Photographing Saudi women as they evolve in British society

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Since moving from Saudi Arabia to the UK in 2007, Wasma Mansour has turned her lens towards other women who have made a similar choice.

Single Saudi Women takes an almost scientific approach to the ways in which these émigrés evolve in contemporary British society through three carefully crafted typologies – portraits of the women in their homes, still lifes of significant possessions in their homes, and studio images of veils packed in bags.

“In the past, my awareness of photography had been limited to its use as an illustrative tool and as a means for providing visual evidence,” says Mansour, who recently completied a PhD in photography at London College of Communication.

“Through collaborating with the participants when building their portraits, I became increasingly aware of the need to protect their anonymity. This led me to further revise and expand my use of photography.”

Rather than imposing a personal view on how her subjects should be depicted, Mansour enters into a dialogue with each, involving them in the process – from setting the 4×5 camera to proofing the Polaroid test before taking the final image.

Many are portrayed in their bedrooms, often facing the window, and gazing out. The objects in the rooms only hint at their emotional landscape: family photos suggest longing; an orange suitcase might result in frequent travel; a Gucci shopping bag suggests economic status.

In the still lifes, these objects take on still more importance. “I am interested in photographs that reveal intimacy and trust between the photographer and subject,” says Mansour, who also includes written notes and photographs taken by the participants in her project.

“Within a Middle Eastern context, a commodity such as a veil has been very powerful,” the photographer writes by way of introduction to the still lifes, “becoming transfixed as a symbol synonymous with oppression, backwardness, weakness etcetera.

“In reality, however, it might be a personal choice (as in Egypt), a religious duty (Iran), a socio-religious obligation (Saudi arabia), or a sign of resistance (Algeria). And yet for the women I worked with, the veil is something they own but do not use… In displacing the garment [and shooting it in a studio], I aimed to free it from its socio-religious connotations and transform it to an object imbued with symbolism.”

“Mansour is transparent and responsible, constantly aiming to mediate in her images the multifariousness of the participants’ individual lives,” says Hester Keijser, the writer and curator who selected her work for the fourth edition of Photoquai. “These are skills that benefit women growing up in societies like Saudi Arabia, where there is a need to answer for one’s movements on a daily basis.”

Find more of Wasma’s work here.

First published in the January 2014 issue. You can buy the issue here.

Laurence Butet-Roch

Laurence Butet-Roch is a photographer, writer, PhD student in Environmental Studies at York University, and Graduate Research Associate at the Sensorium: Centre for Digital Arts and Technology. Her research unsettles mainstream representation of environmental contamination in Canada through participatory visual discourse analysis and collaborative photographic approaches.