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Searching for subjects: Challenges of a photographer in the Middle East


'I have seen some amazing stories taken in the Middle East'

June 15, 2014 1:15 by

Lisa, a 23-year-old girl living in the UK, cannot wait to have her photograph taken. In fact, she loves it so much that she decides to become a model.

This type of situation is something that you would most likely see in the West, where not many people have misgivings about having their photographs taken.

Street photography, for example, is a rapidly growing phenomenon in places, such as the US, so much so that it has given rise to popular blogs such as Humans of New York, which has an international fan base of 6.2 million people on Facebook alone.

However, when it comes to the Middle East region, the fact of the matter is, the culture here is much more reserved.

Robbed of subjects

Many indigenous cultures across the world believe that, if your photograph is taken, a part of your soul is imprinted onto the image and, as a result, your soul is stolen.

“The viewer sometimes looks at the photographer as someone who takes something away from them, in a negative light, and the photographer looks at the subject as somebody from whom you can take something away from, without necessarily publishing the work,” says Laura El Tantawy, a National Geographic photographer and judge on the reality TV series, I Am a Nat Geo Photographer.

While Middle Easterners may not believe that they will be robbed of their souls, they have different reasons for their refusals that centre broadly on culture and traditions.

She says: “The reluctance definitely exists, but I have seen some amazing stories taken in the Middle East, so I don’t think it’s fair to say you can never do it; you can, if you’re the right photographer with the right approach and sensitivity. Also, there is no denying that this is a more conservative part of the world, because of our religion, our traditions and our culture and habits, and this definitely makes people more shy and more reserved and maybe a little bit suspicious.”

While it is natural for anyone familiar with the region to understand this predisposition, Tantawy thinks there is a more deep-seated rationale behind this.

“Another reason may be that, in the past, the Middle East has been a little jaded by misconceptions and stereotypical images of women and the region that are not true to its actual spirit, so I think it is fair that people are closed up, but it’s something we should open up to in order to defy these stereotypes,” adds El Tantawy.

Widespread, global propaganda that propels the idea that women in the region suffer from oppression is a reason that many are reclusive with regards to being documented.

However, Tantawy hopes the tide will change. “Visual arts – photography, in particular – is gaining more ground in the Middle East, which is something I am really happy to see. I would like to see it more attached too, not just with taking pictures, but more with the understanding of what being a photographer really is.”

While the region may face its fair share of bad press, a way to break free is to share our culture with the world through images that can speak on our behalf.

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