I began my photographic exploration of Sikhs in America as a personal education and exploration. After starting this project, I realized that there has never been a comprehensive photographic documentation of the Sikh community in America. Often times Sikhs wonder why this white, Jewish/Brazilian American girl would have an interest in documenting them. I would explain that in 1993 I went to India on a trip and the thing that made the most impression on me was my visit to the magnificent Bangla Sahib Gurdwara in New Delhi.
A Sikh man took me around and spent half a day showing and explaining everything to me. I became fascinated with how the values and basic ethical tenants of Sikhism were reminiscent of my own Jewish upbringing. When I returned to the US and went to college, I became friendly with some Sikh students. I studied South Asia and the Middle East in college so my understanding of religion and history in that part of the world deepened. As I started my career in photography, I have strived to understand things that I feel are misunderstood by society at large.
After Balbir Singh Sodhi, was gunned down in Mesa, Arizona on Sept. 15, 2001– the nation’s first post-9/11 hate murder victim — the press did profiles on Sikhs and Sikhism explaining that they were not Muslim and giving people a sound byte of knowledge.
Years later I still had the question: what does it mean to be a Sikh American? What was their American experience like? How has living in post-9/11 America affected them? Are people more knowledgeable about Sikhs in post 9/11 America? What is it like to belong to a group that is misunderstood? Is the backlash against Sikhs affecting the younger generation of Sikhs and causing them to turn away from their religion? So with these questions in mind, I sought out to photograph and interview a group that has never been photographically documented in America.
During the course of this project and explaining to peers and people what I was doing I would always get the question “What is a Sikh?” even from the most educated of people. Not that everyone is expected to know about every religious group, but I somehow expected most people to know vaguely what a Sikh was. I have gotten amusing responses such as: “Aren’t they a singing group?” or “A branch of Hinduism” and, of course, “Muslim.”
I started photographing Sikhs during the Sikh Day parade in New York City in April 2006, when coincidentally I found out I was pregnant with twin girls. Nevertheless I continued shooting through my pregnancy and, of course afterwards. I have traveled across the country to Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, Texas, New Mexico, and I have trips planned over the next 6 months to Arizona, California and Montana to further document this community.
I do not pretend to be an expert about Sikhism and its many rich traditions and texts. I am a beginner, an admirer and an observer. I want to show how Sikhs are living as Americans in America. They share a common religion, but are as diverse in their ways of observance, practice, professional choices, lifestyle and place of origin. They proudly hold onto their Sikh religion and traditions, but believe they are strongly American even if the outside world does not see it.
In the face of continued discrimination and hate crimes that largely go unreported by the media, many Sikhs remain strong and steadfast to their beliefs and traditions. The next generation is split between those that have assimilated and those that continue the Sikh traditions, in many ways mirroring the struggle of all immigrant groups that strive to balance tradition with the pressure to assimilate. The youth are redefining what it means to be Sikh in America because America is the place where they feel at home.
A self-published, 1st Draft version of this book, won a People’s Choice Award in the Photography Book Now receiving thousands of votes and the book was featured in American Photo Magazine, which has a circulation of 178,000.
The main goal of this book is to show Sikhs as an example how a specific cultural group adapts to the melting pot of America. It also addresses how to maintain or not maintain a religious identity in the face of a society bent on assimilation. It also looks at the next generation of Sikhs in American in contrast to the older generation.