Photographing Women in a Muslim country
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.