Photography occupied a unique role in Suleika Müller’s childhood. Born and raised in Basel, Switzerland, Suleika has lived a double life of sorts. Split between her life at school where she tried to get good grades, and her life with the Sufi order with which she was born into, she spent much of her childhood traveling to Sudan, Egypt and the UAE on a regular basis to practice Sufi beliefs. Sufism is the mystical Islamic belief and practice where Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through a direct personal experience of God, either through rituals or practices.
“I grew up loving this euphoric and almost ecstatic community that made me feel safe and protected,” Suleika tells It’s Nice That. “At the same time, my siblings and I really struggled to make sense of those polar opposite that we grew up in and couldn’t really make sense of our own identities.” As a child, she carried a picture of the Sufi sheikh in her purse or pocket, and there were pictures of him all over their home too, but photography became a major aspect of her life around the age of 20 when she started to learn more about it, and in turn, realised a passion. “I had been looking for the perfect outlet for me to express myself creatively,” she adds, and once she got some technique down, she realised how much images had helped her to form ideas and express herself.
Ever since, she’s used the medium as a tool to give viewers a glimpse into her world, both the inner and outer. “I guess I really struggled between the world and identities I grew up in, the European being so rational and academic and the African so devotional and spiritual,” says Suleika. Growing up, she deliberately kept those two identities separate and never wanted anyone from either world to know or see the other. But now, it’s a different story. It’s the opposite. The camera allows her to fully embrace all aspects of her identity while processing the past. It’s an outlet of non-verbal expression, for ideas that can’t be expressed through words. “I always knew I couldn’t possibly explain through words my life in the Sufi order to my European friends,” she continues, “Images are so powerful and help me communicate what I can’t.”
Her practice draws on both her own experiences, but also a lot of research. Exploring themes related to identity, spiritual ecstasy, religious diversity and the human condition, fundamentally, Suleika never wants to enforce a certain message or opinion through her photography. “A lot of the topics I’m interested in are things that I’m torn or confused about and working on the photo series really helps me understand them a bit more, it’s like a therapeutic practice for me. I have come to realise that nothing is black or white, so I like the fact that images have the ability to objectively shine light on certain topics.”
In this vein, Suleika’s latest project Moksha, sheds light on exactly that. After her first trip to India in 2017, she became fascinated by the diversity of Dharmic religious practices, and how much they reminded her of the Sufi practices she’d grown up with. Even though they originated from a very different religion on the other side of the world, for the photographer, it sparked a realisation that “we are all the same.” Having grown up as one of the only Muslims in a Swiss school, there’d always been a sense of exclusion or otherness. But this trip helped her realise “that at the end of the day, we are all humans who more or less deal with struggles, and we all strive for happiness even if we do so in many different ways.”
Last year, she traveled back to India, spending five weeks traveling around the country in what the photographer describes as a “beautiful and humbling experience.” Combining her experiences with thorough research on Dharmic belief systems, Moksha is a glimpse into the diversity of religious ritual across the country. One image in the series feature a woman named Geeta. Suleika met her in Mumbai, spending a lot of time with her even though they spoke no languages in common. In spite of this, they spent days and nights together telling each other stories through hand gestures. “I love the portrait of her because her inner strength and beauty really come through,” says Suleika.
Elsewhere, she photographed a group of Buddhist monks she met as she stumbled across a monastery. She recalls, “The courtyard was empty and so peaceful but the little monks were so playful, happy and full of life.” Together, they played football, took pictures with the camera and talked. “Sadly, I realised later that night that my camera was broken and all the images taken that afternoon were probably not on the film! I was devastated and had to wait til I got back to London to see whether any of the portraits were salvageable. It turned out that only three pictures survived. I’m gutted to have lost most of the photos but I carry them in my heart and it was truly a special day that I’ll never forget.”
GallerySuleika Müller: Moksha
Suleika Müller: Moksha
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.