Amaal Said: Capturing Beauty As A Healing Salve

Amaal Said is a photographer, poet and a politic science student. Through her work, she has created space in the digital landscape to offer humanizing photographs and poems of people in her community, frequently young people of the diaspora who are far too often under- or misrepresented.

I’ve used both photography and poetry as forms of healing. I turned to writing when I was young and hurt, when I was learning English and feeling lost in a classroom with nobody that understood me. Photography has helped me to get out of myself, reach out to others. I never saw the documenting I did as particularly hard work. I asked to take people’s pictures because I found them beautiful, because I recognized myself in them. I wrote the poems because I was scared that nobody else would tell the stories of the women in my life. I wrote them because I felt like I had no choice. I realize now how important the work is and how necessary it is to push against the images that do not represent us in our best light.

We have huge family albums and I can’t remember a time growing up where my father didn’t own a camera. Sadly, he doesn’t believe in photography very much anymore. When I brought my first film camera home a couple of months ago he said, ‘what’s the use of that now?’

I remember the excitement of getting the prints of film back when we were kids. We moved from town to town and house to house so my parents took all the pictures they could to root us someplace.

I was standing in the photography section of a bookstore with a friend. I remember asking her, ‘imagine if we opened a book up and saw women that looked like our mothers and aunts?’ There is something so warm about looking at a picture and being able to recognize yourself in it.

My initial idea was to capture black women in a gallery space. I wanted to make them part of the art, to take up space in an institution that wasn’t speaking to us. It ended up becoming a much larger project and I wanted to involve the subjects more. So I asked what their favorite scarves or pieces of jewelry were, and which things connected them to their homes.

My work is absolutely about filling a void. I keep asking myself, ‘if you don’t take the pictures then who will? Who’s going to photograph the women you love in a light that is fair to them, in a way that they recognize themselves?’ There was the realization that I had to take the pictures, that I couldn’t afford to wait around for someone else to represent us.

It also has a lot to do with my identity. There’s a lot I’m working through when it comes to pinning myself down somewhere, whether that be country or town. I’m coming from a specific place.  I’m the eldest daughter of parents who are immigrants. I’m Somali. These factors are all specific to me, but what ties me to the women I’ve photographed is that we are all women of color.

I write poetry, too. The writing came out of nowhere. I don’t remember when I started. It’s my way of trying to understand why things happened in my family and why there was so much silence growing up, why so much shame came with womanhood. I keep writing about my mother. I keep writing about my father too. I have a lot of questions in mind, like what they were like before they had children. I’ve been making up their former lives in my head.

I’m working with a couple of amazing poets on a project about translation. I finally get to sit down and ask my parents about particular stories. I’m looking at what’s lost in translation, what’s gained, what we make up and what we try our hardest to forget.

I came off the stage recently and a woman told me, ‘that was so violent.’ I found myself wanting to apologize, to take back the words, to give her something lighter. But I’m discovering a very violent history and I’m writing through it. I keep having to remind myself that there are people who have died because of their writing, who might also have been imprisoned or beaten. There is so much to write about, so much to document and I realize now that I shouldn’t apologize for the work.

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