Photo caption by Olivia Arthur: "
by Lucy Davies
In 2009 the photographer Olivia Arthur travelled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for what would be the first of three month-long stays. She had joined the prestigious Magnum Photos agency the year before – at 31, she is one of its youngest members – when she was part-way through a series exploring the East/West divide, photographing women in Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia and Iran. When the work came to Saudi as part of an exhibition of British and Middle Eastern photographers, Arthur was invited to teach a workshop. It was open only to women, aged from 20 to 50, and cost them nothing to attend.
As the workshop progressed, Arthur became friends with a number of the women, who granted her exceptional access to a world usually tightly sealed not only from Western eyes, but also from the eyes of Saudi men. Jeddah may be relatively more tolerant than the capital, Riyadh, but even so outside the family the sexes remain segregated.
Men cannot see photographs of women they could potentially marry, and cameras are shunned. For Arthur this meant that photographing even in women-only environments required elaborate negotiation. ‘I could have photographed them in their abayas [the black cloak they must wear in public] but I didn’t want just that, I wanted their reality. I asked to go to their houses, their private spaces, but I always said, I’m a professional photographer; I want to publish these pictures, so be as covered as you need to be so that we won’t have a problem.’
Arthur used a little digital camera, the type of camera the women would use to take pictures of each other. ‘We were friends, we were comfortable, but then I’d take pictures and later they’d say, “Please don’t show my face.” It was complicated.’