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The Saudi Photographer Using Her Experiences to Create Portraits That Question the Kingdom’s Patriarchy

After getting married at 17, Saudi photographer Tasneem Alsultan delved into her personal experience to create a series of portraits that question stories of love and patriarchy in the Kingdom.

Tasneem Alsultan’s self-portrait

Saudi photographer and visual storyteller Tasneem Alsultan’s work challenges stereotypes of the region and engages with vital social issues found within the Arab Gulf. Her powerful imagery and the stories she documents reexamine and expose established perceptions. The everyday world around her provides endless opportunities, with Alsultan drawn to stories that trigger emotions in herself and others as her greatest source of inspiration.

“The bride’s parents are from Palestine, making this wedding different from the typical segregated weddings. The couple met abroad in the US at the hospital they were working. The bride is Palestinian, and the groom Saudi. They chose Bahrain for the wedding. ‘If you asked me what it was I wanted in a husband, I would have told you at the time, I didn’t want anything. I simply wasn’t looking. Perhaps that gave me confidence to be who I was. As I am.’”

“I have always loved storytelling and reading,” she says. “I believe photography is the best way to tell a story because people don’t have to be literate or have a specific language. Everyone can understand it.” Alsultan, who was born in the US, moved to the UK with her family when she was five and then to Saudi Arabia at 16. Her fascination with photography began at nine, when she asked her parents for a camera. “I was inspired by art, nature, my dreams, and people’s dreams, and I wanted to document these stories,” she shares. “The minute I had the camera I took pictures of everything around me. It started as a hobby, but as an adult it became a full-time job, especially when I realized the power of photography and how universal it is.” Her first foray into commercial photography was through her business, shooting Saudi weddings, which she still does today, and her work has also been published internationally and appeared in more than 20 exhibitions across the world. In 2018, Alsultan became the first Arab woman to be named as a global ambassador for Canon.

“Um Muhammed, in her sixties, climbs a tree to cut off its dried leaves to weave baskets, carpets, and hats. Her niece, Um Hani, stands below and chastises her for being photographed. ‘Have you no shame? Your photo will make you the talk of the town!’ To which Um Muhammed replies, ‘And then?’ She pulls at a few ripe dates and throws them at Um Hani” Khaybar, 2018

“Ashwaq lives in her parents’ home in Bahrain. ‘We were engaged and had signed the legal papers to celebrate the marriage but I found him cheating with his friend’s wife. I felt ashamed, so I kept the reason behind our separation to ourselves. As I sat in front of the judge waiting for the divorce papers, he looked at me disapprovingly and told me, had I been a better wife and stuck to looking after my home and husband, I wouldn’t be here today’” 2018

Alsultan’s latest project is close to her heart. Saudi Love Stories is a series of photographs that document life and love in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Capturing intimate moments and the stories behind them, the series strives to tell tales with every image, overturning stereotypes along the way. The 35-year-old Alsultan sees herself in some of her visual tales. Married at 17 and a mother of two by 21, she has always been fascinated by the concepts of love, marriage, and life. Her new project is a way of telling these stories, alongside her own.

“A bride would make her entrance to a ballroom filled with female guests to a majestic song. This bride wanted her groom, brothers, father, and uncles to enter minutes before her. She wanted them to see her walk in too. Her guests, having waited a couple of hours to congratulate her, will witness her regal entrance” Riyadh, 2018

“Najat is a consultant pediatric gastroenterologist in Medina. ‘During my last year of university in Jeddah, I attended a friend’s wedding in Medina with my family. The bride’s mother was searching for a woman to marry her eldest son and a friend of hers would point out all the pretty girls dancing. I was sitting quietly in a corner and caught her eye. A few weeks later, his family proposed and because I was studying in a different city, we corresponded through letters. He had not seen me before and when he asked for a photo, I found one of myself as a young girl and cropped out all my hair. He replied by sending a photo of an old shopkeeper instead of a portrait of himself’” Medina, 2019

“I repeatedly questioned how my parents could allow me to marry at 17, and why they never supported my need for a divorce,” says Alsultan, speaking of a not uncommon situation in the Kingdom. It was not until she delved into her childhood diaries that she read of their distrust and disapproval, their worries, and her own determination to marry a man she hardly knew. “I married as a way to seek independence,” she shares. “I never thought anything was wrong with it at the moment. It was after I read my diaries that I understood why my parents were against me marrying at an early age. It is while rereading my journals that I became determined to become a sort of Scheherazade from One Thousands and One Nights, a storyteller of other’s misfortunes and romantic endings. I followed the stories of a widow, a happy marriage, a woman twice divorced, and that of a young child, to name just a few. I also delved into the many gems I shot in my wedding photography business in Saudi. It was through these stories and from reading my own diary, that the project as a whole gave me a sense of closure.”

“A couple poses together while their guests wait for their grand entrance in the ballroom below” 2016

“Nasiba, a single mother and fashion designer, is one of the very few women who has custody of her child. Legally, saudi children are to live under the restriction of their legal guardian. The father is the legal guardian, until the daughters marry, when the husband becomes the legal guardian” Jeddah, 2016

Alsultan’s photographs and stories run the gamut from a rare unsegregated marriage party and a woman who climbs trees to gather leaves to make baskets, to a glitzy shot from the top of one of Saudi’s most famous buildings. Many images challenge taboos within Saudi Arabia, such as a woman who talks of her divorce as she strives to live her own life. Another story follows one woman’s dream to study outside of the Kingdom, while yet another tackles the subject of adultery and the resulting fallout. Diverse, engaging, and personal, Saudi Love Stories encapsulates Alsultan’s emotions and life’s work. These are tales of love,
hope, sadness, and discovery; they are the stories of people.

Read Next: Moroccan Photographer Mous Lamrabat on Finding Success While Thriving Through the Warmth of Women

Originally published in the June 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia

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