The Neo-Arabs Issue

Enas Sistani on the Power of Photography in Challenging Narratives

'Sometimes a scene as simple as capturing one's daily life can help spread a positive message.'

By Manar Alhinai

‘Caution’combats the view that Arabs (and other persons of colour) are uncivilised, which the media has played a role in forming . Image by Enas Sistani.

Enas Sistani is a firm believer in the power of photography and art to create impact and change. The 35-year-old is one of Bahrain’s most popular young creatives, who has been known for her street photography as well as raising issues of societal importance through her work. Her street photography of Manama, Bahrain, was recently highlighted by the Museum of Modern Art’s Photo Club, and her photographs that raise awareness about mental health issues, and which are partly inspired by her own journey with Borderline Personality Disorder, have been published by media outlets such as BBC Arabic, Vice Arabia and Sekka.

I spoke with Sistani about the diversity of her photography work, the insight that photographs can provide an international audience about the Arab world and why it’s important for photographers to go beyond depicting rosy images and tackle significant issues.

Your photography ranges from street photography to addressing big topics, such as mental health. What drives that range?

ES: What motivates me and inspires me to capture mainly street and conceptual photos are people’s experiences, as well as their stories…I try as much as possible to create a platform where people can form links between my photos and their own personal experiences, at least that’s what I try to do with my conceptual photos. As for my street photography, I just love how different people can make sense of it in different ways and this is the beauty of photography; how limitless it can be.

Bahraini photographer Enas Sistani. Image courtesy of Enas Sistani.

Your work has been published in leading media publications, and highlighted by MoMa. Based on your experience, what captures a global audience’s attention the most from the Arab region?

ES: I think it is the diversity that I try to capture through my photography and how a single photo can serve as a learning and immersive experience. Photography is not merely an artistic tool to me; I try as much as possible to transform and create experiences through it. For example, the photo that was selected by MoMA encapsulates a typical Bahraini life in the souq from the type of people you can encounter in an afternoon stroll in the market, to the colours and the atmosphere. I try as much as possible to create a positive experience through the photos that I capture even through my conceptual, and at times, controversial photography. I still try to make sure that the viewer walks away with a positive experience and a new insight.

‘Tea and Laughter’ by Enas Sistani was chosen by the MoMa Photo Club. Image by Enas Sistani.

Your photograph ‘Caution,’ combats the view that Arabs (and other persons of colour) are uncivilised, which the media has played a role in forming. In a world where misconceptions and misinformation are rampant, from your perspective, what parts of Arab culture are important for Arab photographers to share with an international audience to change views?

ES: I don’t think there are specific elements of the culture that a photographer needs to highlight in order for them to tackle misconceptions and misinformation. Sometimes a scene as simple as capturing one’s daily life can help spread a positive message, such as photographing a scene from a Friday prayer, or from a neighbourhood, or even family and friends’ gatherings. All of those can contribute to better portraying life in the region and can help give the viewer a first-hand look into what the culture truly is like away from the tainted portrayal that they usually tend to receive from everyday media channels. However, I also think it is important to highlight some of the challenges we face in the region and how we can tackle them. I don’t think it is fair to merely highlight the good and rosy and disregard the difficulties we tend to face, which is a given in all cultures, not only ours.

This article is part of The Neo-Arabs Issue. To continue reading the article, click here to buy a digital copy of the issue. To read the entirety of this article in print, click here to order a print copy of the issue.

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.