octubre 10, 2011

Photographing Women in a Muslim country

© Heber Vega | Assignment work for Prosperity Candle 2010

A couple of weeks ago, one of my good friends, Canadian photographer Erin Wilson, suggested I write about this topic after revising my 2010 portfolio. This was the second time that another photographer mentioned this to me. I guess in all these years I have found my own way, as male photographer, to photograph women in Iraq.

I must say though that after almost eight years in Iraq, photographing local islamic women still represents a big challenge for me and I always need to be cautious and thoughtful in the way I approach women here. This post is not a manual or recipe to be followed exactly. The way I see it, this post shares the insights behind the photographs I have made of women in Iraq. I have also traveled all around the Middle East, and know these thoughts will help you in most of these countries as well. This blog post was specially made for male photographers dealing with this issue in their assignments.

But before we even start, I’d advise you to check with people in the country where you want to shoot, to find out what’s alright (or not) to do. For example, in many of the so-called markets or bazaars here in Iraq, it can really be a problem if you start photographing women in public. For sure you will have some men or police officers coming your way after a few minutes. That’s besides the “angry” look most of these women will give you.

One more thing… If you are a female photographer and you want to photograph women in muslim areas, then I think you are in a much better situation than men are. As a woman, you will find far fewer obstacles for talking, sharing and spending time with women here. So for you, the need for respect and understanding of the culture that I mention in this post still applies.

Photographs at a Women’s Center.

© Heber Vega | The Women Center - Rapareen 2010

These photographs were made in a Women’s Center in the Kurdish area of Iraq. These are the students of a sewing/tailoring class. I needed to invest time in order to get close to this group of women, which took a couple of weeks. First I met the people working with them (NGO) including the teacher, and I spent some time getting to know the program and the things that they were making there. From the very beginning they knew I was a photographer, and saw me carrying a camera. But they also understood that I was respectful of them. How? Well, I did not take any pictures of them for the first several classes. I just asked questions, observed, and learned about them and their work. Later on, once I was familiar with them, I started to photograph their class and the work they were doing.

© Heber Vega | The Women Center - Rapareen 2010

In the end, they invited me to take a photograph of their group, and to join a meal that they’d brought from home to share at class. But any time I wanted to photograph one of them individually, I would ask first.

I would add that depending on the family tradition, some women would never give permission to make a portrait of them separate from the group. That’s totally fine with me.

Prosperity Candle.

© Heber Vega | www.prosperitycandle.com 2010

This group of women are from Baghdad, another area in Iraq. I don’t know their language and culture as well as I know that of the Kurds. Once I knew the details of this assignment, and the tight timeline, I knew that it was going to be really difficult to get in the “zone” with these women. I had to make them trust me right away (first impression kind of thing) so that I could portray their life and work at manufacturing candles during that weekend.

What did I do? Because they came to my city to get photographed, instead of going to where they were staying, I invited them to my house and introduced them to my wife and two sons. [The home and hospitality are very important in middle eastern cultures.] The women felt at home right away, even though we could not speak the same language (except for the woman who translated). They felt welcomed by my wife, another woman who shared the same life challenges as them, being a mom.

So my wife was my assistant for the whole weekend and she did all the talking. I just tried to be kind and smile. A few times I had to ask questions that would tell more about their emotions and experiences in the hard life of Baghdad. After many hours, they shared how one of them became a widow, and how it’s been to take care of the whole family since then. It was a bonding experience, and I think that is clear in most of these photographs.

© Heber Vega | www.prosperitycandle.com 2010
© Heber Vega | www.prosperitycandle.com 2010

What if I couldn’t bring my wife? Or if I was single? Well, my approach would be to find a female assistant that could translate and share with the women. That assistant would have to be someone who the women could respect. These women are from a very “traditional” environment, and if you have a very “western” assistant or someone who does not treat the women well, then things will not work out well for the shoot. In that case, whoever hired me would have to provide an appropriate person or liaison for that shoot.

Remedy Mission.

© Heber Vega | www.preemptivelove.org 2010
© Heber Vega | www.preemptivelove.org 2010

These photographs were taken in an Iraqi hospital. These women were taking care of their children, while waiting for them to have life-saving surgery. As you can imagine, the situation at any moment could be tense, emotional, heart-breaking, sad, deep, hopeless and finally happy, once their children came through the surgery alive. Because of all this, I had to be sensitive about when I could photograph them.

My approach was always respectful and I tried to bring some comfort to the situation. During the long wait before surgery, I played with most of those kids and showed them some movies on my computer. I shared pictures of my own kids. I asked questions to understand their stories and listened to them talk about what they were going through at that moment.

Among all the women there, there was a particular woman, covered in black, that I could tell was from a more “traditional” family. This meant I had to work harder to get her photograph with her little baby.

What did I do? I started with her husband. I knew that if I could make him feel comfortable with me and my camera, then I would have a better chance to photograph his family too. So I spent couple days photographing him, which turned out to be really good as he was one of my best subjects that week. His photographs and story about his little baby Sozan, were one of the most touching stories from that Remedy Mission.

I still wanted to make a photograph with his wife and baby. So on the third day at the hospital’s ward, after trusting me for a while, I found her contemplating her baby after surgery. The way she was looking toward her baby was so deep and full of emotion, it was one of those key moments in life. I took a risk and went for the photograph that could capture that. When she realized that I was there, she turned to me and showed me her baby, as if saying “we have made it!”

© Heber Vega | www.preemptivelove.org 2010
© Heber Vega | www.preemptivelove.org 2010

Without starting with her husband, I don’t think I could have made this photograph, and this is one the most intimate photographs that I have ever made. It was totally worth the wait.

A good summary of the stories I have shared today is:
-Have a respectful attitude.
-Have a basic understanding of cultural taboos.
-I recommend that you have a sensitive female translator.
-Have time to invest on your subject’s story. Get comfortable around each other.

Finally I want to share a more personal thought on this issue. I guess some of you are wondering if it would’ve been easier to just hand these assignments to a female photographer, due to all the restrictive norms. Well, If I would’ve done that I would have missed tremendous opportunities. I’m not talking only about photographic opportunities that can make your skills as photographer better. No, I’m talking about those opportunities that make you a better person because you have listened, because you have tried to understand their perspective and stories, and because you have done what you could to showcase their lives to a world which has not had access to those stories. That’s why, in my perspective, it is worth the work.

To not understand the incredible work of women in this world, is to fail to understand the beauty and strength that has sustained all societies and cultures since the beginning of the world. In Islamic countries, I have confirmed that traditions, religion, values and many other rich aspects of culture are transmitted from one generation to another due to the hard work of the women of this world.

I hope this post can be a good starting point for your assignment and that my experience can benefit yours. Please, if you have further questions, just leave a comment here at this post.

© Heber Vega | University of Sulaymaniyah 2010
© Heber Vega | www.prosperitycandle.com 2010
© Heber Vega | Freedom Fighter - Photo Essay 2010
Matt 15:25 octubre 10, 2011 Responder
Thanks, as a wannabe photographer living in Kurdistan this is really helpful! 
    heber vega 18:06 octubre 10, 2011 Responder
    You are welcome Matt. Shoot me an email any time you need. 
Erin Wilson 17:01 octubre 11, 2011 Responder
Respect goes such a long way... too bad so many photographers forget to use it! Great piece, Heber. I'm glad you took the time to write it.
    heber vega 22:32 octubre 12, 2011 Responder
    Thanks Erin. I guess respect is one of those things that we should always keep in mind at any type of work but specially when your work is about working with people, and their intimacy. 
David Uttley 23:02 octubre 11, 2011 Responder
Thank you Heber for your valuable work.
    heber vega 22:30 octubre 12, 2011 Responder
    Thank you David for leaving me this comment, I appreciate all kids of feedbacks.
[...] been based in Iraq since 2003. His blog is a mix of his own photography — like this post on photographing women in a Muslim Country; interviews with other photographers; and advice on photographic techniques. One thing that [...]

Related Posts
How NGOs can use the images that Photographers produce! (5 ideas)
[May 20, 2010] Have you visited any NGOs websites lately? What about other non-profit organizations? Have you found anything interesting? Aesthetically pleasing? How about their photographs? Do you think the non-profits are really putting their voice/cause out there in a way that causes you to engage only with visiting their website? Do you think that's necessary for them nowadays? We all know that NGOs, non-profits, and charities, are important, not because of what they can display on their website, but for what they can do on the "field". There's where the need is, isn't it? Correct me if I'm wrong, but if the voice of that cause is ...
“Refugees” for Preemptive Love Coalition
A few weeks back I had one of those last minute calls offering an assignment the next day. After realizing that the call was from one of my favourite charities in the world, I was ready to clear my schedule, move some appointments and go for it. And I’m glad I did! PLC (Preemptive Love Coalition) had the mission to travel 200+ kilometres to the city of Erbil, and find a special family of refugees that had fled from the northern area of Mosul because of ISIS persecution and the slaughtered of people there. (If you haven’t seen the news lately, that area of Kurdistan has received about 2 million IDPs -Internal Displaced People.) This fami ...
At Sulaymaniyah bazaar by Heber Vega
Photographers – How to work with NGOs?
In my first day of blogging again I got two interesting emails, one about some images I had taken at local universities in Iraq and the other one about questions on how photographers can/should work with NGOs. I was planning to write something else for today, but it will have to wait, as I think these are important questions to share and discuss. It will be great if you can add your thoughts or experience on top of what I have answered below. That will help with this project. Please take my answers with a grain of salt, because they’re only my opinion and I don't have a PhD on this issue (not yet though ;-)). I'm not going to reveal the ...