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Meet the Muslim photographer unlocking the unknown London

Saira Niazi is owning her city one shot at a time – we talk to her ahead of her Living London exhibition

For Saira Niazi, unlocking new spaces is political. Perhaps it’s too simple to point out that different people engage with their environments differently, but for this female Muslim photographer, living in a city where attacks against muslim women have increased by 70 per cent, having the power to explore and share is a powerful way of claiming ownership over her city.

The 26-year-old old British Pakistani and London native is a photographer and self-described storyteller. Niazi noticed that for women like her – young creatives who wore the hijab, some spaces felt more unwelcoming than others. So what’s the solution? Niazi spent three years taking pictures that felt unconquered as yet, by women like her.

She turned the idea of the gaze on its head by discovering new places in her home city of London (she grew up in Tooting) as a way of exposing herself, and others, to details and gems waiting to be discovered. The camera allowed her to see the world differently, and her Living London project is a coming of age homage to reclaiming space, gaining perspective, and taking a minute to really engage with your surroundings. Ahead of her exhibition, she discusses why feeling safe is imperative, how to trespass, and her love of greenery.

How much is Living London about unlocking the city?

Saira Niazi: I realised that most of the places I loved most in London remained unknown to people and I thought that was a shame. I decided to start documenting the special places I’ve been and the people I’ve met in these places online with the intention of turning the research into a book or a zine. The project currently consists of over 900+ places in London.

On the surface, it looks like a London guide, but Living London is about making places home, it’s about living them though engaging with them, and learning and connecting with individuals and communities that make them special. It’s about making friends, observing, connecting to the city and culture, and for me, it's about finding my place in city (and the world). I’d like to turn Living London into more of a community project and work with young people, especially PoC, to explore, discover and connect with the city. 

How did you choose the spaces you went to explore and did you have difficulty accessing them?

Saira Niazi: A lot of the places included in my project I’ve stumbled across by chance. Others I’ve found out about through people, by reading maps or just doing basic research. I’ve trespassed a bit, climbed over gates, jumped ditches, navigated some of London's harder to reach places. This project has made me realise how open and accessible London is. Often you just have to ask people and they'll let you in. The amount of times that I've stumbled into a placee, wandered up to a desk and asked if I can have a look around and actually been let in is pretty high. 

Who are you inspired by right now?

Saira Niazi: Probably my sister, Sofia. She’s the editor of OOMK zine (see above) and has always been creating amazing work. She used to make massive batik paintings when she was on JSA and her drawings make me laugh. 

You’ve said in the past that you feel like Muslim women, and/or women of colour may feel like certain all spaces aren’t for them. Why do you think that is?

Saira Niazi: I think there are a lot of reasons. One of them is because we don’t see ourselves reflected in these spaces. Even mainstream galleries and museums are statistically not frequented by PoC, and heritage is still seen as the preserve of the white middle class. 

Was the project a reaction to people engaging with you differently as a woman of colour who wears a hijab?

Saira Niazi: As someone who wears the hijab, I have at times felt that people engage with me a little differently to when I didn't wear it. I’ve been met with curiosity, indifference, hostility, I’ve come across some quite patronising people, often in smaller galleries – and sometimes even in nature reserves! Once I was at the Palace bingo hall, and a woman said to me, “Sister, gambling?'' and I said “no, just looking” – she looked at me like I was a bit wayward.

What is one of your favourite places that you’ve shot?

Saira Niazi: I think my favourite is probably Horsenden Hill in west London. It’s an ancient wild space, with highland cattle and you can see all of London from the top of the hill. I also love the way I found it. My PC crashed at work and the IT guy said it would take a while to fix, so I went for a walk and randomly decided to follow the grand union cana. That’s when I discovered Horsenden Hill, it was big and green, with cattle grazing and epic views. Since then I’d often hike up after work and watch the sunset. It is really magical. I love green spaces. 

Were there spaces that you shot that made you feel like you didn't belong there?

Saira Niazi: One of these would be the masonic temple under the Andaz hotel. I called ahead and made an appointment. On the day, I was thinking "What the hell do I wear to a temple beneath a 5 star hotel?" It felt like a pretty dark place. There are also some areas where in my head I'm like, “I should be careful”, which are usually places where friends have shared experiences of intimidation. I’m quite conscious that there has been a sharp increase in the number of Islamaphobic attacks, many of which have been directed at Muslim women. It’s troubling that increasingly, such physical attacks and verbal abuse are happening in public with passive onlookers, so I’m not sure whether it’s necessarily any less safe to be in places considered "shady" than it is to be on your local bus.