Tasneem Alsultan: Documenting change in Saudi Arabia

Tasneem Alsultan describes herself as “a photographer interested in social and gender issues.” (Photo supplied)
Updated 07 March 2019

Tasneem Alsultan: Documenting change in Saudi Arabia

  • The Saudi Arabian photographer has spent the past year and a half capturing the social shifts in the Kingdom

DUBAI: Tasneem Alsultan has established herself as one of the most sought-after, and talented, photographers in the region. She describes herself as “a photographer interested in social and gender issues,” and even her wedding photography (with which she started her career and which continues to help fund her personal projects) eschews the usual portrait-style coverage for a more narrative-driven style.

“I don’t want to be ‘just’ a photographer,” she tells Arab News. “I want to provoke people to feel, to think.” And the sweeping social changes in Saudi Arabia over the past 18 months or so have provided her with plenty of opportunities to do just that — whether on assignment for The New York Times or National Geographic, or working on personal projects.

She has captured tangible changes through images of “women at concerts, women driving cars, women working in the public sectors, women entering football stadiums, and being active in stadiums,” she says. “But then there’s also a subconscious change, almost, of how we react to those things.”

FaceOf: Saudi-American photographer Tasneem Alsultan

The most significant shift in Alsultan’s professional, and personal, life has been the lifting of the ban on women driving in the Kingdom. Even though she has had a license for around 12 years, having lived in Bahrain, Dubai and the US in that time, “I’d never been to places outside of the big cities before really,” she says. “Now I’m going everywhere and photographing a different perspective — things that haven’t been seen, not just outside of Saudi, but even by Saudis. It’s great. I’ve been driving to places that are seven hours away, staying for a few days, then going back.

“Every time I get in a car, driving, I can’t believe that it actually happened,” she continues. “I don’t think it’s the driving that’s the issue, though; it’s that I take the lead in where I want to go. It’s about control.”

Here, Alsultan talks us through a few examples of her work — “telling evocative stories in a way that will hopefully make a difference.”


This was an assignment for The New York Times, covering the first female basketball tournament in Jeddah. This was only the second time that women had been allowed to enter stadiums in the country. There were 3,000 women, apparently, in this stadium. Men weren’t allowed in. It was a beautiful event. People wanted to attend just to be part of that moment; we were part of the ‘big change.’ You can see one of the girls is looking straight at the camera. It’s important, as much as I can, to be invisible. That’s very difficult, especially in this part of the world, where we’re very conscious about how we look. But it’s my job to just stay there and wait until I have the least number of people looking at me.”

“Bride and Groom”

I see wedding photography as a narrative, as storytelling, whereas many people just see it as portraits. I still have calls from confused clients, like, ‘So, do you use backdrops?’ Nope. ‘Do you use Photoshop.’ No. ‘So, what do you do?’ [Laughs.] I get it. It’s fine. I’m not the photographer for every client, and I don’t think I should be a jack of all trades — I don’t think anyone should be if they’re serious about this — but I love it. I see it as a story about love and intimacy with a beginning and an end. I love asking the couple how they met and how they’re unique. I like how little moments make this couple want to live together forever.

The bride had a best friend who she hadn’t seen for years, because they weren’t in the same place together. She didn’t know that her friend had a brother, but when they met each other again, the friend asked her to meet her brother because she thought they’d hit it off. And they did. It’s a simple story, but it’s beautiful. The wedding was in a beautiful big ballroom in Jeddah. And the couple walked onto a balcony on the top tier and everyone’s looking at them from below. They exchanged rings, looked at each other and then walked down. They’re not a very cheesy couple, this was just a moment. As a photographer, you’re the storyteller. It’s not about manipulating the facts, it’s more about highlighting things — a moment that they might not have seen as romantic. But because I photographed it at the right time, it looks like they’re dancing, almost.


I was photographing tourism in Saudi, and in Al-Ula specifically, for The New York Times. I photographed all these expats coming in and enjoying the country, but I felt like it wasn’t really their story to tell. After two days of only finding expats, I got to meet locals. This woman and her female relatives, who are all in the photo, are originally from Al-Ula, but they’ve been living in Jeddah for the last 20 years. They drove all the way back just to visit their hometown. They didn’t go to the Andrea Bocelli concert, they were just interested in being happy in nature. And I think that was very important. It was a beautiful moment. They were saying, like, ‘We didn’t know our hometown would ever be on the map in Saudi. Now everyone knows about it!’ I think everyone in the world would like to explore their own country. We haven’t had that chance. And now we do.

“The Driving Lesson”

Faisal was teaching his wife to drive. He posted this photo on social media, and it got so many attacks. “How dare you share a photo of your wife?” “You’re not jealous at all… what is this?” He got more attacks than people being happy. It showed, I guess, that many people are not prepared for these big changes. They feel threatened. But he was excited and happy to be teaching his wife to drive.

The good thing was, we complained about the online harassment, and the government intervened and people were either told off or their accounts were shut down.

This image was about waiting for the right moment, again. I don’t always get it right straight away, but there’s usually one shot, when I look through them, where I think, “That’s the one that doesn’t look like I’m there.”

“Riders in Preparation”

This is a Harley-Davidson club based in Alkhobar. This was taken just a few days before women would be able to drive. Usually, the girls would either ride in the Aramco compound, or they’d have to go to Bahrain to ride. That week, they were preparing to ride properly in Saudi. So, they were really excited. And the men — who are mainly from Saudi — were excited too, to be able to ride with them in the country.

“Tea Time”

I love the framing here. I love how the light is in the center. I love the wall. It’s all very modern, and then you have these girls wearing very traditional clothing. They allowed me to shoot them, and I liked the one where she was looking directly at me. Usually, we don’t want that; if it was for a newspaper, I wouldn’t have chosen that one. But in this case, it wasn’t an assignment, it was for me. So, this was the one I chose.

I always joke with my friends that if I publish a photo of women in Saudi not wearing a veil or hijab, it gets a quarter of the likes that I get if they’re veiled. Which is annoying. Because the reality is that not all Saudi women cover. It’s like we fetishize that image, even as Saudis. For me, it speaks volumes about how we’re playing into this image of, “Oh, but how can they eat? Who are they?” I don’t know. I always feel weird when I publish a photo of women covering their faces.


This was taken right after the announcement that women were going to be able to drive. This lady, who has a car, but still couldn’t drive it outside of the Aramco compound, was calling Uber. Now, I’m someone who’s been relying on Uber, but I hate it when I can’t have any other option; when I have to wait for the driver, and he’s late, or he gives me attitude. So it was, like, ‘Great. Now we won’t feel pressured.’ It’s an option. I can take an Uber if I want to, but if I don’t, I (can still get around).

What I’ve learned from being a photojournalist is that you try to get as little content as possible in writing, and more in how the photo is taken. So that poster makes you understand that it’s in Saudi and, at least, what year it was taken.


This was taken this year. It was for The Guardian, and they basically wanted to say that two years ago, this image wouldn’t have been taken, because we weren’t allowed to (openly) celebrate Valentine’s Day in Saudi. So, all of the florists and gift shops — anything that had the word ‘Valentine’s’ — they’d be fined. But this year, they were left alone, basically. This was taken at a shop in Alkhobar in February, and I think it’s a simple encapsulation of the progression that’s happening, and the opening up.

INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

Updated 23 May 2019

INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

  • Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so
  • “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks

DUBAI: The success that Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third film, “Capernaum,” continues to find across the world is astounding — even to her. Just one year ago, “Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival — a jury chaired by Cate Blanchett — after a 15-minute standing ovation. The film went on to be nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, with Labaki becoming the first woman from the Arab world to receive that honor. Now, perhaps most surprisingly, “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks.
“It’s crazy! I can’t believe it! I really can’t. Why there? It’s all very new, so I still don’t know what it means exactly, but we’re soon going to find out,” Labaki tells Arab News in Cannes.
With its success in China, along with the US, Middle East and across Europe, “Capernaum” has reportedly become the highest grossing Arabic-language film in history.
“There’s been rumors going on for the past two to three days, and it’s like, ‘What?’ I still can’t believe it. It’s living proof that an Arab film with no actors can actually be a box office hit — can actually return money, make money for investors. You know how much we’re struggling in the Arab world to make films, find money, find funding, find investment. Especially for a Lebanese film,” Labaki says.
Labaki was in China just one month ago to show the film at the Beijing International Film Festival, and although the film got a rousing response in the room, she didn’t feel the reaction was any stronger than anywhere else the film has shown.
“Maybe it’s because there’s more than a billion people in China, but even the distributor is saying it’s working like any big blockbuster movie,” says Labaki.
The Chinese release of the film has one major difference from other cuts. The original version of the film tells the story of a young boy named Zain El Hajj (played by Zain Al-Rafeea) struggling to survive on the streets of Lebanon with the help of a young Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil and her undocumented infant son Yonas, dreaming of escaping as a refugee to Sweden. The story is not far from Al-Rafeea’s real-life situation at the time — he is a Syrian refugee. Since the film’s release, though, Al-Rafeea and his family have been relocated to Norway, something the Chinese release includes at the end of the film as a short visual report.
“The film ends on his smile, and in a way there’s (now) a continuation of real life in that story. This is really happening, it’s not made up,” says Labaki. “That’s why we’re making a documentary around the film. Maybe it’s a way of comforting people, knowing that he’s alright, he’s good, he’s in a better place. Deep down, people know this kid is going through this in his real life, they know he’s not just an actor in this film.
“I think it’s comforting to know Zain is in a different place now. He’s travelled. He was dreaming of going to Sweden the whole time, and now he’s really in Norway. He has a new life, a new beginning, a new house. He’s going to school, all his family is with him,” she continues. “It’s a complete shift of destiny. Maybe the fact the distributor added this report after the film made people understand that this is a real story and a real struggle, and not just another film.”
Though this is a huge moment for Arab film in general, Labaki doesn’t believe that the success of “Capernaum” necessarily signals a greater appetite for Arab cinema worldwide.
“I don’t think it’s about (where the film comes from). It’s about good films. It has nothing to do with the identity of the film or the country it’s coming from, really. It doesn’t mean if this film worked in China that another Arab film will work in China,” she says. “Maybe there’s going to be more hope for Lebanese cinema in the sense that investors will be less afraid to invest in Lebanese films, but it’s about the script, the filmmaker, the craft, the know-how. This is what gives confidence to somebody.”
Speaking to Arab News at the renowned Hotel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes on one of the busiest days of the film festival, Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so. Labaki began her relationship with Cannes in 2004, writing and developing her first feature, “Caramel,” at the Cinéfoundation Residency before showcasing the film at the Director’s Fortnight in 2007. Both of Labaki’s subsequent films — “Where do We Go Now?” in 2011 and “Capernaum” in 2018 — debuted at the festival, each in increasingly competitive categories.
“I feel like I’m their baby, in a way. With a baby you start watching their first steps, see them grow, protect them, push them… They’ve accompanied me in this journey, and recognized and encouraged me. It’s great — I really love this festival. I think it’s the best festival in the world. I like the integrity they have towards cinema. You feel that watching a film in Cannes, you know that you’re not going to watch just anything — there’s something in there for you to learn from, to be surprised by, to be in awe of. There’s always something about films that are shown in Cannes,” says Labaki.
In approaching her role as head of the jury, Labaki is focusing on connecting with the films, and taking on the perspective of myriad filmmakers from across the world.
“I don’t watch films as a filmmaker. Never,” she says. “I watch the film as a human being… I don’t like the word jury. I don’t like to judge because I’ve been there — I’m there all the time. I’ve been in those very difficult situations, very fragile situations, where you’re making a film, where you’re doubting, where you don’t know, where you don’t have enough distance with what you’re doing, and you don’t have the right answers and you’re not taking the right decisions.”
Just as her own films have become increasingly focused on the problems facing Lebanese society, Labaki believes that contemporary film cannot help but be political, and must accept its role as a commentary on the world we live in — something that she feels she’s seen in the films in her category.
“Cinema is not just about making another film; it’s about saying something about the state of the world right now. Until now, every film we’ve seen is (doing that). That doesn’t mean that cinema that is just art for art’s sake is not good — there are so many different schools — but I feel we’re becoming so much more responsible for this act,” she says. “You become an activist without even knowing you’re becoming an activist, and saying something about the state of the world. It’s important.”