Photographer Interviews

Tasneem Alsultan on Photographing Everyday Life in Saudi Arabia

July 6, 2017

By David Walker

What may surprise Western audiences about Tasneem Alsultan’s take on love, marriage and divorce for Saudi women is how familiar it all feels. Her subjects fall in and out of love, raise kids alone and live day-to-day like women everywhere. Alsultan, a 2017 PDN’s 30, has won accolades for “Saudi Tales of Love.” But she says her refusal to tell a more predictable narrative has cost her.

“If [the women] were all wearing niqab and you could only see their eyes, if I gave that story of victimized women, and how injured they are, and how the Arab man is the worst person ever, that story would have given me much more power, it would have been published everywhere…I would have gotten much, much more recognition,” Alsultan says. “But I didn’t want that because it’s not the truth.” (Only a small percentage of Saudi marriages end because of rape or abuse, she explains.)

Alsultan was born in the U.S. to Saudi parents, and educated in the U.S., UK and Saudi Arabia. Straddling cultures, she is attuned to journalistic bias and insider/outsider representations. “How you show people depends on who you are,” she says.

© Tasneem Alsultan

A McDonald’s in Saudi Arabia. With roots in both American and Saudi culture, Tasneem Alsultan is sensitive to the bias that can come with being an insider or outsider. © Tasneem Alsultan

Alsultan is both an insider and an outsider in the two different cultures, and sees herself as “an activist who uses photography as a means to poke at systems and cultures that need it.” She also sees far more commonalities than differences between her cultures, as well as between herself and her subjects, whoever they happen to be.

From Alsultan’s perspective, journalists too often manipulate stories to meet the expectations of audiences and publications, to win awards, and to gain accreditation that leads to more assignments. The result is often misleading narratives that reinforce fear, the reduction of subjects to either victims or villains, and the erosion of trust in the media, she says. “We really don’t earn trust. We’ve lost it,” she says.

To engage her subjects, Alsultan gives them control of their own narratives. The importance of doing that hit home as she was completing her “Saudi Tales of Love” project. Magnum Foundation, which helped support that project, insisted she get written permission from her subjects before publishing images that might expose them to any risk.

When she went back to the women to show them her project and get their approval, Alsultan says, “All of them cried. They were in tears because they didn’t know that they weren’t alone…[and] it projected them in an empowering role that was honest, and truthful.” From that experience, she says, “I learned to give the people you’re photographing a voice—that they’re in control of the narrative, not you. It’s never about the photographer.”

© Tasneem Alsultan

An image from “Saudi Tales of Love.” © Tasneem Alsultan

Besides giving her subjects control of their stories, Alsultan wins trust of subjects and audience alike by putting all of her own fears, doubts and biases out in the open. She recounts photographing two U.S. soldiers, both of them immigrants, on an army base near Palm Springs, California. They had joined the military because they wanted to be heroic, and help the U.S. because it had helped them, Alsultan explains. But she says, “I’m against the whole war industry, and what is happening in the Middle East because of [U.S. military action].”

She acknowledged that to the soldiers.

“I don’t know how to censor my thoughts and emotions. It is evident what I think by what’s on my face and what I say, so I tell [my subjects], and I always explain: This is how I’ve been brought up, this is my education and background, and I’m sure it’s influencing my thoughts.” She told the soldiers that she wanted to help them tell their stories, share their experiences with people like herself, and give the soldiers a chance to change her mind.

By taking that approach, Alsultan says, “At least [the subjects] feel like you’re someone who is not trying to manipulate their story.” They tend to open up, as the soldiers did. They didn’t manage to change her mind, but their story shifted her “a little bit,” she says, adding: “I can’t hate them. I see the human aspects of [their story].”

Currently she’s working on a new project about young artists, musicians and actors in the Arab world who are using social media to challenge traditional ideas and culture. One challenge is to tell a compelling story about subjects who look “normal” (to Western audiences) because they don’t wear exotic traditional attire. She anticipates spending a lot of time with the subjects to capture “the mundane moments that [subjects] don’t think you’re expecting to photograph.”

Waiting, in other words, for her subjects to trust her, let down their guard and reveal their own truth.

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