Mohammad Alsalti is a North Carolina-based graphics designer. He designed the iconic images of #OurThreeWinners after the Chapel Hill, North Carolina shooting of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha, and #Nabra of the 17-year-old Muslim, Nabra Hassanen, killed in Sterling, Virginia, that were displayed during the vigils after both tragedies. We spoke to him about his own path of healing and how he channels his talents in to creating images that symbolize the essence of the person’s life, and remembrance of their passing. We spoke to him in an effort to understand why he creates the art that he does and for insights on using talents and skills to find ways to heal after such tragedies.
Interview with TIM editors. Edited for clarity.
The Islamic Monthly: You designed two iconic images that were fundamental symbols of healing for communities struck by tragedy. Can you describe the images for us, in an artistic sense?
Mohammad Alsalti: Ok, let me start off with the “Our Three Winners” silhouette. I made that about two years ago when I was still in school in Ohio. Later, I would move to North Carolina, but before designing that image, I did not have any ties to the Raleigh community and did not know anyone down here.
When I first heard what happened at the Chapel Hill shooting, I felt that was the first time the American Muslim community experienced something like that here in America. Any loss of human life is tragic. But when it hits home and it is right in your backyard, it is something a little different, especially when you see someone who can look like you. The victims were 19, 21 and 23, and they were American Muslims born and raised here.
I did not plan on making a viral image that would be used everywhere. At the time, I was new to social media and had just made my Instagram page. I made the silhouettes of the outline of the three victims, Deah, Yusor, Razan, and it’s basically just a minimalist illustration or icon. It’s just black and white, and it’s outlining the shapes of their faces, and that’s pretty much it.
At first, I posted it on my social media page, just as something for my own records. Then all of a sudden it started taking off. People were resonating with it and reposting it and sharing it, and it caught on from there. The biggest feedback I got from that was that the simplicity is what resonated with a lot of people, but also not having their faces made a lot of people think “that could be me.” They connected with it even more. It opened interpretation for a lot more people.
The way I’m designing is more instinctively. I saw the pictures of them, and this was the first idea that came to mind. Not just with these pieces, but with anything I do. The most successful work I’ve done, whether for a client or whoever, it’s very instinctual, and just not forced. These pieces were not forced when I made them, and they just seemed to flow naturally when designing. Authenticity speaks. When any content created is made with authenticity and no ulterior motive, that’s what really finds power with people.
I am actually close friends with the family of the victims, and I know them well. It is crazy because that image connected with that whole community here. Just that one image. I know a lot of people down here because of that. It’s crazy to see the power of social media and the power of creativity and how it can connect people, even through tough times.
As for the #Nabra image, it was over this past weekend that I heard what happened. I started designing not to make something viral, but to express my feelings. As a creative, this is all I know to do. I am not a writer, I am not a photographer, I am not an actor or anything like that. This is what I know how to do. And maybe what I try to do may make a difference, it doesn’t have to be changing the world but even doing small things can hopefully make change and help heal. And that’s the idea behind this. I made the image mostly for myself. I posted it, thought nothing of it, and it just started catching on again with a lot of people.
TIM: Why do you think the images resonate with so many people?
Alsalti: What I’ve found as a trend between “Our Three Winners” and “Nabra” is that whenever something like this happens, people like to identify with something. Whether it’s an image or an icon, they love to share, they love to repost stuff. And having a consistent theme for the event symbolizing it brings people together more. I never saw it that way, but think of a company logo, like Nike’s swoosh logo. It brings a lot of people together. When you see someone wearing that, you get an idea of who they are or what they’re about. So I guess you can say it’s a mark or logo of the event, and it resonates with a lot of people. That’s how I started to see it and why things catch on like that.
The biggest thing is that this is something unfortunate, and that happened in our own backyard and that you don’t expect to happen to the American Muslim community. I have a younger sister and she is turning 16 soon. This is something you realize could happen to anyone, even your friends, your sister, your aunt, your mom, anyone like that. And I’m sure you as a female Muslim in the community just kind of get a little on edge. It’s weird times.
Authenticity speaks. When any content created is made with authenticity and no ulterior motive, that’s what really finds power with people.
TIM: That’s powerful. I didn’t even pick up on the blank faces and how people can put themselves into it.
Alsalti: Me neither, I didn’t think of that until people started mentioning it. So I guess it’s all up to interpretation and part of creativity. It’s very arbitrary.
TIM: As you are creating the images, how are you trying to channel who they are? Do you do research about them? Do you ask people about their lives? Do you try to channel what you’re understanding about them? What is it that you’re trying to evoke? The resemblance is pretty powerful. You look at the image, and you know that’s Nabra, even if you weren’t to write Nabra’s name there. So what’s your process of trying to channel who they are as you’re designing these images?
Alsalti: I try my best to portray who they were, because I didn’t know them personally. It’s more that you try to do your part, you try to do due diligence to find out more about them with research. Unfortunately, with how early everything was going on, there wasn’t too much about them, so I tried my best to work off the photos and the testimonials and all of that.
I feel like, especially with the women, the hijab symbolizing them is probably the most powerful part. With Nabra, 75 percent of the feedback I’ve got on social media has been from Muslim females. It feels like with something like this, it resonates more with the females. Not saying it’s not resonating with the whole community, but it’s really touching a nerve with the females in the community, especially with the hijab.
As male Muslims who walk around, we may be proud to be Muslim and all of that, but looking at us you wouldn’t tell that we’re just Muslim. But any female Muslim in hijab, you can automatically tell she’s Muslim. They are the flag bearers of the religion, and that’s where the reasoning behind “Our Three Winners” and “Nabra,” where the hijab is just a major key part of it. It was obviously a part of who they were, what the situation was, and how, at least with “Our Three Winners,” they were outspoken Muslims. They had a lot of interviews and just a lot of quotes on their social media. They were very open and proud about their deen. And same thing with Nabra. They were just leaving tarawih, and a lot of her friends obviously had nothing but good things to say about her. So I felt like it was an appropriate representation on my part.
TIM: Do you feel like in the process of creating the images, you’ve gotten to know them in a more intimate way than perhaps someone who hadn’t gone through the process of creating an iconic image?
Alsalti: I feel like we’ve all gotten to know them more through social media, especially in the last couple days, so much has come out about Nabra, and who she was and we’ve heard her friends speaking. I actually spoke to a couple friends in the D.C. community, and they’ve given a closer insight into what’s going on. So yeah, you do feel like you’re closer. I feel like I’m just learning as much as everyone is right now.
TIM: How are you feeling as you create the image? What’s going through you? Is there a feeling that comes when you’re creating the image? Are you channeling some type of emotion?
Alsalti: It’s bittersweet. Obviously you don’t ever hope that anything like this happens again, or at all. But it’s just unfortunate, sometimes life happens. The biggest thing is, I try to be authentic, and then the process of authenticity does help me. I don’t want to say heal, but the reaction helps a lot, to see how a simple image is affecting so many people in that way. I’ve gotten a lot of responses about how people are saying this is uniting us, this is everywhere at the vigil in Philadelphia and D.C., it’s bringing a lot of people together. So in a sense, it is making me. I’m trying to say this in an unselfish way, like, “Dang, an image I made is doing all of this.” It’s bringing a lot of people together and spreading awareness in the sense that it’s getting the word out there and bringing some solace to a lot of people. It’s bittersweet.
TIM: Why do you think it brings solace? I know that you talk a lot about people finding representation within the images themselves, but why solace?
Alsalti: See, I think it’s arbitrary. The biggest thing I find, I guess, is the awareness it brings. When something like this happens, and then you put a face to it like an image, a lot of people start finding out more about it, especially through the power of social media. If the word gets out, like hey, this is what happens in our community, and not just Muslims, non-Muslims and the mainstream media and all of that, it kind of brings awareness that minorities are being discriminated against, and there are injustices going on, and this will hopefully prevent future instances and open up a lot of people’s minds. So that’s kind of the positive in the negative situation I’d say.
TIM: So what does the symbolism mean, as the creator of the art?
Alsalti: Now, looking back after seeing the reaction, I’d say unity, because it gives one thing for people to look at, or resonate with, or post. It’s one consistent idea that people can use and represent these situations. In Raleigh, you’ll still see shirts with that silhouette on it and automatically know what that represents. Or now with Nabra, there are a lot of shirts and charities and everything using that image popping up. You know what that represents. Just looking at that situation, you know what it represents. So it’s an idea of unity now.
TIM: A lot of artists find ways to benefit off these iconic images, but this is a very selfless thing you’re allowing to happen as a service that you’ve provided for the community. Why?
Alsalti: There have been people who have tried to benefit off it, especially “Our Three Winners.” I did try to stop a lot of people taking advantage of an unfortunate situation. They were trying to monetize off it, by selling merchandise or whatever, which I think is horrible. I don’t try to personally benefit from things like this at all. I’d say that every movement or time there’s always been creatives, and there has to be people that give back and do their part, and this is just me doing my part. Nothing more, nothing less. I get more satisfaction out of people using it. Obviously as a constant creative, seeing your stuff being widely distributed, that’s probably the biggest payback than any dollar value you can be given, honestly.
TIM: You are an artist, and are obviously trained in this field. I’m sure that there are times that you can reference different ways that symbolic art has helped people, or served in American or Islamic history, and had a resonating impact over a long period of time. Are there any reflections or parallels you can think of that you may want to draw upon?
Alsalti: I’ll be honest, the first time it happened, I thought it was just an anomaly and that it would never happen again. As a constant creative, you’re always just kind of, not questioning yourself, but you’re very critical of your work. So it’s just like, “No, it just happened.” But then when it happens again, I’m starting to comprehend the actual impact of creativity. Not just art, but also music, photography, writing, anything, and how something so simple can have such a profound impact. Moving forward, I’m still a young designer, I only graduated school last year. So I’m always looking to past precedents and past examples of people within your field and also outside of it and how they dealt with different times. I’ll always be researching and referencing the past because that’s where you can learn the most sometimes. So while I don’t find a parallel, I can always confidently say that there will be something to reference that will help moving forward.
TIM: Is creating this art very emotional for you?
Alsalti: Yes, because when I try and make stuff, I try to make it as authentic as possible. A lot of events occur in life. Especially since “Our Three Winners,” a lot of people try to message me saying, “Oh, so and so happened, so you should try to make an image for this.” I don’t try to force something and make an image for every incident. Not because I don’t resonate with it, but because I just don’t feel right doing it, because it wouldn’t be authentic. That’s why I’ve only done two so far, because these are the ones that really impacted me. That’s when I found that when you do something that is 100% authentic and truly you, and you’re not forcing anything or ulterior motives, that’s what really resonates and works with the people in those communities.
So yes, I’d say it is emotional. Because first of all, like I said, while directly I’m not fearful, you start to fear for the people around you, my sister, my mom, I find a direct impact with them. They’re already trying to not make changes in their lives but they’re just going to be more on the edge. That’s just the nature of it. You hate to see that, you know. And this is just a simple act of going out after tarawih. It’s just a normal Ramadan day. Now you’re thinking about the normal activities you’re doing. That’s probably what inspired it. It really hurt to see what happened.
I started designing not to make something viral, but to express my feelings. As a creative, this is all I know to do. I am not a writer, I am not a photographer, I am not an actor or anything like that. This is what I know how to do. And maybe what I try to do may make a difference, it doesn’t have to be changing the world, but even doing small things can hopefully make change and help heal.
TIM: What advice would you give young people who are trying to comprehend this tragedy?
Alsalti: Number one, be 100% authentic. We live in a world with so much information that you don’t know what’s authentic and what’s not. But the content that resonates with people, whether it’s a YouTube video, a blog post, a photo, anything, is authentic. It comes from that person from a true place in their heart, and it’s true to who they are. They don’t try to force anything, or be someone whom they’re not. They don’t try to do something that’s not them. In the past, I’ve struggled a lot with authenticity. I’ve tried to do a lot of things either in school or creatively that weren’t authentic, and it just didn’t work out. You can just feel it. If people are truly honest with themselves, you can feel if something is authentic or not.
My second point is self-awareness. Know who you are, and being honest with yourself will really impact the work you do. Because there will be no doubt or regret within your heart if you know this is you. Or if it doesn’t work, you know that you put it out there and it ended up not working.
TIM: For these young kids who are suffering at ADAMS Center (Nabra’s mosque), these teenagers, what advice do you have for them to actually find something that can channel the tragedy?
Alsalti: I’m 23 years old, and obviously this could affect anyone at any age. But when you’re so young, it will probably be life altering. Just know that number one, especially when kids are involved, it’s not anyone’s fault. Unfortunately it happened. But also get closer to each other. Use each other for support. Some people are going to have good days, and some people are going to have bad days. But always be there. That’s the biggest thing. Unfortunately the social media buzz is going to die down, the coverage is going to die down, but the impact isn’t. The families are still going to have to deal with it, the friends, the community, so there are going to be tough nights, tough months ahead. So just be there for the parents, the people involved. Just be open. Don’t have any room for judgement or blaming; just be open. Be there for people. Know that it’s not anyone’s fault, and know that she’s in a better place. It’s hard, because I try to be as objective as possible, but I’ve never personally been through this, so I’m just doing my best from what I’ve seen.
*All images courtesy of Mohammad Alsalti.