La Cañada Flintridge resident Maryam Nouh felt a sense of pride after she learned an image showing her praying would be on a recent cover of Time magazine featuring a photo illustration of a diverse group of people and the headline “Who Gets to Be American?”
“Time magazine is one of the oldest weekly newsmagazines still running — still in print — so to have that be so deeply tied to America is really beautiful,” said Nouh, a Muslim who is shown praying while wearing a head scarf on the Nov. 26/Dec. 3 double issue. “It was really touching for me and really touching for my community,” she said. “I’d be super thrilled if I looked at that and this girl is wearing a scarf like me. But it actually is me in this case.”
Nouh, who graduated from La Cañada High School in 2011, said the image was taken in April or May. She said an old internship director asked her if she would want to be photographed to highlight diversity in America.
“I said, ‘Of course, I’ll help you out however I can, just let me know,’” Nouh said.
Nouh used to intern at a nonprofit organization called Repair — which is dedicated to health and disability justice — while attending UCLA, from which she graduated in 2015 after majoring in human biology and society. She earned a master’s degree in education in 2017 from UCLA and now teaches chemistry and biology at Humanitas Academy of Art and Technology, a high school in East Los Angeles.
When she arrived at an unassuming studio in L.A.’s Arts District, she didn’t know what to expect.
“I was thinking this guy was just someone who liked taking pictures in his garage or something,” Nouh said. “I didn’t think he’d have this whole setup, but there were some celebrities and things like that. And I was just like ‘OK, maybe it’s a little bigger than I thought.’ And the whole goal was to remake this famous painting from the ’40s by Norman Rockwell [from a series] called ‘The Four Freedoms.’”
She learned she was going to take part in a campaign and nonprofit called For Freedoms that fights against bigotry and hate in America and promotes solidarity and understanding of different cultures and religions.
A photographer asked to take her picture for a freedom-of-worship photo.
“So I was in front of a green screen and she just said, ‘I just want to show you worshiping in whatever way feels comfortable for you,’” Nouh said.
Nouh said about 100 photos were taken for the photo project and 16 were selected to be on display in art galleries. She said she had no idea what had happened with the project until she received a call from her old internship director and told her she was on Time’s website.
Later, she learned her photo would be on the cover to go along with an article about being an American.
“I thought it was really well written because — I’m just going off my own identity, but there’s kind of a narrative of a good Muslim or bad Muslim,” Nouh said. “To be a good Muslim means you have to be undyingly loyal without any sort of criticism toward the United States. Whether you’re born and raised here or you’re an immigrant. He really challenges that narrative from the perspective of a Vietnamese American, saying are you a good immigrant or a bad immigrant? Meaning are you undyingly loyal to this country or are you not. Because if you’re not, you’re unpatriotic. He was challenging that, saying anything you love you should for sure be critical of and be able to criticize, because that’s the only way anything gets better.”
One of the photographers, Hank Willis Thomas, said via email he was humbled by Nouh’s participation in the project and the power of the work was still settling in for him.
“The experience of the shoot was truly magical,” Thomas said. “We were putting together this huge puzzle, and the pieces came to us in faith and goodwill. We had no idea what we were actually doing and how well it would ultimately come together. I truly believe this is just the beginning and these images will live on for much longer than we can imagine.”
As a Muslim, not all of Nouh’s experiences have been as positive. She said she was called a terrorist while on the street near UCLA when she worked on her master’s.
However, since the Time edition was released, Nouh said, she has received some unexpected fandom. A person at Stonefire Grill in Pasadena asked for her autograph. A cashier at Vons in La Crescenta did a double take when she purchased the issue and asked if it was her.
“She held up the magazine and said, ‘You’re the most prominent one on here,’” Nouh said. “She called the other people from the other cash registers and I was like ‘Oh my God.’ It’s funny, I had a friend who went to that Vons to buy a coffee and the same lady was the cashier and she said, ‘Did you know this lady shops here?’ And she was like ‘Actually, yeah that’s my friend.’”