Arts & Culture The Arab Art Issue

Tasneem Alsultan: The Saudi photographer providing an authentic Saudi narrative

"If I could change the views of only 20 per cent of the people who see my photos, that would be an achievement"

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By Afaf Bouagada

She has depicted love, war, pain and joy. She has made us live through the stories of her photos’ subjects and brought us closer to Saudi people and traditions only by using her lens. She’s Saudi photographer Tasneem Alsultan, who specializes and excels in visual storytelling, and presents photos of people we may never meet, but whose stories will leave an impression on our hearts.

We speak with Tasneem about what inspires her, her storytelling projects and her work with renowned media outlets to change stereotypes about Arabs in the West.

You’re a visual storyteller, a Canon brand ambassador and a speaker. Where do you derive your inspiration from?

Tasneem Alsultan: I consider myself a visual storyteller since I haven’t studied art and its expressions. I majored in English literature, social anthropology and social linguistics; all these subjects are far from art. But since I love reading stories and exploring other cultures, I chose to tell stories through my lens.

We’re currently living through special circumstances that make it hard for us to understand others. We’ve become emotional and unable to control our feelings. Thus, storytelling enables us to be in someone else’s shoes. Stories inspire me more. I cannot remember the names of people I met. However, I could never forget their stories or the feelings they left me with.

How has the pandemic affected your work?

Tasneem Alsultan: It made me realize how much I love taking photographs of others and sharing their stories instead of taking photographs of myself. National Geographic asked me to send a photo of myself for Mother’s Day. So, I had to stand in front of a camera and I was just not in my comfort zone at all during that experience. I also learned that I’m better at narrating and documenting visual stories as opposed to artistic photography, which is something that I have to work on in the future.

During quarantine, I had to leave my house and go to the most affected areas to look for new stories to tell. I wanted to do something beneficial in my own way that relates to my profession.

I also started asking myself questions a lot, and I realized that there are other important things in life that require my attention, such as my family, daughter and friends. I also realized that I started growing away from the things I loved so much, like reading. Last year, I read four books, which is the same number of books I read in the past three months alone.

Were you able to document how the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been handling the pandemic? Can you tell us more about that?

Tasneem Alsultan: I went on a 3-day mission to document the economic and social repercussions the novel coronavirus has had on people. I didn’t stick to one story like I usually do, but rather took different photos in various locations. It didn’t satisfy my emotions and I wasn’t 100 per cent satisfied by the outcome. Yet, we sometimes find ourselves forced to keep up with our circumstances.

Again, I wanted to utilize the time to relax and think, especially that I haven’t had many chances to go out and work.

From Tasneem Alsultan’s photography of the novel coronavirus pandemic in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

You were born in the U.S. to Saudi parents. How does this cultural mix affect your work?

Tasneem Alsultan: I seldom say I’m American. I always present myself as an Arab from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For the time being, I think that the issue of identity is improving. There have always been stereotypes and certain misconceptions about Arabs, and I suffered from this throughout my childhood. When I matured, I made peace with my roots and origins. [In the end] this issue isn’t about your nationality, but rather the way you see yourself. That’s the reason why I’m proud of all the Arabs who are working hard and trying to change those misconceptions, and it’s a lovely sight to see the West starting to look at Arab countries without associating them with any stereotypes.

Instead of overthinking and worrying about my Arab identity, I’m now proud of it and I present it to the world through my work, which portrays Saudi and Arab women.

How do your contributions to major global media outlets, such as National Geographic and The New York Times, help correct Western stereotypes of the Arab world?

Tasneem Alsultan: I think that photographers who take photos of their home countries usually have a perspective that is closest to reality. If I went to Egypt, for example, and took a photo of something that looked foreign or new to me, the photo would be incomplete because I don’t understand the complete story behind it. However, it will represent my outlook and how I perceive what’s happening.

Regarding these global outlets, they often resort to their usual photographers whom they trust and send to different countries to cover topics from their perspectives. To me, that’s a problem in itself. They have started working with local photographers recently, but they are only a few because their choices are based on numbers. For instance, I’d love to go to India, The United States or The United Kingdom and capture life there from the perspective of an Arab Muslim woman. To get to that level, we need to keep focusing on our local stories.

I’m really grateful for the outlets that have welcomed my photos and stories, and shared them with the world. Now, everyone knows that we don’t commute by camels, act barbarically, or bury our daughters before they turn five. If I could change the views of only 20 per cent of the people who see my photos, that would be an achievement on its own.

In your opinion, what is the most urgent social issue that the Arab youth are facing nowadays, and how can photographers help with it?

Tasneem Alsultan: I believe that what’s currently happening in the U.S. against minorities has cast its shadow over the rest of the world. That same minority, whether religious or ethnic, has started to fight and respond to the forms of discrimination it faces. Generally speaking, this generation’s position, albeit not perfect, is still better than the generations that have preceded it… Social media these days makes it easy to publish stories, photos and express ideas freely.

Tasneem Alsultan’s photography of Saudi women driving in 2018. Courtesy.

In what way do photographers contribute to cultural dialogues in their countries?

Tasneem Alsultan: This differs from one photographer to another, and from one speciality to another. I, for example, rely heavily on social media and see it as a great way to reach non-Saudis and deliver my stories. Unfortunately, there isn’t a special gathering for storytelling photographers here yet, but I try to remain in contact with some friends to exchange experiences and advice.

Tell us about a project or achievement of yours that is the closest to your heart and you are most proud of.

Tasneem Alsultan: The event I can think of right now is women driving in Saudi Arabia. It was such a historical feat and I was happy to commemorate it. Perhaps the photos were mediocre, but the general vibe and the energy behind them were what made them special. It’s something that I will never be able to forget.

We noticed that you’re more inclined to taking wedding photos through your projects “Saudi Tales of Love”and “And Then There Were Women.” What does love mean to you?

Tasneem Alsultan: I’m really open to the idea of love. I think that love is the most beautiful thing in life. Currently, I’m in a very happy relationship [with myself] through which I’m learning how to love myself. I believe that achieving success in the Arab region for women has always been linked to love and marriage, as if it’s half of life’s achievements. The second half is childbearing.

I know the fact that I’m a divorcee will always haunt me. I remember that one day I was with a friend of mine and I was the one driving. Her grandmother called her to check on her and to find out who she’s with. Once she told her that I was divorced, she expressed resentment.

I’m not against marriage, as I’m fond of love. However, I’m against being in a toxic relationship. I prefer to stay single and learn new things about myself. People shouldn’t jump to making marriage decisions only for the sake of getting rid of family pressure.

Photos from Tasneem Alsultan’s from “Saudi Tales of Love” series. Courtesy.

Do you have any future projects that you intend to work on after the COVID-19 crisis ends?

Tasneem Alsultan: I’m still working on “And Then There Were Women.” I want to add photos and stories of women from various social classes, groups and spectra. I find it unfair to focus solely on the city’s distinguished and independent women. I want to shed light on niqabis, hijabs, non-hijabis, young women, grandmothers and mothers, then collect all those stories so that I could say one day that “I’m finally finished representing Saudi women.”

There’s another project under development. We all know that Saudi Arabia tops the list of Arab social media users. The reason behind this goes back to the limited means of entertainment available. Therefore, I started documenting the stories of some young men three years ago. Some of them succeeded and became famous, while others are still suffering. As someone who’s not digital-savvy, I find all of those stories unique and attractive.

Afaf Bouagada is a Moroccan writer interested in culture, arts and advancing women’s issues. She is a contributor to a number of Arabic digital platforms.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

This article has been translated from Arabic.