Women, Photography and Saudi Arabia

Zaynab Toyosi Odunsi

The essence of the photograph should evolve for the makers of the image, and it does. This short article has been the subject of a year's worth of procrastination and the source of many sleepless nights. Reflecting and redefining the meaning of »the photograph« to a photographer is no mean feat – this nightmare is manifold a thousand times when tackled by a photographer who no longer takes photographs.

As an African woman, taking on photography as a means of tackling issues in my city of Lagos was a start of an adventure that I never imagined would take me to Jeddah. As with most adventures started with good intentions, I wanted to be a documentary photographer – basically intruding in people's lifes seemed perfectly justifiable. I said things like »I want to be able to speak about the people living on the fringe of society«, and I wanted to make a difference. And for a while I think I probably did. I worked with a group of dynamic photographers in Lagos and we called ourselves »Depth of Field« or DOF. We hung out at each other's homes, at bars, on the local beach (which became the subject of many of my first series of images). We made a difference in how photography was viewed. In Lagos at that time we carved a little elitist niche for ourselves, exhibiting internationally and travelling like nomads. Everyone wanted to be a photographer. Most other photographers in Lagos disliked DOF.

The series of work on Kuramo beach was the part of my past that I was brave enough to explore upon my return to Lagos after years of studying and living abroad. Kuramo beach wasn't a place to hang out when you were decent. It was a place to buy Igbo (marijuana), drink ogogoro (local gin) and pick up under age ashewos (prostitutes). As a photographer, of course I had to go there. After two short years of living in Lagos, I felt the photograph was about people. That was the reason I took photographs, and all my work explored the relationship between the camera, the subject and me. The teenage dancers, musicians and prostitutes on Kuramo beach were some of my favorites to photograph and I relished the idea that they allowed me to photograph them. During a three month residency in Paris I once again turned to people – inviting myself to have dinner with twenty different families and doing a sort of cultural exchange. I brought Nigerian food in exchange for a family portrait, with me being the constant member in all twenty families. I wanted to know more about them and my access-to-all-areas-pass was my camera.

Fast forward five years and I live in Jeddah, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I know what the photograph still means to me – people. I haven't taken photographs in those past years but I have seen the works produced by Saudi Women which reflect the intrigue that drove me to take photographs in the first place. The work by Wed Abduljawad shows a change as inevitable as with most photographers in that area. Abduljawad took up photography and was immediately drawn to the magic of the technicality of the black box (in her own words), experimenting with the medium and not so much about creative expression. Moving to the States to study, her work expressed her new curiosity about different religions and beliefs, and her return to her homeland produced a new body of work, My father's house. She now lives in the States again, with the most recent work called The return of the other – the other being herself.

Wasma Mansour currently lives in London, and her work is very reflective of this stage in her life.1 Her images depict single Saudi women living in London; it is »a culmination of a relationship between myself and these women – a testimony of our encounter«, she says, and the strength of how personal the work is can be seen in the intimate portraits she produces; it is about recording the evolution of those relationships. These two highly expressive Saudi women produce photographs that are as different from each other as they are from those I produced in the past; yet so similar – the interest in the photograph and how the photographer interacts with her subject are ever present. But the similarities end there; the content and form differ on such a grand scale that it is easy to see why photography continues to be such a popular form of expression. Abduljawad explores the physical changes in her homeland upon her return and we see her self-portraits reflect her own reaction to this other. Mansour on the other hand turns her camera on Saudi single women, photographing them in their immediate environment outside of their homeland.

So what is the photograph? Is it about people, is it purely about self expression, can photographs about people be seen as valid when they almost always seem to be tainted by the photographer's self? Why is it that the most interesting photographs have a human element to it? Is the photograph the answer to the never-ending quest to understand ourselves and those who we live with? In two months I will once again be in Nigeria, traipsing the old grounds I haven't been on in five years. Like Mansour and Abduljawad I will be asking myself questions that I hope a photograph will have a few answers to. The women I have worked with in Saudi Arabia remind me of this other and I look forward to my return to the the other.

1 All images shown here are by W.M.