Simrah Farrukh: "Behind the camera, I decolonize the brown gaze"

Photographer Simrah Farrukh gazing at the camera with her hand on her face

How photography intersects with the brown gaze, nazar, & beauty.

By Simrah Farrukh, Guest Contributor

My first memories with a camera go way back to my childhood. My dad would carry his 35mm Pentax film camera wherever we went. On top of that, my best friend's dad is a photographer so whenever I’d go over to their house, he would always take “kodak moment” photos of me and my best friend. As a toddler, I would cheese big for the camera, but as I grew into a young girl, I became shy. I didn’t know how to properly smile and didn’t like being in front of the camera. Nevertheless, I found myself behind the camera. I would always take my family’s digital point & shoot camera, and as any child would, I took photos of random things, like people talking mid-sentence. 

One day back in 2011, I rediscovered my dad’s film camera in the back of a closet. I found a roll of old film, took some photos and never developed them. From there, I was grateful to have gotten my first DSLR which I used to take photos of me and my friends. We would go to random fields and do “photoshoots” with no concepts or goals, but rather, to change our Facebook profile photos. 

Simrah Farrukh photography
photo credit: Simrah Farrukh

It wasn’t until my visit to Pakistan in 2015 that I started to understand the power of a photograph. 

My Nano and Dado had albums full of old family photos. They ranged from black & white to colored film from the 1930’s to the 1980’s. Looking through these photos and observing everything, from my family member’s outfits, their expressions, and the background and environment, I felt like I was right there with them. Not only that, but I felt like I've known them my whole life — when in reality they passed away before I was born. 

As a 17-year-old at that time, this was a turning point with how I viewed photography — as an art form. 

I recently graduated university where I studied Studio Arts with a concentration in Photography. In the past 4 years, I studied and practiced the medium and developed my own style and voice. The moment I truly believed I was an artist was when I had my first solo exhibition which was titled The Brown Gaze. This exhibition consisted of 50 images from the last 3 years of being in college. Oftentimes, the South Asian diaspora is exploited by the oriental gaze. I reclaimed the lens with my work, so that: 

We, as South Asians, can be in control of our own narratives and stories. 

Curating my own exhibition was intimidating, yet enjoyable. I didn’t know what to expect and who I had to impress. The curation process was similar to my creative process when I'm producing photoshoots. It started with reflecting on my own experiences in museums and galleries, as well as researching how art placement affects the viewers exhibition experience.

I try my best to make every shoot a meaningful one that has a concept and purpose behind it. Every now and then, it’s relaxing to create a photoshoot where the purpose is purely to shoot, but I think of those as practice and studies. My favorite shoots are always the one where the model, photographer, makeup artist, and stylist all put in effort and bring a cheerful attitude to set. 

To me, photoshoots are a collaborative process and should never be gate-kept by just the photographers. 

If everyone on set respects each other, the concept, and the creative process, those shoots are most likely to come out the best. 

Reva Bhatt photographed by Simrah Farrukh
photo credit: Simrah Farrukh

Sometimes, shoots go so well that I get nervous something is about to go wrong. 

Maybe it’s because growing up, the concept of Nazar was always put in the back of my mind. It’s why I rush to carefully put my SD card in a safe holder, or triple check to make sure that my shot rolls of film don’t unroll and become exposed to light. To me, Nazar is an envious energy that causes misfortune. Nazar has always been a topic in my family but something that was never really discussed often. 

My mom is constantly reading duas and surahs and blowing around me whenever I dress up or I’m going out. 

One time in Pakistan, I was minding my own business when my Nano came in with a dry hot rag, mumbled something, whipped the rag around me and walked away. Later I found out she was de-Nazaring me. It’s been so ingrained in my mind to be cautious of the Evil Eye. 

Whenever I’m creating, the spiritual part of me infuses pure intentions and energy into my shoots to protect my work and the outcome. 

South Asian women all have different experiences with beauty. 

For many of us, our minds were brainwashed by the media to think that we must look eurocentric in order to be deemed beautiful or accepted by society. It plays along with the idea of assimilation to western culture as children of immigrants. Living in the western world, 

The moment we are put into society to socialize and be around other people is when we start to compare ourselves and how we look. 

My senior thesis was a portrait series of 14 different South Asian women and their side profiles showcasing their noses.

Simrah Farrukh's senior thesis with 14 South Asian women
photo credit: Simrah Farrukh

For decades, South Asian photography was dominated by colonialists creating ethnographic studies. These photos would capture the ‘exotic’ culture and faces of South Asia. My thesis aimed to reclaim that lens and to redefine what beauty means to us, in terms of our physiology. 

When you see these portraits, how does it affect your idea of beauty? 

When you see all 14 portraits collaged together, how does it make you feel? 

These are the questions I aimed to address with my thesis. 

Nazar is an interesting concept when it comes to beauty. Nazar is never going to disappear—it’s always going to exist. But when it comes to appearances, it’ll always be defined by the way we perceive beauty. Nazar arises out of jealousy, whether ill or pure intentioned. We often hear folk tales of women with light eyes, straight, black, silky hair being the most beautiful woman in their villages, and all the other women become so jealous that one day, the beautiful woman turns into an ugly ogre. 

My work ultimately aims to spotlight South Asian experiences and dreams, while uplifting the faces that we don’t typically see being put up front. 

Simrah Farrukh's photo of Seema Hari
photo credit: Simrah Farrukh

With that comes decolonizing beauty and creating a safe space without judgement or societal pressures. Whether you’re in the photos or viewing the photos, I hope for my work to be a utopia for brown women everywhere. 


About — Simrah Farrukh is a photographer based between the Bay Area & LA. Her work explores dreams, experiences + utopias of brown women through an intersection of fashion photography, art, and portraiture. You can view her work on her website and follow her on Instagram at @simrahfarrukh.

Cover photo credit: Simrah Farrukh, @simrahfarrukh

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