Activist filmmaker and artist Mara Ahmed is returning to Rochester next week for the local premiere of her new documentary, “Return to Sender: Women of Color in Colonial Postcards & the Politics of Representation.”

In a visually and narratively evocative way, “Return to Sender” raises questions of power, personhood, and representation as relevant today as they were when photography, and its use in postcards, came on the world stage in the 19th century.

The rise of the postcard industry overlapped historically with British rule over the Indian subcontinent and, Ahmed maintains, became a tool of colonial domination. Photographers—usually white, male—traveled the world posing women of color for photos.

The women are not named but depicted as types: “A Young Woman”; “A Bengal Beauty.” Their stories remain untold, subverted to the colonizer’s fantasy of the exotic “other.” It is estimated that during the “golden age” of picture postcards, from the 1890s to the 1920s, 2.4 billion postcards were sent each year, flooding mailboxes and minds with images that disempowered those depicted and made colonization seem benevolent.

Ahmed’s film takes back the narrative. In it, three contemporary South Asian American women recreate British colonial postcard images, dressing up in outfits sometimes pulled together from family heirlooms. Then, they subvert the stereotypes through personal words, actions, and conversation. The women are Sumayia Islam, Fatimah Arshad, and Urvashi Bhattacharya. They have names and stories told in their own words. That’s the point.

In the catalog for an art exhibition inspired by the film, Ahmed presents her scholarly analysis of colonial postcards as well as her intention for the film: “It’s a way to restore the voices of the postcard women and let them be in control of their own stories. … The aim is to facilitate discussions about the problematic history and continuing representations of women of color in mainstream media.”

Like her other films, “Return to Sender” is visually rich and textured. In addition to being a filmmaker, Ahmed is a collage artist who likes to juxtapose elements that at first seem incongruent. In all her work, she invites viewers to let contradictions inspire a fresh point of view.

Ahmed was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and grew up mostly in Brussels, Belgium. She moved with her doctor husband and their two children to Rochester in 2003. With her MBA and master’s degree in economics, Ahmed worked as a financial analyst before changing course to take an art class at Nazareth College and begin film training at Visual Studies Workshop. Her first film, “The Muslims I Know,” was made mostly as a class project in a Rochester Institute of Technology documentary workshop.

“The Muslims I Know” premiered at the Dryden Theatre in 2008. Her second film, “Pakistan One on One,” opened at the Little Theatre in 2011. Her third film, “A Thin Wall,” explores the partition of India and Pakistan. It too has screened at the Little.

Their children grown, Ahmed and her husband have moved to Long Island, but her Rochester ties remain strong. During a recent talk at Visual Studies Workshop, she juxtaposed images from “Return to Sender” with VSW archival material to explore connections to local political power systems.

To me, that is the evocative edge of “Return to Sender.” Yes, it’s gratifying to see a current generation of South Asian women take back their images and stories. It’s even more illuminating—and unsettling—when I take or view a photograph, to ask myself: What is going on here? Who is the viewer, who is the viewed? What assumptions and power dynamics are encoded in this artifact? What is my role in all of this?

This is how Ahmed invites participation in the living edge of history. More at the Rochester Beacon.

“Return to Sender,” followed by a panel discussion, will screen on May 4, 12-2 p.m. at ROC Cinema. Advance tickets can be purchased online through Neelum Films.

E.C. Salibian is a Rochester Beacon founding editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to