This delightful photo series highlighting young Muslims is so wonderfully pure.

As a professional photographer, Mark Bennington looks at thousands of photographs a day. But there was something he wasn't seeing.

The 47-year-old Bennington rarely saw images in the news or media that showcased Muslim people smiling, laughing, having fun, or simply being themselves. Instead, they're often portrayed as sullen, serious, or even violent. The canon of images do little to show the full spectrum of emotions and needs of Muslim people.

Muslims meet with an immigration attorney during a town hall meeting in Virginia. Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.


Lack of positive, affirming representation can stoke the flames of anti-Muslim representation, which can lead to more negative portrayals in the media. It's a vicious cycle with serious consequences.

Bennington, like many people, desperately wanted to change the conversation and highlight the people behind Islam, a religion of kindness, love, and peace.

In the summer of 2016, after reading a piece in The New York Times documenting a Muslim family in New York, Bennington was inspired by the photography of photojournalist Chang Lee, who had captured the images. This was a Muslim family simply living their lives, and Bennington wanted to see more of it.

"I really thought, let me see if I can do something here and get some images that would normalize that dialogue," he says.

So Bennington decided to use his art to help change the conversation.

Bennington took a circuitous path to find his subjects, reaching out through Muslim friends and friends of friends. He was finally introduced to students in a Muslim student group at a local high school who were excited to take part in the project.

All photos by Mark Bennington for "America 2.0" unless otherwise noted. Photos used with permission.

"It just so happened that when I was reaching out to the community, the response back was from the youth," Bennington says. "My original intention was not to focus on youth, but that's who responded back."

His project, "America 2.0," focuses on Muslim millennials.

It's a picture-perfect celebration of what it means to be a part of the next generation of leaders of a country at a crossroads.

"This is next gen America — that just happened to be Muslim," Bennington says. "This is a community that deserves representation and deserves to be celebrated."

So far, Bennington has taken around 50 portraits for "America 2.0," and he's not done yet.

Along the way, he's met Muslim people of a variety of different backgrounds. Some were raised in the faith; some converted. Some of the young women wear hijabs; others don't. Each young person is unique, joyful, and determined — exactly what we need in strong leaders.

He hopes to travel around the country taking more pictures for the project. He's currently considering crowdfunding for an outdoor exhibition in Washington, D.C.

"I really feel that the more people see these images ... the more it will start to make these 'micro-differences,' and hopefully that will turn into action. Hopefully that will create a humble movement," Bennington says.

No matter your faith or background, it's important to stand with Muslims against hate, harmful rhetoric, and violence.

Bigotry and discrimination against the Muslim community is not OK, and it's not normal. Now more than ever, we need to support Muslim people in our community by signal-boosting the voices that are making a difference and shouting down anti-Muslim rhetoric.

People with or without faith traditions should have a safe place to reflect or worship, smile, laugh, and be themselves in every corner of the country.

And until that's true, we've all got work to do.

Let the humble movement begin.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

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The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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