In 2009, the British Council invited Olivia Arthur to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to teach a two-week photography workshop for women. She agreed with the hope that she would also have the chance to make some work of her own. Her photos from that time, as well as two subsequent trips, are collected in her book, Jeddah Diary, published by Fishbar. “I wanted to make a series that would open up some of this strange world to people who don’t know about it,” Arthur said via email.
But being a photographer in an ultraconservative country with strict rules on what women can and can’t do could be frustrating, Arthur found. Arthur was once berated in the street by a woman whose photo she hadn’t even been taking. And it was even harder for the students in her class. “They wouldn’t all be allowed out by their families to go and shoot as they wanted, but most of them managed to overcome this. One girl took her husband along on her shoots after he finished work,” she said. Arthur said the issue of people being generally suspicious about photography in Saudi was also an issue: One woman was banned from the workshop for taking pictures of her female cousin, and another was arrested for taking pictures out in public.
Arthur said many foreigners who have lived in the country for years are never invited into a Saudi home. Teaching her workshop, however, earned Arthur friends and ultimately got her behind closed doors. But that was only the first step. Arthur then had to find a way to take photos without upsetting her subjects for violating their sense of modesty. In Saudi Arabia, women are required by law to wear long black abayas and head coverings in public, and some of her subjects did not feel comfortable being photographed without one, especially with their faces visible. Sometimes, that meant watching many amazing scenes unfold without picking up her camera. Other times, it meant getting creative to work around social boundaries: capturing only a woman’s legs peeking from behind a wall, for instance, or rephotographing some of her prints with a flash to obscure a face.
“In the beginning it was frustrating. I thought I had all these pictures that I wouldn’t be able to use, and it took me a really long time to figure out how to use them. But in the end I think it helps the work. It represents the strangeness, the facelessness of so much of life there,” she said.
Although Arthur certainly experienced the restrictive side of Saudi life—where women aren’t allowed to drive and must seek permission from a male guardian to do the most basic things, like attend school or travel—she said she also experienced pockets of a more liberal lifestyle, one in which girlfriends and boyfriends existed and women went to parties in compounds or private beach houses. In fact, Arthur said, many of her students didn’t see their lives as negative or oppressed. “They were often very defensive, saying, ‘We have our freedoms. We do what we like.’ They were almost entirely from middle to upper-middle class families. They mostly didn’t have to worry about money or work at all,” she said.
Arthur’s students often surprised her. After Arthur’s repeated encouragement, one of her least experienced students went to take pictures of Indian workers. One day, the police picked her up, and her father had to come to get her. “I was amazed when the next day she went back because there was a particular picture she wanted,” Arthur said. “They do lead very sheltered lives, but some of the women are quite tough despite it.”
To find out more about Arthur’s work or to order a copy of her book, Jeddah Diary, visit her website.