"The Outwin 2016" Finalist: Claire Beckett

Woman in head covering, with small child
April and her daughter Sarah / Claire Beckett / 2013 / Collection of the Artist / Courtesy of Carroll and Sons Art Gallery,  Boston, MA / © Claire Beckett

Out of over 2,500 entries in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, 43 artists have their work shown in the exhibition “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today.” Read more about one of the finalists, Claire Beckett. 

What relationship do the materials have to the meaning?

For the series The Converts, a project about people who convert to Islam, the portraits are made with a large format 4x5 view camera on color negative film. The choice of camera has a large impact on both the process of making the photograph and on the final look of the image, which shapes the meaning of the work.  The camera demands focused attention from both myself and from the sitter.  It takes at least several minutes to compose each image (although the actual exposure is instantaneous), during which time the sitter is asked to remain as still as possible.  Not only does this allow the sitter and I to spend some unhurried time together, but it also gives the sitter the opportunity to relax and feel at ease with the camera.  Another important aspect of the camera is that it forces each photograph to be carefully staged.  These are not “natural” or “fly on the wall” pictures.  Each one was meticulously composed and arranged by me with the help of the sitter. 

Two men, one sitting on floor, the other in chair

What made you decide to depict this sitter as you did?

Hans and his teacher Lokman Efendi depicts a converted Muslim, Hans, along with his teacher or spiritual guide, Lokman Efendi.  For some time before making this photograph I’d been carrying around the idea of the student/teacher relationship in the convert community, and I was waiting for the opportunity to use this idea in a photograph.  I’d observed that the converts that I knew, particularly the newer converts, had a lot of questions about Islam and about navigating their new identities.  And they often struggled to read and understand Arabic, which is the language of the holy texts and prayers in Islam.  Often the converts looked to a teacher, to an imam, or to a support group for advice.  When I saw Hans with Lokman Efendi I knew that I needed to make this photograph.  I arranged the photograph with Hans on the floor and Lokman Efendi above him in the chair to highlight the hierarchy present in this relationship.  The student/teacher relationship is especially significant in Hans and Lokman Efendi’s community, a Naksibendi Hakkani Sufi Order.  In the other Islamic communities where I have spent time the student/teacher relationship has often been manifest more subtly.

Bearded man in suit and tie

What about the sitter inspired you?

Imam Suhaib Webb depicts Suhaib Webb, who was at the time the head imam (worship leader) at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the largest mosque in New England.  Imam Suhaib is a charismatic figure; he is known both for his absolute devotion to Islam and his deep Islamic scholarship, but also for his love for pop culture and his habit of dropping references to TV shows and music in both his sermons.  When I met Imam Suhaib for an interview in his office at the mosque he was dressed in workout clothes, and there was a box of energy drinks on the shelf mixed in with the sacred books and decorative calligraphy.  When he showed up a few weeks later for the portrait shoot he wore a sharp suit and tie.  Imam Suhaib explained that for public appearances he prefers to wear a suit, rather than a traditional man’s garments from an Islamic county, because he wants to make a point that he is American.  That Islam is American.  So I’ve chosen to depict Imam Suhaib, the blue-eyed American from the Midwest, wearing a suit and posing at the front of the prayer hall where he leads the congregation.

Woman in blue head scarf looking towards window

How did the sitter inspire this specific portrait?

Mirtangelis is a photograph of a young, new Muslim.  Mirtangelis had converted as a teenager and posed for this picture about a year after her conversion.  When making this photograph I was focused on Mirtangelis’s human qualities. During our shoot Mirtangelis was both a poised young woman who clearly and honestly explained her conversion to Islam, and also, as the shoot continued, an exasperated teenager, lying on the floor in a bout of melodramatic fatigue.

You can see Beckett’s work in “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today,” up now through Jan. 8, 2017. Also, be sure to vote in our People’s Choice Competition.