NEW YORK – Sat Hari Singh, a New York City subway operator, threw his train in reverse on 9/11 to send it away from the chaos at ground zero. Japjee Singh sued a school system in Georgia to get protections from school bullying. U.S. Army Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a doctor, fought for the ability to wear a turban while in uniform.
These Sikh-Americans are all featured in a new photo exhibition opening in New York on Saturday that tries to challenge public misconceptions of practitioners of the religion.
"When people look at a gentleman with a beard and a turban they automatically think he's a terrorist," said British Sikh photographer Naroop, who with fellow photographer Amit created the "The Sikh Project" at a pop-up gallery in SoHo. "Sikhs get labeled and categorized in groups and individuals that they're not. It's time to break that barrier down and remove all the stereotypes associated with it."
The exhibition features 38 portraits of Sikh-American men and women from all walks of life — all wearing turbans.
Among the faces is Waris Singh Ahluwalia, a New York actor whose movie credits include "The Grand Budapest Hotel." He got an airline apology after being kicked off an Aeromexico flight in February after he refused to remove his turban in a public place during a security screening.
Others include Vishavjit Singh, a cartoonist who adapted a Sikh Captain America persona on the streets of New York to bring awareness about social identity and what it means to be a Sikh.
"We wanted to bring about an exhibition that could capture the beauty of the Sikh faith and the Sikh American experience in a way that could help the American public understand who we are, what we stand for and what we believe in," said Saprett Kaur, executive director of the Sikh Coalition, which is presenting the free exhibition.
It focuses on the 15 years after 9/11 and the coalition's inception.
Kaur said the organization was born in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy "as a response to the immense hate backlash we began experiencing after those attacks." The first came four days after 9/11 when Balbir Singh Sodhi, who wore a turban and beard, was shot and killed outside his Arizona gas station because of the way he looked.
More recently, six people were killed in 2012 after an Army veteran opened fire on worshippers at a Sikh house of worship in Wisconsin.
Despite being the fifth largest religion in the world, many Americans don't know much about Sikhism, said Kaur. It's a monotheistic religion founded 500 years ago in Indian's Punjab region with tenets emphasizing social justice, self-awareness, devotion and meditation. The turban symbolizes a man or a woman's commitment to the faith.
The photographers, who use their first names only, said they also selected Sikhs from various professions to highlight their contributions to American society and its economy.
For Ahluwalia, the premise of the "The Sikh Project" is not complicated.
"It highlights that we're a community in America and we come in all shapes, sizes and colors," he said.