Wasma Mansour: Single Saudi Women

Wasmour Mansour trained as an architect however employed photography as a tool of research for her PHD which formed the project ‘Single Saudi Women’. This study aimed to explore and depict the concept of segregation between men and women in the Arabic culture; to which Mansour belongs to. Women do not show their faces or release their identity and Mansour wanted to produce portraits of these women, something that required a great amount of trust. However she was keen for the photographs to move away from the sterotype and empower the subject. Mansour worked with what she called the ‘participant’ to determine how they wanted to be represented in the photograph; Jonathan Worth described this as ‘collaborative negotiation’. Her process was semi-structured in that she would meet with the subject, explain the project and then develop on the ideas; she would instigate a question and allow the subject to tell their story. In this project the photographer takes a secondary role and allows the subject to have control; rearranging the power dynamic in the image triad as the subject is usually the weakest person in the photograph. Wasma used a large format camera to take the final photograph but also used Polaroids to work together with the subject in the process of constructing the image. She would receive feedback from the subjects on the photographs and this would contribute to the final visual outcome. In addition to the portraits Mansour took a series of still life images based around personal objects owned by the Saudi women; these were meant to add another definition in the examination of their life. They weren’t meant to be cultural signifiers however some of the choices of object did translate this idea, the most interesting aspect to Mansour was the plastic bags the women chose to put their veils in. This informed another series of images depicting the plastic bags, interestingly enough this body of work received the most commercial interest.

This research project was extremely interesting and completely redefined portrait photography as the photographer took a passive role in the production of the portraits. There are likenesses between Mansour’s work and the work of Anthony Luvera, primarily the project ‘Not Going Shopping’ in which Luvera met with a portion of the ‘queer’ population in Brighton and worked with them to produce assisted self portraits. Both bodies of work have a focus in liberating the subject and giving them the power in the photograph. In a previous Phonar task we discovered how vulnerable it makes us feel to share a story to a group of people even ones we have been studying with for three years let alone a group of strangers, so we must try and empathise with the subject and make them feel safe. As a photographer we do not have the right to tell a subject’s story, so it is up to us to create a comfortable environment and prove to the subject that we will not misrepresent them. This relates to David Campbell’s idea of context informing an image; the subject can provide you with the context which will produce a truthful image in return. The photograph is about personal research therefore we need the context behind the content in order to produce a photograph that examines our subject effectively. However the passive approach to photographing portraits may not suit each photographer or even the project at hand; sometimes the photographer wants to fulfil a vision and the subject; referred to as a ‘model’, is a tool to produce a particular aesthetic. This is particularly the case in fashion, commercial and conceptual photography, in this case the collaborative method could restrict the photographer from getting the image that they want. For Mansour this project was a combination of academic research and visual representation and in terms of our own practise this style would work particularly well for our final major project, where photography not only depicts a subject but examines their situation.

The key concept to take away from this session for me is the act of empowering the subject and giving them control; in a world where seemingly the viewer has become the most powerful part of the image triad it is refreshing to see subjects represented in a manner informed by their own context and this is something I will try to apply in my own work.

All ideas and quotations were taken from the Phonar interview made by Jonathan Worth, to listen to the interview follow the link below:




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