Alia Youssef is a portrait photographer interested in diversifying the media landscape and highlighting underrepresented stories and histories. Her personal projects have been exhibited in solo and group shows at galleries and festivals across Canada, such as the Ryerson Image Centre Student Gallery, the Parliament of Canada, Presentation House Gallery, and Nuit Blanche Toronto. Her commercial projects with global brands have been displayed internationally, including in New York’s Times Square and London’s Piccadilly Circus. Her work has been published in numerous online and print publications including Elle magazine, VICE, the Globe and Mail, and Oprah Magazine. Alia has done many public artist talks, most notably for the Aga Khan Museum, WE Day Toronto, and Instagram.
Interviewed by Sophie Masson
Photographed by Kaitlyn Goss
Video by Donovan Bestari
Function: What would you say is the mandate or purpose of the work you are producing?
Alia: I would say my freelance work and my personal work have quite an overlap. I really appreciate doing commercial and freelance projects that have the same mission as what I love to do in my artwork, which is to diversify the media landscape, especially with women of colour or minority groups—for example, Muslim women. A big mission for me is to bring more positive representation to that community. A lot of my recent commercial work, for example, my Bill 21 piece with the Globe and Mail, or my work with Dove and Getty Images … really falls in line with that mission statement that I have. But besides that, a lot of the other freelance work I do is generally editorial or environmental portraits, which is also the way I shoot in my personal work. I don’t always have to follow that mission statement, but usually my bigger projects will. I think in all of my freelance and commercial work, I just like to help organizations and brands to tell the stories of people who are a part of them, and to photograph them in spaces that are meaningful to them.
Function: What was the biggest challenge you faced after graduating with your BFA from Ryerson? Was there anything you learned that you weren’t prepared for, or didn’t quite encounter [in] the program itself?
Alia: My biggest learning curve graduating from school has been just gaining confidence in myself and my instincts. A lot of the time after we graduate, we are faced with these tough questions, like how to negotiate contracts, how to say no to projects you don’t feel right about, or how do you ask for more money than you’re being offered. These kinds of things you don’t ever deal with when you’re in school. The biggest thing is learning the ins and outs of working commercially and gaining confidence in doing that kind of work. My undergrad has given me great tools on how to shoot and how to think conceptually about the work I do. It’s all a learning process. Learning how to advocate for yourself and know your worth…. Coming out of school, you might be crippled with self doubt.
One thing you have to learn is creating accountability for yourself, because you no longer have teachers with expectations and timelines that you have to account to. For me, working as a freelancer with no partner or anybody to report to, it’s so hard to keep my own timelines and goals, and say to yourself you have to answer all these emails this morning even though that’s the last thing you want to do. It’s about learning how to create a life for yourself when the only person you’re accountable to is yourself.
Function: Can you explain what The Sisters Project is?
Alia: The Sisters Project is a photography series of Muslim women across Canada. It features 160 portraits and interview text that accompanies [them]. It lives online in a blog and on Instagram, where it’s garnered a really nice community. I also exhibit the work in galleries whenever possible.
Function: Now that you’ve entered the next stage in your practice and educational journey, what do you see yourself doing after graduating from Ryerson’s Doc Media Program?
Alia: Over the course of graduating from the Photography Program, creating a two-year Master thesis project, and doing freelance on the side, I learned what I love doing are shorter projects that are still in line with my personal goals and missions. I realized that two years is maybe not the time scale that I [would] like to work at. Now that I’m thinking about the future, I’m thinking about personal projects and commercial projects that allow me to engage in a story of an organization or brand, or a story that I really care about on a shorter scale. I also have realized the way I like to shoot and I’m okay with it. I like using natural light, being straightforward, and creating a connection with the person I’m photographing above all else.
Through the process of the projects I’ve done, I have come to love what I like doing. I just want to keep doing it and growing in the areas that I love and letting go of the parts that I don’t like. I’ve already come up with a couple [of] personal projects that I want to explore, some residencies that I would like to do after I graduate, and I’m starting to reach out to the brands that I have connections with and exploring how we can continue to work together and be more involved. I’m not planning on changing course that much; I’d like to stay on the trajectory that I’m on. I just want to think bigger and stay true to what keeps a spark in me.
My next project that I’m currently working on in the Doc Media MFA program is an expansion of The Sisters Project, where I’m looking at the community in an intergenerational way. I am photographing families and allowing them to share their collective history and to talk about their past experiences, but also the younger generation to share their hopes for the future. I hope these two projects can come together to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences about what it’s like living in Canada where Islamophobia is rampant and yet the community is extremely resilient. I am excited to see where these two projects go.
Function: Why did you start working on The Sisters Project? What have you learned from it?
Alia: Growing up Muslim in Canada, post 9/11, I was very aware of the stereotypes and images that get placed on us and are perpetuated in the media. It wasn’t until fourth year when I had thought about my thesis project that I started to think about how I might tackle this issue, as it was something I cared about deeply. So one day in class I heard someone say, “I’m so tired of all Muslim women being painted with the same brush.” That ignited an inspiration for creating a project that would show the diversity of Muslim women. Because of that diversity, it would tackle the stereotypes associated with not only Muslim women but the Muslim community. I really believed that showing the authentic stories and women all across the country would create this sisterhood and connection for the community as well. I started photographing people close to me, such as friends, family, and people on campus. It started growing and growing through word-of-mouth and social media callouts, and eventually I started sharing the project with news outlets like BuzzFeed and Refinery29, and then started to grow outwards. I then got the funding to do an across-Canada trip. It kept growing until I decided I need to think about how I can expand the project in different directions, and that’s when I decided to go to the MFA program to think about that question.
Function: Do you have any advice to students who want to further their project but need funding for the extent in which they want to achieve their project, like you did when creating The Sisters Project?
Alia: For The Sisters Project, it was actually very serendipitous that I found funding for the cross-Canada trip. I thought about traditional avenues of trying to gain sponsorship or crowd-funding. And then one day I was at a community event and I found someone that works for a foundation called the Inspirit Foundation, which provides funding to the Muslim and Indigenous communities to tackle the issues that they face. And so I applied to the program to go across Canada and photograph more Muslim women, share their stories, and combat the Islamophobia and xenophobia facing our community. Luckily, they granted me $10,000 to expand on that trip. I’m grateful that I was able to do that—they took a project that was featuring mostly Muslim women in urban environments.
I was photographing people that I had some indirect relationships with, whether it be school or work. So the demographic was mostly university faculty and students. I really wanted to diversify who was in the project through different age groups and demographics. Because of the trip, I was able to meet people from all different kinds of work, and a variety of backgrounds and ages. It brought the amount of people in the project from 70 to 160 people. My advice to people who want to expand their project in whatever way possible is to find organizations that give grants for [the] specific [ideas] that they want to tackle. I think, a lot of the time we think our only options are the granting agencies. I believe that if you pair your passion with a topic or cause you care about, you’ll find someone who will want to support you on that journey.
Function: What was the process like for your images to be represented in the new “#ShowUs” Dove campaign?
Alia: It was really exciting [to be involved]. I got commissioned to work on that campaign. A lot of people think that my images from The Sisters Project were [the only ones] in the campaign, but I actually got to photograph Mehnaz separately for the campaign. Dove decided to pair with Getty Images, who then paired with GirlGaze. GirlGaze is an agency that wants to bring more women behind the lens. GirlGaze found me through The Sisters Project and they knew that I cared about diversifying the media landscape. I also worked previously with Getty Images on a blog called Muslim Girls. So they reached out to me and asked me if I’d be interested in working with an unknown brand. As soon as I said yes, they told me it was for Dove and it was going to be an exciting global campaign with 117 photographers working on it around the world.
I worked with them to decide who I was going to photograph and what stereotypes I wanted to challenge, and how I wanted to diversify how beauty is shown across the globe. And of course, I wanted to bring more Muslim representation to the beauty world. I worked with Mehnaz and we came up with an idea. We wanted to show what her everyday looks like. Once we submitted the photos, they chose one that showed Mehnaz in a laboratory setting, and it ended up representing the whole campaign. It was shown in Times Square and Piccadilly Circus and Oprah Magazine and all these crazy places that I would have never imagined my images could end up being in, one day. I really believe that the entire campaign unfolded just because I was already “walking the walk” of what I cared about. I was creating environmental images for The Sisters Project, I was talking to lots of news and media outlets about my passion for changing women’s representation in media, and I think doing all this led to a bigger scale.
Function: What was the experience like speaking at WE Day? How did an opportunity like this emerge?
Alia: Someone from WE Day reached out to me because they had found my work and they wanted me to talk about the project at the event in Toronto. At first I was completely terrified because of the scale, and that forty thousand people would be watching … whether I screwed up or not. But I knew I had to do it because the project that I’m working on is about sharing with as many people as possible that the stereotypes about Muslim women are not true and that through art and passion and dedication, a single person can change a [very prominent] narrative. I wanted to be the voice that told youth that if they really care about something they can start working towards it on their own, and just being one person with an idea is enough.
Function: Do you see The Sisters Project going even further? What are some plans you have for it even after all of this great success?
Alia: My goal has always been for The Sisters Project to become a publication that you can buy at your local Indigo … so Muslim families across North America, or maybe further out, could find our stories in a book that they could pick up and put on their coffee table. I’m currently expanding the project and looking at intergenerational families and histories to create an archive of Muslim women’s experiences in Canada. I want the stories to live on in a tangible way that can reach people as far as possible. It’s been my goal for these two projects to exist in a book together. I don’t really have a timeline…. I am just going to see where life takes me.