Meet Iman Al-Dabbagh, the documentary photographer telling women’s stories in Saudi Arabia

The Jeddah-based photojournalist pictures life at its most raw and revealing. She photographs a woman on a carousel in this shot. (Photo courtesy: @photosbyiman)
Updated 05 March 2018
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Meet Iman Al-Dabbagh, the documentary photographer telling women’s stories in Saudi Arabia

JEDDAH: They say a picture speaks a thousand words, and that is certainly true for Saudis. For years, foreign photographers and journalists — visitors to the Kingdom — have told our stories. But over the past decade, there has been a significant rise in regional photojournalism, with young Saudis presenting the reality of life in Saudi Arabia.
Jeddah-based Saudi photojournalist Iman Al-Dabbagh has been photographing the people of Saudi Arabia for some time now. Her pictures are not necessarily pretty, but they are true depictions of people’s lives one story at a time. Her passion for photography and obvious respect and admiration for her subjects shines through, and this has allowed her to build a level of trust with them that enables her to really understand their lives and tell their stories in a way that a visitor could not.

Posted in @everydaymiddleeast: When my childhood school friends and I get together, even after 10 college/work years apart, we go back to feeling like we're in school again. The silliness and the way we make fun of each other, nothing changed. We changed and we may not agree on lifestyle or life choices, but we remain friends. Some left and came back, some left and never came back, as we are a mix of Saudis and Halfies and what I call ExpatCitizens (local, pretty much citizen, "expats"). Next year will mark 20 years since our graduation. Last year marked 30 years since Mona and I became instant best friends in 1st grade. This shows only one half... We aim to reunite next year. Yalla banaat. Jeddah (2017). @photosbyiman #SaudiStoriesByIman #SaudiExpatStories #everydayeverywhere #everydaymiddleeast

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She documents family gatherings, food (which she began doing long before it became a trend), street scenes and candid moments.
Like most photographers, Al-Dabbagh started out taking shots of family and friends, but over the past seven years her work has expanded to focus on women and their relationship with taboos and freedom of expression in Saudi society. It was in 2006, when a friend’s mother first encouraged her to consider photography as more than a hobby, noting how “natural” the images Al-Dabbagh had captured at her friend’s wedding were.
To capture the raw and natural moments was what made sense to Al-Dabbagh, not the typical posed images that are typical of wedding photography. This was something new, unseen and unknown to many.
Later that same year, Al-Dabbagh met the late French photographer Alexandra Boulat, who pointed out that — in Saudi Arabia — she had access to a world that was closed to many. “Go back home to Saudi Arabia,” was the assertive push the late photographer gave to young Al-Dabbagh.
“I was photographing stories I care about between California and the Arab world at the time,” Al-Dabbagh explained. “Graduating in 2005, I started working a nine-to-five job in a cubicle doing commercial print production, I wasn’t happy. I resigned from my position in 2007 and I was already slowly making the transition (to professional photography). I was building a portfolio by volunteering to shoot local community events and protests, or helping filmmaker friends with stills for their promos. Eventually I was getting hired to photograph baptisms, weddings, babies, and sometimes small assignments for newspapers and magazines.”
From 2007-2010, Al-Dabbagh educated herself in photojournalism. She attended workshops, and experimented on a number of personal projects. Gradually, she began to realize she had a particular passion for raw imagery, and that is what she has become best known for.
“I approach specific people who I think will fit my project when I find them on social media or (through references),” she explained. “Sometimes they come to me or I find them by chance — the magic of socializing, the magic of my creative city. Sometimes, for my own self-assigned stories, it’s hard to find people who will agree to be photographed with their faces showing, because most of my stories address sensitive topics. But they usually still end up being part of it because they believe in what I’m doing.”
Al-Dabbagh feels such work is particularly valuable in Saudi Arabia, where women — in particular — have not often been represented as they truly are.
“I feel happy to be part of any movement that breaks stereotypes,” Al-Dabbagh said. “It’s also great to be documenting a place that is changing as we speak; a place I have grown up in that was so different at the time than what it is today. I am living the change; not just witnessing history being made, but also being part of it, documenting it. We are telling our own stories now, as opposed to having our stories told by others.
“Telling the story my way, with the consent of the people involved, is very important,” she continued. “I show my subjects not only how the photos came out, but also how they fit in the bigger picture.”
Just because a picture might look good by itself, she stressed, does not mean it will fit into the broader narrative she has planned. For Al-Dabbagh, it’s not about getting the perfect shot, it’s more about how the images fit together to tell a story, and how that story makes people feel.
“I adore the people I photograph because they have allowed me to see and show their lives. They gave me their trust. In return, I have to respect them,” she said.
This also means trusting and respecting herself. All her narratives, she explained, have “a little bit of me in them.”
“It’s me telling my own story,” Al-Dabbagh said, “but through other people.”


UAE gift helps French palace reopen ‘forgotten theater’

Updated 18 June 2019
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UAE gift helps French palace reopen ‘forgotten theater’

  • Now called the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan Theatre, it is the latest example of the close relations between Paris and Abu Dhabi
  • The UAE capital already hosts the Louvre Abu Dhabi, opened by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and President Emmanuel Macron in 2017

FONTAINEBLEAU: An exquisite 19th-century French theater outside Paris that fell into disuse for one and half centuries has been restored with the help of a €10 million donation from oil-rich Abu Dhabi.
The Napoleon III theater at Fontainebleau Palace south of Paris was built between 1853 and 1856 under the reign of the nephew of emperor Napoleon I.
It opened in 1857 but was used only a dozen times, which has helped preserve its gilded adornments, before being abandoned in 1870 after the fall of Napoleon III.
But during a state visit to France in 2007, Sheikh Khalifa, ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates, was reportedly entranced by the abandoned theater and offered €10 million ($11.2 million) on the spot for its restoration.
After a project that has lasted 12 years the theater is now being reopened.
An official inauguration is expected soon, hosted by French Culture Minister Franck Riester and attended by UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.
Now called the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan Theatre, it is the latest example of the close relations between Paris and Abu Dhabi.
The UAE capital already hosts the Louvre Abu Dhabi, opened by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, the first foreign institution to carry the name of the great Paris museum.
For all its ornate beauty, the theater has hardly ever been used for its orginal purpose, hosting only a dozen performances between 1857 and 1868, each attended by around 400 people.
“While it had been forgotten, the theater was in an almost perfect state,” said the head of the Fontainebleau Palace, Jean-Francois Hebert.
“Let us not waste this jewel, and show this extraordinary place of decorative arts,” he added.
According to the palace, the theater is “probably the last in Europe to have kept almost all its original machinery, lighting and decor.”
Having such a theater was the desire of Napoleon III’s wife Eugenie. But after the defeat, his capture in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and the declaration of France’s Third Republic, the theater fell into virtual oblivion.
Following the renovation, the theater will mainly be a place to visit and admire, rather than for regularly holding concerts.
“The aim is not to give the theater back to its first vocation” given its “very fragile structure,” said Hebert.
Short shows and recitals may be performed in exceptional cases, under the tightest security measures and fire regulations. But regular guided tours will allow visitors to discover the site, including the stage sets.
The restoration aimed to use as little new material as possible, with 80 percent of the original material preserved.
The opulent central chandelier — three meters high and 2.5 meters wide — has been restored to its original form.