Tusneem Abuhasan is a young Muslim-American independent photographer based in Greater Boston. She has been featured in Marie Claire and Vogue Italia, and here she talks creativity, identity, and more with HUBweek's Simran Gupta. You can check out Tusneem's work on her website or Instagram page.
Simran Gupta: How did you get into photography and poetry?
Tusneem Abuhasan: We went to high school together, and it kind of started there. I remember sharing a poem in English class and my teacher told me I should share it at the poetry night. And I remember thinking, “I don’t know if I want to share my poetry.” I think it was extra credit, so some people from my class came through. I used to share it on my Facebook and at events that the Muslim community would attend as well. It was just a way of releasing ideas and thoughts I had in mind, in a way that I didn’t have to analyze. Whatever I thought, I put it on paper, and boom, that’s it.
Photography started a while ago. It was just me taking pictures of my sister, and her taking pictures of me, and us using the digital camera, nothing fancy. And then in high school, I used my sister’s Sony camera just to take pictures of the [basketball] team, of the girls before and after practice, just fooling around on the bus. And then I started doing events for the high school, so like anytime there’d be an assembly, I was the photographer. And then college hit, and after classes I would meet people, and I had the confidence to just walk up to them and say “hey I think you’re really interesting, would you mind if I gave you a shoot?” That’s how I started making more friends, and people just kind of knew me around school as “Neemz the Photographer.”
So freshman year was just me hitting up friends and we’d just walk around the city and take pictures. And then sophomore year I started taking more portraits, with more styling. I came back senior year and got more into it, picking the right people. Until recently, I was just doing it on the side, but then I submitted for the first time and got accepted into Vogue Italia which is cool.
SG: That’s right, I haven’t congratulated you on that yet, but congratulations! That’s amazing!
TA: Thank you (laughs). Yeah, it was cool, because some of my friends were like “you should submit it.” Because it was my first time I was really hyped about it.
SG: But also it’s Vogue! So not only are you published, but Vogue published you, like wow.
TA: Yeah, which is awesome because now I have a profile with them. So if anyone wants to look me up, they have the option to look up my actual real name on there.
SG: The other thing I wanted to ask you is: why portraits?
TA: I feel like I connect more with a person when I’m doing a portrait. When I pick the people I shoot, it’s usually people I can get to know a little bit better. If I don’t have a connection with a person, I can never do my best work, because it’s just going to be a person taking pictures rather than creating something more powerful. So a lot of the times when I pick the people I shoot, I connect with them on a level, or I’m inspired by them in a certain way, or they just set this vibe off.
I feel like people can feel a lot more when they see a portrait of someone, when emotions can be shown either in the way they’re looking at you, or the way that they’re posing, so it’s a sense of empowerment, and I feel like the more comfortable they are (as in the person posing in front of the camera), the more comfortable they are in their own skin, the more powerful the picture is. Because a portrait just emphasizes that. I think that’s why portraiture is something I really love, because I get to capture that true emotion, but yet in a still image.
SG: Are you ever trying to send a message with your photography, or your art in general? Is there anything specifically you want people to take away from it?
TA: Yes, for sure. I have a friend who’s worked in the arts, and sometimes he’ll give me advice here and there. One thing he always said was, “I want your art to be about you, and not the other way around. Even if your photography is about other people, and other people are in the images, and you’re the one behind the camera, I want it to relate back to you.” And that kind of just turned a lightbulb in my brain. Yes, people are sharing the pictures I’m taking of them, but then it always comes back to the artist who created the whole scene. And I just wanted to share more parts of me, so I started sharing more poetry with the pictures that I’ve taken, rather than just like writing a random caption and then the picture just being a picture. I want to empower people to see the picture for what it is, and then also see what’s inside my brain — my thinking process. So they’re kind of tapping into me and at the same time tapping into my artwork.
SG: Do you see an intersection between your identity and the art you produce?
TA: Sometimes I wish I had a machine that could clone me and make me into another person, exactly like me just so I could take pictures of myself. The reason I said that was because the way I take pictures of others is the way I want pictures to be taken of me. So I’m kind of like portraying the art that I would want to see myself in. It’s like my friend mentioned, you have to be more selective with the people you let take pictures of you. Because everyone can see the direction you’re going in when you take pictures of people, it’s very consistent. So when people take pictures of you, it always has to have the same vibe. You can’t tell a photographer how to edit or how to shoot. That’s like telling them how to do their work, so you just want to pick the right people that shoot the same direction as you, or can create art with the same impact. So that’s the way I affect my art, and the way my art affects me. That’s why I share my poetry with the pictures I take, just so it can be a full circle. About which direction I’m going in.
SG: So it’s a trust thing, in other words.
TA: Exactly, exactly.
SG: So, how has your vision for your future changed? Now that you’ve gotten deeper into your art, and it’s been picked up by all these places, and you’ve been submitting more.
TA: Yeah, so I just graduated from college with a degree in biomedical informatics, which has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with anything I do on the side. So my main priority right now is to fulfill that degree that I worked for. But while I have that job, I can still do my art stuff on the side, because I’ll be working a 9-5 shift, so I’ll have time to really put effort and time into that, which is still going to keep growing, because I wouldn’t give up on it. But more photography, and more modeling opportunities, and hopefully reaching out to boutiques and seeing if I can do a photoshoot for one of their next drops, but me being the one who’s creating the art for them. Just getting into more gigs, rather than doing freelancing.
SG: Do you have any advice for young creatives, young Muslim creatives, or high schoolers?
TA: Yes. For Muslims, we don’t have as many figures putting their passions out there. We don’t have much of a community around art forms, it’s more science, you know. You go to school for this, this, or this, or you don’t go to school kind of thing. And I feel like high school students should reach into their art instincts, and if they have a passion for something, look for the application I love art, I could go into graphic design, or marketing, or I can do photography, but it has to truly come from within. I feel like a lot of times, on Instagram, because it’s such a social platform, people get caught up in what someone else is doing, and they see someone succeeding in something and they want to do it to, but they’re just doing it because someone else is doing it. And I feel like that just creates a kind of confused direction. If people really have a passion for it then they should go for it and/or at least expand their creative process.
SG: The theme for this year’s HUBweek festival was “We the Future.” What does that mean to you?
TA: I think that means we are the generation that can raise up the next, as cliché as that sounds. I think it really ties into us making the decision to change and/or make a big move to affect the generations behind us. If we don’t do anything right now, if we don’t speak up and if we don’t vote, and if we don’t share our ideas, then the people after us are going to not care. I feel like this is the time for us to really use our powers, whether you’re working for an art company or working from home or you’re just a skateboarder or you’re working from a lab or you’re going to school, you still have the power to really say something or do something on the side that can really impact the younger generation.
I’m just kind of in the midst of continuing to figure out myself, and hopefully have a positive impact on the people who follow me. I like to do a lot of reflecting, I don’t want to be just an image that I put on social media if it’s not truly who I am. I’m just hoping to grow and find more ways to impact people, because there are people from across the world who will hit me up and be like “hey, I think your art is great,” and to have that kind of platform where people from across the world find your social media is really cool. So me being more confident and being able to portray a muslim woman who’s doing this on the side, and kind of bending these boundaries, not in a negative but allowing people to branch out and do more, I just hopefully want to continue doing that.
The HUBweek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.