In our recent series about how photographers cover stories as outsiders, we featured Tasneem Alsultan, among other photographers. Alsultan grew up in both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, so she sees each culture from the perspective of the other. Our story focused on how that influences stories she’s done in Saudi Arabia, particularly “Saudi Tales of Love,” about love and marriage in Saudi Arabia.
But Alsultan also talked to us about how her dual perspective shapes the work she’s done in the U.S. And she touched on another topic we’ll be covering in our September issue: how photographers cover stories about vulnerable subjects without stereotyping or re-victimizing them. While she’s examining a culture we rarely see, she hopes her images inspire us to examine ourselves.
Here is what Alsultan told us, in addition to what she says in “Tasneem Alsultan on Photographing Everyday Life in Saudi Arabia:”
“I understand that I may be perceived as mediator [of Saudi culture], but I intend to have my work raise the very questions everyone should be asking themselves—about inequality of the sexes, about violence against women in their societies, and the struggle of women to have agency in their lives. These are questions, we as women, face everywhere, not just Saudi women. The need to see Saudi or Arab women as constantly victimized and strange, yet the American woman as the epitome of liberty and freedom, is an unfair depiction and a stereotype. The two have more common traits and strengths than differences, and it’s important to highlight and share those aspects and not downplay them.
“Photography is a important and powerful tool, allowing us, as photographers, to encourage conversation, question the world around us, provoke thought and raise awareness. [Along with] media outlets, we carry a great responsibility as we decide which narratives to give voice to. If one image of a crying Palestinian child is repeated, we become desensitized to the cause, and are no longer moved. The same goes for the stories of the raped women in India, brothels in Bangladesh, hungry children in Africa, and working children in South America. Mary Ellen Mark and Mary Calvert are great examples of photographers whose images carry a clear sense of dignity and respect. Maggie Steber is another great example of someone who empowers her subjects by giving them authority over their narrative through honest storytelling. Tanya Habjouqa [does likewise with] stories of Syrian refugees. It’s not about one race giving a voice over another, it’s never about the photographer. It’s about the people being photographed, and the story being told.”
“’Saudi Tales of Love’ doesn’t state in any way that we’re living in a perfect country. Yet the images and captions raise questions to help us shift our perceptions and enforce a change. So if I have to have a label to choose for myself, I would say I’m an activist who uses photography as a means to poke at systems and cultures that need it.”
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