From Iran to Bosnia, a 29-year-old photographer goes way off the beaten track to capture the universality of religion

Unlike other travelers seeking the majestic palaces of Iran, Noor Iskandar, 29, first made the decision to go in search of his favorite poet. “I was supposed to go to Turkey to 'find' and converse with (the Muslim poet) Rumi for my body of work entitled How Dust Floats; then I thought why not Iran too, since Persia is where Rumi was born.”

Once there, he quickly fell in love with the people, the cuisine and the landscapes; documenting everything and even spending the Iranian New Year with a Kurdish family. “Now I’ve been there three times; and I fall in love every time,” he said.

Tehran, Iran

But beyond Rumi, the multidisciplinary artist, who is a practising Muslim, earmarked Iran as a destination to learn more about his religious roots. “I also wanted to understand the Sunni-Shia dynamic for myself,” he said, referencing the ancient religious schism dividing Muslims in Iran and Saudi Arabia. “The community here seems to have an ill perspective of Shia Islam, so I wanted to dispel that prejudice.”

Rarely does one come across a Singaporean photographer so comfortable marrying spirituality, religion and art—but Noor is a happy amalgamation of all three. He believes in a universal intimacy in faith, emboldened through travel; though to mistake his work and philosophy for a gushy Eat Pray Love-type situation would be a gross underestimation.

Since graduating with a Bachelor in Fine Arts (Photography and Digital Imaging) from Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design and Media (ADM), Noor has been making his rounds in the arts scene both locally and abroad. In 2013, he was chosen as one of 10 emerging voices from around the world to be part of the World Islamic Economic Forum's Marketplace of Creative Arts inaugural fellowship programme. In 2014, he bagged the prestigious Kwek Leng Joo Prize of Excellence in Still Photography. 2015 saw him co-curate an exhibition of Islamic art as part of the Conference of Islamic Art, Design and Architecture in ADM; while in 2016, he was awarded the Goh Chok Tong Mendaki Youth Promise Award 2017 for his contributions towards the arts in Singapore within the Malay/Muslim community.

Noor, en route to Paris

Despite the laundry list of accolades, Noor’s priority remains traveling for himself. When he isn’t, he spends his time researching Islamic aesthetics and spirituality for his Master in Arts (Research), back at ADM. The modern-day romantic also recently published his first poetry anthology For[God], timed precisely for the 27th of May, his birthday, this Ramadan.

There is an unfortunate prickliness surrounding religion today, treaded too cautiously around and spoken of sotto voce. In the poetic language of Noor, a good photo may seem like just a baby step forward in the grand scheme of things, a speck in this vast universe to open mindsets and bring disparate peoples together; but artists like Noor only help to make the world a more beautiful, and bearable, place.

We find out more about his travels below.

How many countries have you traveled to? Any favorites?

After returning from The Balkans winter of last year, I am blessed to finally be able to strike off from my "27 countries by 27 years old" list, so perhaps it is around that figure. So many of these countries offer stunningly different forms of beauty but if I had to pick, Iran and India would definitely rank highest on the list. Morocco and Turkey would definitely be close behind.

What are the less conventional countries you’ve been to?

Iran would definitely be deemed less conventional by many. But in truth, a lot of the countries in Eastern Europe are strangely peculiar. I remember getting dropped off at a curb during Christmas of 2016 in Kosovo, a few miles outside Prizren. Coincidentally, I stepped on this land just a week after Singapore officially recognized the country as an independent and sovereign state. Serbia, (Belgrade in particular) was another place that broke my preconceived notion of her vibe and people; alongside Skopje in Macedonia, due to this semi-melancholic air both cities possess. This is particularly common for many cities of the traumatized Balkans like Sarajevo and Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Prizren, Kosovo

Shiraz, Iran

How do you choose which countries you want to visit? Are they all Muslim-majority countries?

I do have a penchant for lands which embody some kind of unfamiliar lure. I am enchanted by land ridden by immense intersecting histories—think Istanbul. Iran has that Silk Route charm. The Indian and Javanese region were where my forefathers hail from, so the intrigue to untangle origins is also present. A lot of these lands were also where my spiritual and poetic illuminations like Rumi and other mystics hailed from.

I would not necessarily say Muslim-majority countries but the objective in my sojourns is an attempt to unravel the mysteries of sameness and dissimilarities, even within a common thread like Islam. It just goes to show that faith is not as monolithic as we think; there are sporadic colors, diverse dances and varied voices within the creed. All these travels augment such suppositions. It humbles you, really, to be snuggled into a web of grander schemes, of past historicities and future dreams.

Walk us through a photo that means a lot to you.

Kargil, Kashmir

This was in Kashmir where I was in a shared car from Leh, Ladakh heading towards Srinagar. We were on a roadblock at Kargil (said by the locals as the second coldest place in the world) which opens up only after the morning prayers due to security reasons. I was napping when I heard the prayer call. It was total darkness but I followed the sound and found myself in a grand mosque lit only by lamps. I took out my camera, placed it on a gorilla pod, installed my cable release, shot a long exposure once, and ran back to the car. The image that ensued was like a gift from the universe.

Do you feel like the intentions of travel have become diluted in recent years?

Definitely. Travels, in that sense of a search, or for greater meanings, have somehow been displaced by social media tourism. I think it is unfortunate that we don’t use such sojourns as ways to understand our existence better, to trace roots.

What do you love to capture through your lens?

Everything but (ironically) food. I think I am naturally drawn to expansive landscapes, the vastness of oceans, sunsets and night skies; but even more mesmerizing, human isolation within it. You will probably come across many of my images of Man enveloped by nature. If anything, this is a microcosm of how I see life. The intimate conversation between Manhood and the Divine.

Yazd, Iran

You call yourself a spiritual sojourner. How does spiritual wellness and healing factor into what you do and believe in?

Quintessentially, I embark on these sojourns as a necessity more than anything. The soul craves movement towards a Great Perhaps. I see myself as a melancholic soul, always trying to sense-make the subliminal so going on these retreats alone makes most sense. It is therapeutic as most of my travels include deep spiritual rootings through conversations and inner contemplations, artful recordings through photography and writings. These collective processes make me whole. There are so many questions I have towards faith, towards love, towards life; learning and unlearning through the many episodes, and faces and places make these perplexities less terrifying.

You recently published a book of poems. Can you tell us more about that entire process, how you got started and eventually published? What are your poems mainly about? What inspires them?

I think the main spur was to translate these philosophies I acquired through travels—on our intimacies with our beliefs; how to honor these doubts and feelings; about solitude and loneliness as travelers in transit on earth, the fleetingness of it all. I wanted to pen these down into an intimate book of sorts. I titled it For[God] to play off the idea of a prayer offering but at the same time, this memento of forgetting; of being very human indeed.

It’s self-published—this first book has to be special; I see it as my firstborn, so I wanted to feel the pain and pleasure of birthing it and raising it up. I get to also exercise so much artistic and creative freedom from designing my own cover and amalgamating my art. If anything, I see this as a profession of love towards human conditions and language itself—you can tell I am obsessed with words so a book makes most sense.

Noor in Cappadocia, Turkey

Was the book meant to coincide with Ramadan?

Yes it was special. My birthday falls on the blessed day of Ramadan; it was imperative that the first book I am putting out to the universe falls on this date. I also have a fondness for the number 27.

Would you say your art is religious in nature?

I often get asked this a lot. I do art mostly for myself—it is a quest to find solace, to find inner meaning, and thus far has been quite fulfilling. Art grounds me. Most of the time, I would say my art carries a certain kind of spiritual energy. I don’t go about making art as a religious fuel or statement. Conversely, my art speaks to a common human condition. They speak of abstract sensitivities and sensibilities like love, unloving, believing and non-believing, of death and light. True, the Islamic faith is something indispensable to my philosophy and artmaking, hence the imageries, icons and the vocabulary—familiar things within my universe—get so naturally invoked into these extensions of myself. But I think in spite of these strands, the main hope I have when I put forth my work is to carve a space of light, for others to have their deep, intimate conversations, to feel less alone.

Hawraman Takht, Iran

Is the Muslim community misrepresented (in Singapore and the world)? What would you like to convey to people about your religion and community, especially in terms of your art?

I cannot speak on behalf of the community but what I can say is my personal affinity with Islam has been a road towards humbling myself and perceiving levels of love and beauty. I like my faith to remain intimate. Noise arises from both sides; so does hatred and unwillingness to let others live. I choose to push for this idea of intimacy when we speak of faith. That your conversation is between you and God. I wish we could learn to be more sensitive and recognize the different struggles we all carry within ourselves. And it is never our work to judge anyone in their journeys. I think we should converse with respect and a willingness to learn. Art allows me to do this. It speaks mountains in subtleties. Rumi once said 'Raise your words, not voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.’ I live by this.

For[God] can be purchased at Wardah Books, 58 Bussorah Street or online here, and you can follow Noor at @nooriskandar