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Photographer casts veiled women in new light for the West

Copyright: "Sebastian Farmborough"

Copyright: “Sebastian Farmborough”

After spending three years in Saudi Arabia, English-born photographer Sebastian Farmborough felt he had to do something to change the country’s negative image in the West. He tells DW about the project that’s resulted.

Originally from England, Sebastian Farmborough has lived in many different countries, from the US, Spain and Chile, to Saudi Arabia and currently the United Arab Emirates. With a degree in business, he worked in Saudi Arabia for several years teaching English to Saudi executives at a petrochemical company. During that time, he got to know the Saudi people, and found that the reality in the country differed greatly from how it is perceived in the West.

Now living in Dubai, he has set out to show Westerners what Saudi Arabia and the Arab World are really like – through his “An Emerging Mystery” photo project. While he has launched the project in Dubai, he plans to continue it in Saudi Arabia once he gains official permission to do so.

This woman was an acquaintance of the photographer's in Dubai Copyright: Sebastian Farmborough

This woman was an acquaintance of the photographer’s in Dubai
Copyright: Sebastian Farmborough

DW: What led you to move to the Middle East?

Sebastian Farmborough: I was in New York during the Twin Tower attacks and witnessed the media coverage that followed. It was all so negative about the Middle East. I felt a little skeptical and wanted to find out for myself.

Why are you focusing your photo project on veiled women?

The project is not just about women. While I was living in Saudi Arabia I would send emails to my friends, discussing the positive experiences I was having, and none of them believed me. It was really frustrating and this is what has prompted me to produce a visual representation of the positive aspects of life there.

On Twitter especially, there is a sea of negativity surrounding Saudi Arabia. You see so many horrible stories and statements about the people and their country, and I think many in the West believe that this is the whole story. This is far from the truth and that is what I wish to convey.

The reason I started by photographing the women was that this represented one of my first impressions. I had just moved from Barcelona and saw a veiled woman swimming out at sea [Eds: pictured above]. It was such a culture shock for me and I knew it would be for people in the West as well.

Farmborough wants to help the West to relate to the people he's met in the Arab World Copyright: Sebastian Farmborough

Farmborough wants to help the West to relate to the people he’s met in the Arab World
Copyright: Sebastian Farmborough

Can you give some examples of the positive experiences you’re talking about?

I think the problem in the West is that we are so accustomed to seeing images of veiled women that are objectified and devoid of personality, while the men are typically big-bearded and angry-looking – neither of which are particularly approachable. And together with their different clothing and media reputation, that can make them quite intimidating.

However, if you make the effort to get to know them you will discover some wonderful qualities such as their tremendous hospitality, generosity, the closeness of family relationships and friendships, their respect towards elders, and their sense of humor.

How do you think your photos can play into the ongoing debate in Europe about the acceptance of headscarves?

Towards the end of last year, a veiled woman was ejected from a Paris opera for being completely covered. This is very sad. What if she had been oppressed and moved to France to escape that oppression only to be further alienated? That no one in the audience stood up for her just does not seem very European to me.

Sebastian Farmborough has lived in North America, Europe and the Middle East Copyright: Sebastian Farmborough

Sebastian Farmborough has lived in North America, Europe and the Middle East
Copyright: Sebastian Farmborough

What I want to do is produce images that Europeans can relate to – personalize these women so that they can be understood and accepted. They are not all forced to cover themselves. I know that some are, but for the most part it is their choice and they are still able to live fulfilled and active lives.

What is the sentiment in Dubai in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack early this month?

Most of my friends are Muslims here and they are all quite upset. They understand the desire for free speech, but at the same time they would like to see their religion respected.

However, this is not just about the depiction of their prophet, though. They are more aggrieved with the disproportionate Western attention and media coverage of Western victims of terrorism, compared to Muslim ones.

Interview: Kate Müser


30.01.2015 | 10:53


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