Photographing Saudi Arabia

Najah Al-Osaimi, Arab News
Publication Date: 
Sun, 2005-04-17 03:00

RIYADH, 17 April 2005 — Sebastian Farmborough is a young British photographer who is fascinated by Saudi Arabia. He is passionate about his work and has chosen Saudi Arabia as its focus because of its perceived characteristics as closed and undocumented. His mission is to produce a dramatic, eye-catching portfolio which will assist him in continuing his studies in Costa Rica. Initially, he planned to stay in the Kingdom for only a year, never expecting to enjoy life here. However, a year has passed and he has no intention of leaving; such is his love for this country. He came to the Kingdom because he wanted to create a portfolio that would really command attention.

“Saudi Arabia is completely unknown to the outside world,” he said. “Information leaving the Kingdom is limited and largely negative.”

He was also encouraged by his experiences in New York, where he witnessed the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. “Having been in the building just 10 hours before its destruction and witnessing the aftermath and media frenzy that followed, I really wanted to know more about this country. I had to find out the real story about Saudi Arabia and Islam because I certainly didn’t trust the Western media.”

The majority of his work is abstract, having been influenced enormously by the surrealist photographer, Bill Brandt. “I like to create photographs that provoke both thought and emotion, using techniques to exaggerate and manipulate the subject matter to trick the viewer into perceiving something that isn’t actually there.” He plans to undertake a range of projects — primarily desert-based — due to his fascination with the Bedouin lifestyle. He is hoping to focus on the change and development taking place in Saudi society. “Saudi Arabia is such a captivating place; there are so many peculiar things to photograph; they just can’t be found elsewhere in the world.”

He has spent the majority of his time socializing with Saudis and he highlighted family values as being the principal attraction of their culture. “I really love how close families are here, very loving, always eating together, spending all their time together, and even choosing their friends from within. I envy them a great deal, as England is becoming increasingly individualistic. I truly hope to follow this trend when I have a family of my own.”

However, not all of his experiences here in the Kingdom have been as positive. “I am rather less impressed by the racist nature of many people here. It seems so important for them to find out your nationality so they will know how to treat you. I have dark hair and now that I speak some Arabic, many are unsure as to whether I am Lebanese. Why should it even matter?”

When asked whether he would be featuring Saudi women in his photographs, he replied that he respected Saudi women enormously and was particularly impressed by their femininity, love for and devotion to the family. “These are female qualities becoming increasingly difficult to find in a Western-world obsessed with the pursuit of material goals.” He said he would like to capture them and inform the world about their wonderful nature and the true role in society, but would of course respect their customs and beliefs.

He has traveled to different places in the Kingdom, namely Jubail, Al-Hasa, Dammam, Alkhobar and Jeddah, but he actually prefers Riyadh. “The desert is nearby and the majority of Saudis I know here don’t speak very much English; it helps me improve my Arabic.”

Farmborough believes that photographers should begin by using a very simple camera in order to learn and master the basics and become familiar with how everything works — focus, use of aperture and the mechanics of the camera. “Really play around, try different things and make mistakes,” he said. “This is how you learn. I got absolutely everything wrong before I began to become more proficient and actually produced what I wanted. You need to get to know your camera inside out, so you are fully aware of its capabilities and how to get the most out of it.”

In order to minimize common mistakes, Farmborough recommends a few basic steps: “Before you pick up your camera, take a good look at the subject that you want to photograph, walk around it, try observing it from different angles and perspectives, and above all think. Imagine how you would like the end-photo to look and then move to this position.

“Now pick up your camera, point it at the subject. Select your camera settings, making sure that the sun is behind you to ensure you get no glare. Focus the lens on your subject; look around the edges of the frame, making sure there aren’t any unwanted objects which might distract the viewer. Once you are happy, breathe in and hold your breath before you take the photo. This last step is very important as it will put your body in its most stable position, allowing you to avoid the blurriness associated with camera shake.”

Farmborough detests digital photography: “I appreciate the benefits of digital photography, the speed and reduction of waste, but in my view this comes at the expense of quality and enjoyment,” he said. “Many photographers over-manipulate their images digitally, adding a whole host of colors, often resulting in information overload and thus ruining a perfectly decent photograph.”

What Farmborough likes most about photography is the work in the darkroom and having complete control over the final image. “Digital photography removes the need for a darkroom altogether and thus I am unlikely ever to accept it.”

Farmborough prefers more traditional methods, such as those used by his favorite photographer, Bill Brandt. When analyzing one of Brandt’s masterpieces he commented: “This is typical of Brandt, the use of stark contrast in the production of such a dramatic image. This is the kind of photography I truly love, it really makes you think and this is exactly the kind of style I will be trying to emulate during my career.”

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