti, who are both Sikhs.
The duo, who have been working together for more than 12 years, first came up with the idea of shooting portraits of Sikhs in 2013.
They had noticed a growing number of men not of the Sikh faith sporting long beards as “a kind of fashion statement,” Jhooti, 35, said. They wondered, why not do a project on Sikh men and how their beards have been part of their identity for hundreds of years?
The project gained traction, with exhibitions held across London. That was when the New York-based Sikh Coalition contacted them to see whether they might undertake a similar project in the United States.
The duo started planning the U.S. project last year, tapping into the large American Sikh community to find subjects to photograph.
Over two 10-day U.S. visits, Amin and Jhooti photographed 38 Sikhs, each with a unique story to tell.
There’s Sat Hari Singh, a train operator for New York’s subway who, on 9/11, reversed the train he was driving, saving hundreds of lives.
There’s also Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, the first American Sikh to be granted a religious accommodation to serve in the U.S. military while wearing his beard and turban.
And another Sikh subject they photographed was Amrita Kaur Khurana, the first and only turbaned Sikh female employee at the New York Times, according to the Sikh Coalition.
For Jhooti, what struck him the most while doing the project was how American Sikhs “face daily persecution for the way they look.”
“It’s not like in the U.K.,” where Sikhs are not confused as being terrorists, Jhooti said.
Whereas the original U.K.-based project focused on the importance of unique personal identities, Jhooti said that the U.S. project has taken on more of an educational role about the appearance of Sikhs. He wants people to understand Sikhism, and to appreciate the rich Sikh culture, tradition and faith.
“I want any individual to find strength in themselves, no matter how they look … that they should be proud of who they are,” Jhooti said.
“These people have been through so much and still haven’t shifted their beliefs. That’s what I find inspiring,” he said.