Canon Ambassador Tasneem Alsultan focuses on documenting gender and social issues in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. Her 2015 project, Saudi Tales of Love, brought her widespread international acclaim.
Tasneem has always had one foot in the Gulf region and one foot in the West. Born in the US and educated in the UK, she moved to Saudi Arabia for her undergraduate studies, then completed an MA at Portland State University on social linguistics and anthropology. Such a life comes with the risk of feeling like an outsider wherever you are, something that's explored in Tasneem's photojournalism work today. "I tend to always explore topics focused on understanding the 'outsider' identity of third-culture individuals [a term for people raised in a culture different to their parents'], and to grasp the intersection of Western and non-Western culture," says Tasneem.
"While researching my MA thesis [on Saudi women studying abroad and the identity issues they encounter] and with my photography, I went from being an outsider to the ultimate insider. My Saudi interviewees saw me as a link towards improving perceptions of them in a society that often misunderstands them. My Western peers saw me as the ultimate interpreter, able to translate an alien culture into a familiar one. My photography is just an extension, and a wider platform, of what I did as a lecturer at university."
Despite her immersion in the academic world, Tasneem always felt the pull of art and photography. "I quit my teaching job and decided to focus on documenting weddings, and also to cover topics that I thought were personally rewarding, such as gender and social issues, especially in the Gulf region. Perhaps in my photography, I subconsciously select women who are constantly challenging their religious and societal environment."
At first, Tasneem was largely self-taught, learning her craft through trial and error. "I didn't know anything about SLRs or exposure, I just had a camera and focused on my subject," she says. "In 2013, I realised that if it was something I wanted to make a career out of, I needed to invest in my education. So I took a week's workshop with David Alan Harvey, at Gulf Photo Plus in Dubai. A couple of months later, I joined the GPP group on a visit to the Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography in Bangladesh. I was in awe of the talent and work exhibited there. I realised that my passion for photography and storytelling could be directed in the same way as my studies."
In 2015, Tasneem was one of 10 grantees for the Magnum Foundation/Prince Claus/AFAC's Arab Documentary Photography Program (ADPP). "The six-month mentorship changed my life," she says. "I was very fortunate to have photographer, artist and educator Tanya Habjouqa explain the hows and whys throughout that period. She didn't allow me to stay in my comfort zone and shoot documentary alone. She repeatedly insisted: 'I want to see Tasneem in the story.'"
The project that came out of that time was Saudi Tales of Love, exploring marriage, divorce and widowhood in Saudi Arabia through the eyes of its women. It's been exhibited worldwide and on Time's LightBox online photography section.
Tasneem is a member of Rawiya, the first all-female photography collective from the Middle East (it expanded to include male members in 2016). "I hope my images always trigger an emotion in the viewer," she says, "maybe compassion, laughter or sadness."
Who have been your biggest photographic influences?
"American documentary photographer Maggie Steber has been one of my biggest influences for sure. Newsha Tavakolian and Andrea Bruce are two other gems in the photo industry. The three of them manage to photograph both portraits and documentary in a manner that is intimate, beautiful and genuine."
How does your experience in photojournalism affect your wedding shoots?
"As a wedding photographer, I hope to deliver perfect images to the brides. But I always inform them that I have a documentary approach, so the moments in the image are much more important than aesthetics. That being said, I remember Tanya Habjouqa adding a few images of my project back in, after I thought there was a line cutting through one of the women's head…"
Your work seems to be part of a real cultural shift in Saudi Arabia…
"Art, films and the many events being set up by Saudi youth are now setting the bar for the generation to come. Saudis are being represented on comedy stages and YouTube channels, challenging traditional roles. I always remind my friends that less than 100 years ago, women in the West had to hide their identity and pretend to be men in order to publish their novels; women in the West weren't allowed to divorce or inherit. Soon, good changes will come… very soon."
What is your must-have accessory?
"I love natural light, although it's very difficult in Saudi – we either have harsh direct sunlight outdoors or fluorescent lights indoors. I bounce the flash light, or use a Canon Speedlite camera flash for that extra effect."
How do you look back on your experience with the ADPP?
"To be among a group of nine other Middle Eastern photographers with a set of different skills and talents, and to see how we all grew along with our projects, was exhilarating."
"Invest in your education, and not just in your equipment – and practise plenty. I read that you have to do something for at least 10,000 hours before you can excel at it. I received the best advice from Jim Estrin [senior staff photographer for the New York Times] and Maggie Steber, both wonderful photographers, who advised me to photograph the stories that are close to my heart."