“You get me?” is a phrase archetypal of British street slang. Originating from Black culture and popularised by Grime, “you get me?” isn’t merely a question for clarification, it’s a means of assertion. It’s dominant, it’s “hard”, it’s “road”. It’s also the phrase that forms the title of Mahtab Hussain’s debut photobook, exploring life as a British Muslim. Drawing an affinity between minority experiences in the UK, Hussain questions why British Asian males associate themselves with black urban culture — why this phrase, “you get me?” epitomises male experience in the British South Asian diaspora. “You Get Me?” chronicles the societal and cultural pressures faced by British Asian men and the contradictory expectations thrust upon them –the need to act the “big man” on the street and uphold the reputation of a God-fearing Muslim in the community.
“They have to be the breadwinner for a family that doesn’t understand them. They’re not allowed to have girlfriends, and a few of them are able to marry whomever they want. And on the street, they’re supposed to be ‘the big man’; to be feared, to have power, money, and respect” – Mahtab Hussain
At first, it’s difficult to understand why Hussain’s portraits are so striking. His subjects are familiar, they’re characters we see every day — our friends, our neighbours, that stranger walking down the street — but they are presented in a way that’s almost alien. These frank, obliging and un-sensationalised images are a far cry from the typical representation of British Muslims in the press. In a current climate of media-fuelled Islamophobia, the familiarity of Hussain’s photographs is so often substituted by difference. The othering of the Islamic community presents the notion of pious living as incompatible with modern life.
Where the oppression of Islamic women in Britain is often unfairly exaggerated, the pressures faced by Muslim men are largely evaded from the mainstream media. Mahtab Hussain’s work seeks to change this. Drawing on Deeyah Kahn’s TED Talk, Hussain reaffirms that at a time when young Muslim boys are being co-opted by extremists, it’s crucial to address the roots of radicalisation — frustration, angst and alienation from a society in which they live, but do not feel they belong.
“A number of the men spoke about experiencing discrimination. They were constantly stopped and searched, labeled as a terrorist or an extremist, and told that England wasn’t their home. And they were repeatedly told to take on British values. But when they returned to their homeland, they were told they didn’t belong there either” – Mahtab Hussain
As the son of Pakistani parents, Hussain is a product of the British Asian community he photographs. He, too, cites the inherent paradox of being a “British Asian”. Growing up in Druids Heath, Birmingham, a predominantly white working-class area, he was seen as “too brown”. At his Joseph Chamberlin College he was shunned from the Asian community for being “too White”. “I spoke too gently, too posh, and I spoke like a white boy,” he writes. “I retaliated, saying they were too black after hearing various Jamaican slang words thrown around.”
This assimilation of black urban culture by young Muslim men is a subject Hussain is keen to address, and is clearly evidenced in his photography. It wasn’t until studying Post-colonialism at Goldsmith’s that he finally understood. “Just as I needed to look towards black artists to feel a connection to the art world, the men and boys I encounter connect with the black urban experience”, he says. “We had been looking for a part of British/Western culture with which we could identify, connect and experience. We saw ourselves reflected through the black experience, and it was truly powerful.”
Hussain’s portraits capture first, second and third generation Asian migrants — their personas, façades and the candid moments of their authentic selves. The posed images confront the whole image of being a “big man”. The aggressive stare of a man with his dog, the bursting muscles of an uncovered torso — these images tell a story of social inequality and the resulting need for assertion. But the candid images — a young man sleeping, a boy transfixed on his older friend, two men eating on the street — peel back the hardened exterior to reveal the vulnerability of their subjects.
Interspersed with direct quotes from his subjects, “You Get Me?” reaffirms the struggle of masculinity as a British Muslim. In a culture of Islamophobia, governed by the politics of anger and hate, Hussain’s series is a revealing reminder of Western privilege and of the importance of interaction.
“You get me?” is a phrase that encompasses aggression, the frustration of having to live through contradictions, but it also asks “do you understand me?” at a time when understanding others is so important.
“You Get Me?” by Mahtab Hussain is out now and available for purchase at MACK