One of Our Own: Alina Akbar

One of Our Own: Alina Akbar

VERSUS linked up with Alina Akbar to talk about the visual artist’s love of storytelling in football.

Supported by Supported by
September 15th 2023

This partnership between VERSUS and Sports Direct celebrates the impact football fans have on their communities across the UK. Football has the power to change the world for the better, and these individuals embody that message better than anyone else.

Imagery is one of the greatest forms of storytelling, and Alina Akbar has mastered the art of sharing untold stories from behind the lens for years now. Growing up in a largely Asian neighbourhood in Manchester, her work lends a platform to her community, giving the world an unfiltered, authentic view into those spaces. Akbar’s work is a visual amalgamation of culture, ethnicity, class, religion and gender.

Her films and photography focus on issues within football that transcend the sport itself. She has documented young hijabi footballers and their fight to wear the hijab in PE. She’s highlighted spaces for young girls from underrepresented backgrounds to engage in football and gain confidence and leadership skills through sport. Through her lens, she uplifts and empowers communities, and allows unheard voices a chance to speak out. All whilst continuing to be a huge Red Devils' fan - something she lets shine through her work where and when necessary.

VERSUS sat with the visual artist to speak about her community’s influence on her work, activism through film and photography, and the next steps for her and her career.

Photography by Holly-Marie Cato for VERSUS.

“Being a young person growing up in Manchester during the 2000s, it only made sense to support United.”

VERSUS: Let’s start from the beginning. Where did you grow up and how did your childhood influence the work you do today?

Alina Akbar: I grew up in Rochdale, in a predominantly Asian area. It was and is a very cultural place, and because of that I always had that connection from early on.

Now I work as a filmmaker and photographer and I always try to bring in documentary elements, championing my community and other communities I interact with through my work. I guess my upbringing, that area isn’t the nicest of areas, so there’s an emphasis on community to help things progress in those sorts of areas. I’ve always felt that from young and seeing what can happen when you work together and collaborate, not only in a creative sense, but also in a real life sense. I’ve instilled those same values in my work and carried that mindset forward.

VERSUS: Have you always supported United?

Alina: I think everyone in my family is a United fan. Being a young person growing up in Manchester, it only made sense to support United, especially at that time as well. And it was just the coolest club to support on the playground, really.

VERSUS: What role did football play in your local community growing up?

Alina: So growing up, I initially started playing on my grandma’s street, just literally on some concrete during summer holidays, weekends, after school with the boys on the street. I was the only girl. And then when I went to high school, a girl who was in my year played for a club and told me to come along to training. So from there I started playing a bit more competitively and then I stopped playing around the ages of 15 because it didn’t really feel like a place that was welcoming of my culture, my religion, and girls like me.

VERSUS: How would you describe your work and what you do?

Alina: I would describe myself as a visual artist, but activism feeds into that. I’m now at a stage where I’m not limiting myself to only showcasing my work online, but also in physical spaces. And I’m enjoying seeing the dynamic and the shift in audiences between my work. I think my football work is predominantly online-based and that’s where the younger generation are, but recently I was asked to show the film as part of an event being curated there. So I think it’s cool to see that there’s opportunities for the football work to be shown physically when there’s events on at certain periods of time. I think that’s definitely something that needs to be a bit more of a normality.

VERSUS: How did you first get into filmmaking and photography?

Alina: So, I actually got into filmmaking and photography through music. I was working with loads of local rappers and artists, and I think that work was very community-based, focused on building together and speaking to people from loads of similar communities to mine. I think I then carried that similar dynamic into my filmmaking, which makes it so much more personal.

“I think I’m looking at football from ‘that’ angle, a storytelling one, and seeing how my skills can help platform people’s voices.”

VERSUS: How did you start incorporating football into your work?

Alina: My work often includes my personal interests within it. I initially started working with Football Beyond Borders, with young people. They don’t only focus on football, but they also focus on instilling certain alternative forms of education into young people, so I was really into that and also really into the football side. I’ve worked with them quite a lot. One of the main things that I did off the back of that was directing a short documentary with some Pakistani girls from Nelson who come from the same community and culture as me. It was them campaigning to wear sports hijabs in PE, so I think that was a really important story and it made me reflect on my own experiences with football. Since then it’s become something that I’m quite vocal about and really into, and I started reconnecting with it a lot more after working creatively within it.

From working with young people through football, I directed a short documentary with some Pakistani girls from Nelson who came from the same community and culture as me. They were campaigning to wear hijabs in PE and I thought that was a really important story to tell. That experience made me reflect on my own in football and since then, it’s become something I’m quite vocal about.

VERSUS: Do you see yourself doing more work on social issues in football, particularly with women of colour in football?

Alina: Yeah. I’m really interested in what’s going on within those spaces, even within women’s football. I think I’ve taken a lot more interest in it and started reconnecting. Recently I did some photography with the Afghan Women’s Development Team who have come to the UK as refugees, so I think I’m looking at football from that angle and seeing how I can use my skills to help platform other people’s stories.

“The Asian community is more than just a corner shop, so I think I want to bring that real experience to the forefront.”

VERSUS: You mentioned that football wasn’t a space that you felt represented by or comfortable in necessarily. Have you seen any progress more recently? What do you think needs to change for it to become a place that people like yourself will feel comfortable?

Alina: I think when you’re within these conversations, it does seem like there’s change. I’m not sure if people who are outside of these groups feel the same, though. There’s definitely a lot more representation within women’s football now. I see a lot more younger Asian girls pursuing the sport, so I think slowly there is a narrative shift that’s occurring. But if this change is really spreading down to the communities where it’s still quite difficult, I’m not sure.

VERSUS: How does it feel to empower young girls from underrepresented backgrounds through your work?

Alina: It feels really great that I’m in this position to be able to do that, and I think it also brings out something in them, as well. We both gain something from that experience and that dynamic. You only feel that through shooting them and seeing the comfort and the cultural understanding. It feels great to be in this position to empower them, maybe not as a player, but in an alternative way.

VERSUS: How has your work evolved over the years in terms of documenting your local community?

Alina: Only when I reflect back I’ve realised it’s evolved. Before it used to come from a place of frustration and I think that’s more prominent in my earlier work. Now I’ve gotten that frustration out a bit and I’m able to create more celebratory style work, but I’m also not trying to forget the negatives within the community. I’m still trying to be real with it, but I’ve found better ways of communicating that.

“I just enjoy creating that art and releasing it to the world and letting it live in the spaces it needs to.”

VERSUS: You’ve worked with bigger organisations like FIFA. Since your work focuses so much on your community, how does it feel to have that work broadcasted to such a large audience?

Alina: I think it’s cool. I don’t necessarily try to focus too much on the brand aspect, or the names. I think for me, the core element is the storytelling and to make sure we execute that correctly with my vision and making that happen. I think afterwards, it’s interesting because I don’t realise what the work can go on to do, what spaces it can occupy, but I just enjoy creating that art and releasing it to the world and letting it live in the spaces it needs to.

VERSUS: Where do you want your work to go next? What’s the next step for you?

Alina: I’m at a stage where I feel I need to make that shift to give my community a platform, not only on these smaller, more documentary style projects, but also on a wider scale where there is a wider audience. Maybe larger brand campaigns. The Asian community is more than just a corner shop, so I think I want to bring that real experience to the forefront.

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