“It is an intriguing place that is a laboratory for artistic expression,” said Mr. Muhammad, a staff photographer for The Times. “A cultural cauldron for Latino and African-American expression and, of course, with all the historical benchmarks like the Harlem Renaissance.”
So the area was a natural choice for him when he was looking to do a personal project on religion. Faith is no small part of this legendary community, where religious leaders have wielded great influence over the years. From grand churches to upstart storefronts, serving longtime residents or newcomers, these churches have seen generations of transition. Many have also hewed closely to an activist tradition, whether it was civil rights in the 1950s or concerns over the police’s stop and frisk policies today.
The more he thought about it, the more he got excited. The resulting portraits, he said, are the start of what he hopes will be a long-term project that will follow how these institutions and their leaders adapt in the coming years. In addition to the photographs, he conducted audio interviews as well.
“What I really wanted to know was who are the people providing spiritual services to the Harlem community,” he said. “It’s looking at the lives of people evolving, and who has the responsibility of taking care of those needs.”
As a journalist and Harlem resident, he has also come to know many of its faith leaders, like the Rev. Calvin O. Butts of Abyssinian Baptist Church and the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.
In the case of Masjid Malcolm Shabazz, a mosque on 116th Street and Lenox Avenue, there was a deep personal connection. It first started as Temple #7 by the Nation of Islam — which was founded by Mr. Muhammad’s grandfather, Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X preached there. And in the 1970s, the temple adopted Sunni Islam, guided in the transition by his uncle, Imam Warith Deen Mohammed.
“Masjid Malcolm Shabazz was the place where the most visible community of Muslims would gather in New York City,” Mr. Muhammad said. “Even today, it is perhaps the most important place where Muslims still worship in Harlem.”
Though he said he has “wavered on religion and wondered if it truly served the needs of the people,” he was surprised by what he found.
“I was inspired by many of the people I photographed,” he said. “The way they defined their mission and understand their congregation and its needs, and by extension linking up with the greater community.”
Excerpts from Mr. Muhammad’s conversations with each of his subjects, including audio clips. The conversations have been edited and condensed.