Just so you know about some of the cultural obstacles I run into...
IN THE FRAME: PHOTOGRAPHERS STRUGGLE TO TAKE PHOTOS IN PUBLIC
By RIMA AL-MUKHTAR,
It’s hard to be a Saudi photographer, thanks to problems that arise when police or citizens raise objections to raising the camera. Even people trying to take pictures of their family and friends in public face these problems.
Oday Abid, a Saudi freelance photographer, says the authorities and members of the public are his greatest concern when taking pictures.
“Many of them become emotional and try to stop us, even forcibly,” he said.
The only secure way to take pictures in peace here is to ensure you aren’t pointing the camera at people or at sensitive assets, like government buildings or housing compounds.
“I usually avoid taking pictures in public or in places packed with people because people are always suspicious thinking that I might take pictures of them,” said Saudi photographer Dhahi Al-Ali.
Saudis are famously adverse to being photographed, particularly photographing family members and especially photographing women. The reasons behind this are complicated and linked to Saudi culture and family reputation. In the age of the Internet exhibition, the aversion has become stronger: The fear that a woman’s picture could end up online to sully the reputation of her and her family is strong enough that photos have been used by men for sexual blackmail, something the religious police grapple with constantly. Under Saudi law, anyone being photographed — even in a crowded public place — retains the right to object to being photographed.
In addition to the cultural fears and privacy concerns of photographing people in public, Saudi law explicitly states that certain buildings may not be photographed, citing security concerns. In most cases, this includes government buildings and anywhere a “No photographs” sign is posted. But police are known to stop and ask for permits from anyone taking photos of buildings.
“I was shooting in Malik Road one day and four police cars stopped me and asked for legal papers and a permit,” said Abid. “They then explained that I can take pictures anywhere I want expect areas and buildings that belongs to government and houses of people of high authorities.”
But this enforcement seems arbitrary.
Abid continued: “One of my photographer friends went to downtown Jeddah to take pictures of the architecture and the atmosphere of the historic heart of Jeddah, but unfortunately he was stopped by a policeman from taking pictures saying that photographers were portraying Jeddah in a bad way.”
Photographer Bakri Omar said while public photography is not explicitly prohibited the culture still feels very adversely to it, “and policemen are mixing law and tradition, so they keep stopping photographers from doing their job.”
With such pressure on taking pictures in public, many local photographers are forced to take their projects underground and shifting their style from artistic realism to photo manipulation.
“I usually take indoor pictures and use computer programs (such as Photoshop) to place backgrounds just to avoid explaining to people on the streets that I’m just photographing the outdoor features.”
Taking pictures in restaurants and shopping centers is also forbidden.
“I was assigned to take photos of Jeddah shopping centers for my school project back when I was in college, but when I tried to do it a security guard came up to me and asked me to put down my camera and stop taking pictures claiming it’s against the law,” said photographer Salma Enani. “When I tried to argue with him that photos of government buildings are the only ones prohibited not random shopping centers, he insisted that I put it down or he would take it away from me.”
Being nice to the people and explaining to them how photography works help assay concerns by subjects, according to Mokhtar Chahine.
“I was once waiting for hours to take a decent picture of the sunset on the Jeddah Conriche and when it finally started to set and the sky turned purple I started shooting. An old Saudi man came to me and angrily asked me what was I doing. I mean, isn’t it obvious?” said Chahine. “Of course I had to explain why I was taking those pictures and the purpose of them and he finally understood what I was doing and that I was not taking pictures of the women sitting with him. I think people understand if we speak to them and explain everything to them. Having the right attitude and not being rude really helps our people understand that photography is just an art not a harm.”
But until the society comes to terms with the art of public photography, Saudi Arabia will continue to be one of the more challenging countries for photographers outside of war zones.
“We all have obligations and duties toward our fellow men. But it does seem curious enough that in modern neurotic society, men’s energies are consumed in making a living and rarely in living itself. It takes a lot of courage for a man to declare, with clarity and simplicity, that the purpose of life is to enjoy it.”—Lin Yutang