I find it refreshing that photography is becoming an accepted part of modern Saudi society. The first “Jeddah Photo 2022” exhibition at Athr Gallery (organized by the Saudi Art Council and supported by the Ministry of Culture’s Museums Commission) will showcase a variety of images by Saudi and international photographers, including experimental work and contemporary photos.
For too long, photography was taboo in the Kingdom. However, the Kingdom was not alone. Many countries and societies were unaccepting of photography for many reasons and many today still are unaccepting of an invasion of their privacy.
When I first visited Iran in 1987, openly carrying a camera would likely mean confiscation by the guards on almost every street corner. It was unnerving. I remember in the Holy City of Mashad in Iran’s east, wanting to capture a picture of the Dome of the Mosque to Imam Reza in the evening light. The resulting hurried image, one of the few photos from that very first visit to Iran, does not do the Dome justice.
In many Muslim societies, photographing women was always considered taboo. In Yemen, a western journalist photographed a girl of 14 in a tribal desert region near Ma’arib in the early 1990’s. Years later, the woman, then married with children, found herself being divorced because she had disgraced the family. When the magazine featuring the journalist’s photograph of the girl finally reached Ma’arib more than a decade later, it brought shame on the family. The photographer meant no harm, but when it comes to cultural norms, unthinking actions can have devastating consequences.
Nor did one walk about the Kingdom carrying a camera slung over your shoulder in the 1980’s and 1990’s. It was forbidden to photograph most things back then, and you even had to be careful when photographing old doors and windows at heritage sites. It was only in the desert, away from civilization that you could photograph without hindrance. Photographs of women were definitely off limits. If you were photographing women, even at a distance, you risked a confrontation. If you asked permission (we could only stretch our poor Arabic to “mumkin sura?” back then), the answer most likely would be “no.”
My husband had his camera confiscated in 1986 when he thoughtlessly took a picture of a highly customized Toyota pickup that just happened to be parked near the entrance to a military airport in Riyadh. Security guards were suspicious of what he was doing with a camera near a military facility. He got the camera back the next day, sans film. A year later, a photographer working in my husband’s office was sent to Al Kharj on assignment to photograph a chicken farm. All the necessary papers were elaborately signed and stamped by the Ministry, but when the crew arrived at the farm, the photographer was told in no uncertain terms that he could not take pictures of the farm, due to concerns over “industrial espionage.” As you might imagine, that story caused great amusement back at the office!
All I can say is that the Kingdom has come a long way and it’s wonderful to see Saudi photographers displaying their work at a major exhibition.
Photography has highlighted and showcased Saudi nature at its very best, its architecture, food, heritage sites and people without compromising its position. Aerial drone footage has elevated nature images of the Kingdom to another level, so that even the faintest of heart can experience its raw beauty and energy. I salute the photographers as they go in search of that perfect image.
About the Author: Brid Beeler first went to live in Saudi Arabia in 1989 and stayed for a decade. Her career then led her to live and work in Yemen and Oman and work for some of the world’s top travel companies. She currently heads Brid Beeler Travel (www.bridbeelertravel.com) and travels in and out of the Kingdom regularly on tour or collaborating on programs. She has traversed every corner of Arabia and is never happier than delving into the culture and treasures of the peninsula.
Brid began taking American travelers to Saudi Arabia in 1998 and, in addition to operating tours, she has trained guides, worked on award-winning documentaries, and written extensively on the region. In 2015, she was the Tour Director for the Smithsonian tour to Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar, which followed their internationally acclaimed Roads of Arabia exhibit.
She has presented papers on eco-tourism in the Middle East region and was one of only a handful of women invited by the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation & Development and the Supreme Commission for Tourism to speak at the first International Conference on Eco-Tourism in Saudi Arabia in 2002. She has written for Foreign Affairs and the Arab British Chamber of Commerce. In addition, she has published travel articles in Middle Eastern newspapers and spoken on Middle Eastern travel at embassy functions in Washington DC. A strong proponent of Middle Eastern art, culture and traditions, she has spoken on the ethnic silver jewelry of the Arabian Peninsula at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle.
Back home in Ireland, Brid enjoys walks on the beach with her latest saluki, Rishan.