What Don't You First See?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - 8:42am
Photo by Noah Seelam

What Don't You First See?

I love this photo.

It's relatable. It's humanizing. It's neighborhood. The photographer has captured an image with layers of meaning and connectedness.

At first glance, one's eye is drawn to hijab and hands. It's what we Americans have been trained to do — to look for the extreme, the other, the different, the enemy training their children to be Islamic fundamentalists. This lens, even for an editor and producer who spends most of his days breaking through the stereotypes to discover the humanity in the other, is difficult to shatter.

But stay with the image for a split-second longer and you'll start to see something different. The image is more inclusive than it first appears. Included in the framing of this photograph is a backdrop of a variety of backpacks, including a pink backpack very much like the Hello Kitty bag a young schoolgirl in my Minneapolis neighborhood carries off to elementary school each day.

This framing contextualizes, and I might say normalizes, this scene and makes it special. As a Western observer, I relate in an entirely different way rather than easily focusing in on the religiosity on the surface. Seeing others in this way takes discipline, and a deep pause. If you do, worlds will open to you. And people too.


Share Post

Shortened URL


Trent Gilliss

is the cofounder of On Being / KTPP and currently serves as chief content officer and executive editor. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on "The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi" and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent's reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

Share Your Reflection



I did notice the pink backpack first. Then I looked at where the hands were. If they are reciting then they are all reciting what appears to be from a different section of the text. Also, there appear to be multiple versions of the text. The girl on the left might need glasses.

I saw children.

First I saw books open. Then I saw scarved girls read Arabic. Then I saw backpacks & briefcases -- one from HP.
It's a small world and getting smaller.

The first thing I see is five little girl's freedom taken away by years of patriarchy. Then I'm taken back to my formative years in Tehran, when education was based on memorizing and learning by rote...no thinking, curiosity crushed, shamed if you question....I'm Iranian, Minnesotan, feminist, mother of two boys, in love with freedom of expression and above all a parent and teacher of inclusiveness of all cultures, religions. Curious about all perspectives. Renaissance hasn't reached the fabric of middle east....

To see more deeply, beyond the "religiosity on the surface" and to the humanity within an individual is indeed a gift and at the moment, a rare one in Quebec's minority government, the Parti Quebecois. Today, they are "unveiling" a proposal to ban the wearing of hijabs, kippas, turbans, and visible crucifixes for those who work with the public, which includes doctors, teachers, and day-care workers. A troubling mindset and a step backward...

As a quebecker, this is the way I see the current situation:
Beyond the apparent will of stigmatizing worn religious symbol is the desire to address the public's frustration upon wearers of veils and generalizing to other similar cases to avoid accusations of racism. Also, as the public keeps asking governments to address all sorts of trivial issues and because of the ensuing dissilusionment when laws are not voted at the snap of a finger, the government needed to answer... if only to keep the public interested in politics. I think it is a great idea to incorporate a chart of values as our people feel like their culture is constantly diluting. Even if said chart is refused by most/all institutions as suggested by the chart itself, it's going to mean that as a people, we have a culture and we have the same right as everyone else on this planet to feel awkward around cultures conveying things we do not agree with. Such as, to close the circle, the inherent insulting aspect of veils. From the point of view of quebec's culture, veils are condemnable as much as not wearing them is condemnable from the point of view of their culture. Medias and competing politicians are yelling out loud right now that it is impossible to agree to disagree, THAT is the step backwards. I salute my government for its courage.

To answer the picture:
I saw people studying. Because of their veils, I had hopes that they were really learning, as opposed to being endoctrinated.

Of course our glance goes to the humanity set in the fore, but the pack wasnt far behind. reminds me in someways of Rania Matar's work. She photograph's young women in their room and has spent considerable time in the middle east. in many, they show the shared global pop culture that helps to "normalize" as said.

The first thing I saw was that they were reading. Period.

My first thought was girls. Good to see them in class. Also using the hands to read - I was shamed in 2nd grade several times of using my hands to read - it was wrong to read that way.

What interested me is that all these girls are also trying to read, although four of the five texts are from different books. Using their fingers to point to the words they are reading also suggests that they are new to the work of reading. Literacy brings empowerment, but it takes a facility with reading to achieve.

Yes, I saw the scarves and their hands. That makes me bad? wrong? extremist? a thoughtless, xenophobic American? You saw Hello Kitty and that makes you disciplined and inclusive? Are you sure you want to make these judgments and sound so superior?

TRENT: Does seeing hands and scarves really make me a bad person? Does seeing Hello Kitty make you a disciplined and superior person? That's what you imply.

Writing here from Amman, Jordan where violent clashes over modernity are a bit too close to home, I missed the backpacks entirely, but from an overexposure to the "normalcy" of it here in Amman. I drive by Chili's, KFC, and Mickey D's everyday on my way to work at an international school. Here the streets are filled with young Muslim's wearing American pop culture backpacks, tee shirts, designer shoes and purses along with their head scarves and will do their prayers right there on the road side. The thing that strikes me as odd and why I'm commenting is that I don't find these things to be normal or comforting. I cringe at the thought of one of these sweet Muslim girls "twerking" for her friends in private, even for a laugh.
I grew up in Accra, Ghana in the early 80's only to return in the late 90's to find an exponentially growing demographic of seemingly East/West Coast Gangster African youth that have since put Ghana's crime rates through the roof. What once was a majority of fun loving and astoundingly hospitable people were starting to believe that they needed to be angry, violent and degrade women in order to be like their cool brothers on TV in the west.
I'm no conservative fundy, but I'm quite concerned that my girls are going to have a similar experience when they grow up. Will they're experience of honorable and hospitable Muslim's turn into one of grief for a culture so rich and thrilling that got traded for something kitsch. Will these countries wake up like Iceland did to find out that they desperately desired to recover their cultural identity?
I'm probably being a bit over dramatic and a bit of a kill-joy purist, but I sure do miss the Africa I knew without Snoop Dogg.

I like your comments...

It is deeply saddening as I cringed with those images as well. I feel your pain and what you see. I am grateful to hear your voice and read what you perceive. Photos that come here are deceptive. There's so much to cultures that a photo will not and cannot explain. My images of what I saw in Iran will never leave me. Perhaps we are the bridges to what is so misunderstood in western culture in understanding the deep fabric of anger in particular against women that has ever so quietly taken over that region. We all have work to do. But I know deeply how comfortable and privileged I am in America. Thanks for your input.

"It's what we Americans have been trained to do — to look for the extreme, the other, the different..." Sorry, I can't buy the load of hooey that "Americans have been trained to do" that.

What's more, all people naturally notice that which is different to themselves and their own. Your comment is tantamount to the ideologically inspired chestnut promulgated by the Cultural Marxists that only White people are "racists" because we--like every people in the world--are more comfortable in the company of our own kind, want to preserve our culture and our people.

The initial impression is of Muslim children studying. Then pink book bag pops out. It took a second to dawn on me that these are girls studying, not boys. One girl, second from the right, seems to have a discoloration or markings on her forearm and hand.

What don't I first see? A well thought out title. :) Second: men. Third: sense in the article. The author alleges that some people look at this picture and first think it captures "the enemy training their children to be Islamic fundamentalists!" Seriously? Is it me that is strange, or the author?

I saw little girls learning to read.

I love this visual learning moment. When first seeing the photo, I didn't see anything different. Then the pink in the back poked up and projected softness and options. I am 71 and losing my smartness but this spoke to me on a subject I am very interested in.Thank you.

Refreshing, insightful, honestly real. Nadia's humor and insight made me rethink my idea of spirituality. She made me realize how my own spirituality is embeded with rituals, even though I like to view myself as being spontaneous. Her path was a true journey in discovering herself. I will trust my own peaks and valleys more in the future and rise up again. I loved the statements from her nonconforming church folks on how they needed so called parent-like figures to love and accept them. Having worked with teen church groups, I see the connection that is so important when people are evolving. Thank you for sharing this interview as I'm about to take a giant leap in my own life.

I saw people studying. Then, because of their veils, I had hopes on what they were studying. Let's hope it's not endoctrination. What about the backpack? They're not assidic jews, it's nothing special that a consumerist symbol fell into that picture. It doesn't make them more or less human.

I first saw children reading together as it should be no matter the country. Period!

Marvelous interview. I have been a Spiritual Director for 30 years and found the mutuality in this interview a great metaphor for how we are to be with each other. God supposedly has us tatooed in the palm of her/his hand. Thank you

I see all these women are using their right hands, and their left hands are not on the table. I wonder if any Indian Muslims are left-handed, and what happens to them. I also see one or two women with their heads very near the text. I wonder if they are near-sighted, and notice there are no eyeglasses in the picture.

I believe in some parts of the world, in the Mideast and North Africa in particular, the left hand is reserved for bathroom duties so that the right hand is saved for eating, etc.

I see concentration, discipline, wanting and willingness to learn. I see girls studying. Backpacks at the back neatly lined also indicates the eagerness of the parents that want their girls to learn, which is what every parent wants for their child and will do anything to make that happen. What they are learning is immaterial to a point. Doubts of whether they are being indoctrinated are only due to the collective fears of society based on current happenings. The first point of observation is that girls are learning and educated girls make huge difference to their families and the society they live in.

I see literate girls in a part of the world where that may be a growing minority. I'm relieved to see them reading-- knowing that they have a chance at an education and can find the freedom of thought within their own minds. The second thing that stands out to me is the girl with a hennaed hand and arm. I believe this signifies her recent betrothal to a man... so young...and how very little we understand about cultures other than our own.

I first noticed young women leaning towards a document, all in different places in the document following along with the right hands. I celebrate young women reading knowing that their moms were probably never were given the opportunity to learn how to read.

I see little girls studying hard, but they probably are not being taught in a way that allows them to be open to the beliefs and values of others. It is likely they are bright and inquisitive as many children are, and I feel a bit sad to think they may not be allowed to fulfill their full potential and go after their life dreams.

I see angry gods spelling beauiful words. where its children vs children and pencil vs lead.

I looked. I smiled. There is inherent beauty in children. The contrast between light and shadow and the colors of their clothing held my attention. As I looked more closely, I wondered: What is it like to live in a culture with "western" book bags and traditional dress? Why does the room they are in look like a prison cell with bare cement-like walls with a high window letting in light? Why are they being educated in a multi-age classroom, and where are the boys being educated? What does it feel like to be taught to cover your body - to hide yourself because of your gender? Are they pointing because they've been taught to read that way - they must read that way? Where are their feet? Are they kneeling? If so, how do they endure sitting in that posture for any length of time? Are they punished if they move or try to reposition themselves for comfort? Who painted the arm of the child second from the right and why? Is it a source of pride or privilege for her? Do their souls find comfort in what they are reading? Are their spirits enlarged? What prior knowledge and experience are they connecting to the words? There is a tattered cloth on the floor - seemingly a carpet. Are these girls living in poverty, and do they consider the opportunity to be in school a blessing?

No matter the complexities of their situation, they are girls, and they have been taught to read. Within that skill lies the potential for knowledge, freedom and hope. My prayer is that they will be granted the grace to soar in continued beauty and light as a gift to our world.

I think that's actually a tom and jerry backpack. Most of my students prefer my little pony, and disney princesses as the prices on hello kitty are higher and she doesn't have her own tv show.

I saw the girls' enthusiasm, the studiousness the oblivion to their surroundings on hard floors and benches. I saw the backpacks of normal schoolchildren, and possibly the need of glasses for some of them, also that one of them appears to have a skin disease. Here is a group of girls being allowed to at least learn the Quoran.

Girls literacy= education= critical thinking & freedom from oppression and domination. These girls want what all girls want, the world over, education and equality. Nice photo!