When it comes to photographer Simrah Farrukh’s work, the essence of South Asia never strays far. It’s evident from the subjects she chooses to the striking clothes she puts them in. The senior college student focuses on studio arts and photography in Los Angeles, California, but her gaze is undeniably on the southern regions of Asia.
Along with an emphasis on South Asian culture comes a distinct spotlight on the issues which women from this region face. Take her series on domestic violence: the ten photos create a story of a runaway bride, attempting to escape the abuse she faces at the hands of her future husband. The story, which Farrukh concocted, is her dedication to all the women “who [are] forced to suffer silently,” in a culture where domestic abuse is often ignored or under-reported.
Farrukh’s other projects include an LGBT-centric shoot with a young queer couple from California, an intimate series with a mother and her two daughters, and photos with individuals who are underrepresented by both South Asian and Western media. The many elements of discrimination, which people of color so often encounter, influence her photos while still taking an empowered stance.
Farrukh spoke to VICE about learning to be appreciative of her identity, and how that prompts her powerful photography.
VICE: How did you get into photography in the first place?
I picked up my dad’s old film camera when I was in high school. I never got those photos developed, so to this day I don’t know how they turned out. But after that, I started taking photos as a hobby. In the beginning, it was honestly just me taking photos of my friends in the park. I didn’t think much of it, but I always had other people telling me this is something I could pursue. Once I got to the end of high school, I started to gain more of a focus on women empowerment and South Asian culture. I applied this to photographs.
What kinds of issues fuel your work?
My work has always been based on women’s empowerment. In the past, I focused on colorism and domestic violence. A lot of my work is regarding women.
You did a series on mothers and daughters. What do you think is your experience growing up in a South Asian household and how does that influence your photography?
I grew up in a rich white suburb, so being brown was always very sacred and special to me. I was always immersed in Pakistani culture, even though I was born and raised in the States. My parents would always speak Urdu to me. Connections like that definitely allow me to incorporate the colors and language of being Pakistani into my work. I knew I was different from all these people. I have a lot of artists in my family, but most of them did it as hobbies. I bring in my family’s history in my photos. I’m inspired by my past family members and I think of each of them as a hero. Whenever I hear about my parents or grandparents childhood, I take notes of the details. My parents were a little on edge about me being an artist full-time, but they came around and they’re really supportive.
What is a piece of work you’re most proud of?
I think it would definitely be the ‘Daughters’ series. It was something I can relate to. Even the comments I got back from it made me realize people were relating the photos to their own relationships with their mothers. It brought people a sense of warmth and nostalgia. I found the emotions between the subjects to be so pure and genuine, and this definitely came through in the photos. It was staged to some extent, but the emotions brought out between the models were real.
Did you face any discrimination growing up?
I definitely felt like the people around me were racist in their own ways, even if it was subtle. I was aware of the color of my skin, and sometimes I worried I was too brown for the rich white kid school I went to, but when I realized that’s what made me different, I took my heritage as something sacred. When I realized that, it was around the time of [US President Donald] Trump’s election in 2016. It made me angry to see how people looked at marginalized communities. This was evident during the election season. My photography is a [response] to those comments.
What inspired the colorism project?
I have a friend who is pretty aware of her dark skin. There was this one moment where a guy she liked told her that she was too dark for him. It upset her, but it upset me just as much. The photoshoot was based on that memory, but also to bring representation of darker-skinned women to the media. It’s always lighter skinned women who seem to be the most represented. This project aimed to reverse that.
Can you tell us more about the LGBTQ photo series you took?
I wanted to normalize LGTBQ relationships for South Asians, who sometimes struggle to accept them. It was inspired by the Bollywood movie Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (How I Felt When I Saw that Girl). After watching it, I wanted to represent a greater body of people in the Indian diaspora. It was more of a collaborative project, between me and the girls. I wanted to photograph how Sufi and Anjali felt when they first met each other. There were all these small details from the beginning of their relationship – like the flowers, from when they went to the park on a date. We incorporated those details into the shoot, which shaped the story they share as a couple.
Is South Asian culture and identity the most integral part of your photos?
I’d say it is. Even if the photos aren’t specifically of women wearing traditional outfits or jewelry, they are still representing brown skin. It’s a statement in itself, whether they’re wearing Western clothes or not.
What do you want to focus on in your future projects?
I wanna touch more on my religious side. I want to integrate Islam into my photos, just as much as I’ve incorporated the feeling of what it means to be South Asian.