The photographer, set designer, and artist explores the future of transness through their captivating images, that are simultaneously breathtaking and the representation the industry desperately needs
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“I hope people can for a few seconds leave this gross binary unreality and experience that mental state of transness,” explains photographer, set designer, and artist Furmaan Ahmed on what they hope people take away from their breathtaking imagery. “I hope people can connect to that part of their imaginations to explore more of what could be.”
Born from a level of imagination that puts us all to shame, Ahmed’s images (and the self-made sets that populate them) transport you the past and years into the future simultaneously. Shooting their friends and community, they’re transformed into elvish creatures delicately perched in a dark floral setting or with glitching chrome-like skin.
They’ve unsurprisingly also been tapped to capture the likes of Willow Smith, Dorian Electra, Sasha Velour, and the late SOPHIE – whose show they also provided installations for. “I want you to feel like you’ve experienced a glitch in reality for a second and that image filter shatters – to see this metaphysical world secreting and growing,” they explain.
Beyond being an exciting name to know (and watch), Ahmed’s place in the industry as a queer, brown, non-binary creator – who found their strength and voice after growing up in a strict Muslim household – is so important for representation and dragging the industry in an authentic direction. “The industry is a fickle thing especially for us Brown, Black, and queer people. The whole structure wasn’t made for us and it’s really complex trying to exist within it,” they explain. “It’s really important, however, for others to see people like us calling the shots and having a say in how culture should look and feel.”
“I want to see more changes in who’s creating these visions and who’s carrying them out. I think that’s why I continue to work in this industry and why my work lives in a different dimension of the world we exist in – this world is painful and isn’t working” – Furmaan Ahmed
“We keep seeing the same stuff and of course it’s boring, how could these people ever imagine the experience of feeling like the outsider or the other? How can they be the ones to really think about the future? How can they possibly imagine life outside these toxic patriarchal binaries they identify with,” they continue. “I want to see more changes in who’s creating these visions and who’s carrying them out. I think that’s why I continue to work in this industry and why my work lives in a different dimension of the world we exist in – this world is painful and isn’t working.”
Despite being back home in Glasgow during the ongoing lockdown, Ahmed has continued creating in local outdoor spaces for an upcoming photo book. The process has allowed their creativity to evolve and it’s something they want to continue honing as they grow. “I just want to heal with my queer family, create those stages, spaces, images and stories,” they say. “I feel so ready to walk through the next gateway whatever that may be.”
Here, we speak to the multi-hyphenate about the transness that imbues all their work, collaborating with SOPHIE, and why they emulate Annie Lennox’s 80s power dressing.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up?
Furmaan Ahmed: I’m a photographer, a set designer, and an artist from Glasgow. I just graduated from Central Saint Martins doing a BA in Fine Art and I actually just ‘graduated’ this summer during lockdown. I’m kind of retracing old steps at the moment as I’ve come back to Scotland for a while.
What is it you do and how did you get into it?
Furmaan Ahmed: I’m a photographer, a set designer, and an artist. I think of them as quite separate subconsciously, maybe because they are quite different in terms of their politics and how I practise each of these things.
When I was living at home with my family, I needed an escape from the conservatism of my family and community and Tumblr became that solace. Often in the middle of the night, I would wear my bags as hats and glue on bindis, mix acrylic paint with vaseline and paint my eyebrows blue so I could stop being so present for a second. I would take pictures on my webcam to create characters living in little surreal worlds for an audience of probably 11 followers.
Looking back, it was total survival mode and escapism. I needed to find fantasy, a stage where I could become something I couldn’t be while being under a very Pakistani house arrest. From there, I started photographing other people but I was so bored with fashion photography so I started making sets for my pictures out of whatever I could find. Suddenly people started referring to me as a set designer instead of a photographer and now I’ve begun to call myself an art director! It’s amazing what power people’s words have. I’m an ‘art director’ who is still making crap out of gaffa tape and cardboard, however.
Those worlds I was imagining as a child in my bedroom have kind of manifested into all routes of my images, sets, and artworks and I can now create them for other people and larger audiences. I’m still escaping when I make these ‘worlds’, but it feels a lot like healing now. I really look up to Derek Jarman who was a filmmaker, a set designer, a painter, a gardener, a writer… he just continued to create without a rulebook or boundaries stopping him. From his legacy, I see it as an affirmation that you don’t have to be anyone particular thing, it just matters that you are passionate about creating beauty.
What are you trying to communicate through your work and why?
Furmaan Ahmed: Transness, the future. I want people to feel transness, not just of the body, but of the mind and of the heart. Transness as a state of mind – a place where nothing is exact or fixed. I could say my work is about ornament and the importance of architecture, botany, the grotesque, magic, and the occult, but these all branch off from this feeling of being or creating something unreal, otherworldly and thinking bigger than the blueprints we have given.
For me, these vast landscapes and the growing worlds feel like mutating pulsations in my brain between something really sci-fi and something more ancient. Imagining how it would feel to be an atom being ripped apart or how it feels to embody a bolt of lightning. I just want people to consider their realities, and think larger than the binary they’re used to.
We live in a world with a huge image filter in place that stops us from seeing reality, or seeing past the superficial. If you were to throw a brick at that image filter and smash small holes in it, what would you see, what would you feel? That’s what I want my work to communicate. What would it be like if you question the rubrics of order and reason and not pass off the fantastical as this quirky thing? Science was women’s witchcraft at one time. It’s so political, it’s decolonial. Queer world-building goes against everything white men have written. This is why I love gardens and water so much. They’re always transmuting, growing, and changing. It will always be near you.
Who or what inspires you?
Furmaan Ahmed: Recently, I just can’t stop thinking about all the people I have in my life and I always have to pinch myself that I’m friends with such incredible people! Our community is creating so much beautiful work, writing such incredible words and thinking such futuristic ideas. In particular, Sarah is always on my mind, we have so many amazing and silly discussions about philosophy and the world we live in and how to make it uglier/more interesting. I also find pre-Islamic worship fascinating, or any kind of pre-Abrahamic belief systems. The belief in the simplest form of the human mind – to connect to the sun, the moon, the stars, and the plants or a gorgeous bouquet of flowers – will always inspire my day. Sci-fi, nature, community.
Can you talk us through some of your favourite features/projects? What response did they get?
Furmaan Ahmed: I photographed Willow Smith with Cupid when I was in LA working for David LaChapelle last summer. It still is one of the most surreal things that has happened to me, those images went viral which is really bizarre seeing your work plastered everywhere. I’ve never had that kind of attention before – I feel like people started to take my work seriously from then on.
My favourite series of images I’ve done in a while is the FaceTime shoot I did with my friend LOLA and Alia for Metal. It was at the start of the very first lockdown and Bella Hadid was creating boring #fashion FaceTime shoots. The process of creating the images was really fruitful, I found myself falling into a post-production hole of pixels and collaging. I felt like I was tapping into creating digital auras. All rules went out the window and I could be so messy and experimental and just concentrate on creating intuitive FEELINGS over any technical rules – it felt so liberating. Nothing had to look sharp, in focus, clothes didn’t have to be sold. It made me so excited about taking photographs again.
What’s been your career highlight so far and what do you hope to accomplish ultimately?
Furmaan Ahmed: I remember two summers ago I helped my friend Ciaran create the stage and show for SOPHIE at the Southbank Centre in the Royal Festival Hall. I’ve been thinking so much about SOPHIE and that night a lot recently. I can’t put into words how it felt and how that memory will stay with me forever. Between SOPHIE’s acts, I had to run on stage to make set changes, I felt like I was part of something so important. Being part of the creation of a live installation like that on a stage for 5000 people was pure magic and you could feel the buzzing warm electricity in the air that night. It felt so powerful because of the audience, it was a night of trans unity and love.
There is something so different about working in live environments instead of a photo shoot or a music video. The moments the audience arrives and the lights begin it can be breathtaking. That feeling of unity, perhaps it lasts for 10 minutes or 3 hours. Those moments are so sci-fi and healing, everyone’s energy in one space can help you transport yourself out of this world for those moments. I want to be able to keep creating those spaces for people I love.
What are you working on at the moment?
Furmaan Ahmed: In Glasgow, I’m working on a nine-hour long film of dancers with the most incredible team of trans, queer, and POC people. I’m feeling very excited about this and for people to be able to see such a monumental project. I’m also working on a book of photographs that I’m creating over the next two years.
I’m slowly building sets and photographing magical and beautiful people across the full breadth of Scotland, its highlands and its islands. Everything is being created and shot outdoors on hills, lochs, forests, old shrines etc. Hopefully this book will create an invisible thread between these queer people and communities around Scotland. So if you are reading this and you’re living in Scotland please get in touch! Manifesting here, but next year I want to create an all-trans POC stage play/opera. Maybe Arca could write the score!
What does beauty mean to you?
Furmaan Ahmed: For me, beauty is a feeling and not aesthetic. Between happiness or sadness – there is beauty. It’s that moment or interaction that feels special because the cultural image/mind filter shatters for a second – unreality is beautiful. It can be so sublime.
Describe your beauty aesthetic in three words.
Furmaan Ahmed: Electric, whispering, atmospheric.
How do you assert your identity and experiences through your beauty?
Furmaan Ahmed: I strictly wear MAC lipstick (in the shade Diva) and a shirt (preferably white). I love to power dress like a man like Annie Lennox did in the 80s. It’s like a performance to be in control of how the world sees me when I feel so discombobulated in my own body and this society.
What’s your favourite smell and why?
Furmaan Ahmed: Jasmine flower, my grandmother used to take me for late-night walks to steal the neighbours blooming jasmine at night – the perfume will always take me back to those gorgeous nights.
Which fictional character do you most relate to and why?
Furmaan Ahmed: Maybe Edina Monsoon, I’m always wanting more! There’s also a film by Kate Bush called The Line, The Cross & The Curve where Kate plays a dancer who becomes entangled with a ballet -dancing devil. She journeys through these really terrifying tunnels and landscapes where she comes across her real-life spiritual teacher and also (choreographer) Lindsay Kemp who help her free herself to get back home. I feel a deep connection with the film, the stages of surrendering yourself to the light, and the elements mentally having to open the door to being happy. It’s so beautiful.
You’re the editor of a time-travelling beauty journal 100 years from now, what beauty trends are you reporting on?
Furmaan Ahmed: What if in the future the Instabrow girls are using AI to explore our alternate universes, like a subconscious facial? It would be like going to get your nails done, but instead, you’d be in a gorj salon with binaural beats where you can plug into another world for an hour. That experience made you more beautiful but we would consume it like fast food. It could look like a cross between those UV face masks and getting a vitamin drip. It would be so LA that people would look down on you for doing it.
When do you feel most beautiful?
Furmaan Ahmed: When I create something and I’m standing in front of it, but suddenly something changes for a few seconds and you see it in a totally different light. I feel like I forget I’m there for a second and go somewhere else – it feels so light.
How do you want to change the world?
Furmaan Ahmed: Lady Gaga once said: ‘I’m going to change the world one sequin at a time.’
What is the future of beauty?
Furmaan Ahmed: Transnation!