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Former rock 'n' roll photographer puts Islam in front of the lens

By Emily Wither for CNN
  • Peter Sanders has photographed everyone from Bob Dylan to The Rolling Stones
  • Sanders hopes his traditional photographs will remind people of Islam's spiritual side
  • Sanders converted to Islam after the wild years of the 1960s, drawn by its compassion

London, England (CNN) -- Former rock 'n' roll photographer and Muslim convert Peter Sanders says he is trying to show the true face of Islam through his photography.

Sanders is concerned that images of extremists and terrorists dominate the public's idea of Islam. He searches for more traditional images to remind people of Muslims' real heritage.

Sanders began his photography career as a hippie with a camera in London's swinging 60s, photographing everyone from Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix to The Rolling Stones.

But he came out of the 1960s movement searching for something else and in the years that followed, he embarked on a spiritual journey that took him first to India and then to the Muslim world.

He was one of the first westerners to photograph the rituals of the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. His experiences in the Islamic world remained with him long after he returned from his travels and he decided to embrace the Muslim way of life.

Today, his pictures tend to capture a more traditional Islam, which he says is now much harder to find. He says that Islam has become politicized and he's keen to present the more spiritual side of the religion.

As a photographer it was this stillness amongst the movement that really struck me.
--Peter Sanders

Peter Sanders spoke to CNN about his faith and photography.

CNN: What made you decide to start taking pictures of Muslims instead of rock stars?

Peter Sanders: I didn't just become a completely different person. I'm still that same person that did all that stuff in the '60s, it's just that my point of reference slightly changed.

I still listen to Dylan and he's still an inspiration to me, I just found that photographing Muslims was slightly more interesting because they came from a world that I could only aspire too -- people who spend their lives in prayer, study and worship.

CNN: Was it photography that first got you interested in Islam?

PS: My photography has always followed my own interests and my main interest in the '60s was London's music scene. When I decided to pack up my bags and go traveling and look for a more spiritual way of life my camera then followed that sort of road and accompanied me on this whole journey.

CNN: What changed during your travels to make you want to become a Muslim as opposed to just photographing it?

PS: I'd read a bit about Islam during my travels and then coming back to the UK ... It was the beginning of the '70s there were a lot of casualties from the '60s -- people who had overdosed on drugs and things like that and there were some people who had found a different direction out of it all.

I just felt that was the sort of direction I should go in. It was a leap of faith but you have to remember that there wasn't the backdrop that we have now; there wasn't all this extremism about Islam at that time.

CNN: What is it about Islam that first attracted you?

I still listen to Dylan ... I just found that photographing Muslims was more interesting.
--Peter Sanders

PS: It was the simplicity of it, the basic belief and the compassionate side I was very drawn too, along with the stillness of it.

There is a memory from India that stands out for me: I was at a train station very early in the morning and it looked like the whole of India was on the move.

I suddenly saw this old lady roll out a prayer mat and do her prayer in the middle of the station. I'd never seen that before and I had no idea what it was about.

As a photographer, it was this stillness amongst the movement and apparent chaos that really struck me.

CNN: How has your faith changed over years?

PS: No one could have foreseen all that was going to happen in the last few years, what with 9/11 and 7/7. I can't help but think, 'How does this relate to what one was so drawn to?' And it is about trying to understand that.

CNN: Your pictures tend to be of a traditional nature. Are you hoping to present a particular side of Islam through your work?

PS: We live in cities and we're surrounded by different kinds of landscapes, but we need to remember being still and being calm and being honest with your neighbors -- all these kinds of moral values that seem to be disappearing.

Somehow, the Muslims of today need to hold on to those things although they find themselves in a very different world.

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