Tasneem AlSultan Shows Essential Workers in a Light of Dignity


“Everyone deserves to be photographed in a manner that shows them dignified,” says Tasneem AlSultan about her approach to photographing often-overlooked workers of our societies. A surprising incident from her youth propelled her to photograph their lives in a positive way. She’s spent a fair bit of her career creating projects that shine a light on the marginalized class living with and among us.

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Tasneem AlSultan gets it right when it comes to photographing those who aren’t as fortunate as we are. Especially with travel photography, there tends to be a fascination to capture images of the poor in their state of destitution. While this is a necessity to raise awareness, shouldn’t the poor have a right to a dignified photograph? Why must they always have photos taken of them in indigent surroundings when they too could have a smile to offer? Tasneem hopes to change this attitude with her work. We spoke to her about her Maid in Saudi project as part of our Arab American Heritage Month coverage

The Essential Photo Gear Used by Tasneem:

Tasneem told us:

The Phobographer: Hi Tasneem. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.

Tasneem AlSultan: I’ve always been interested in the art world, more than science. My parents, both being academics, only encouraged me to see art as a hobby. So although I owned a camera at the age of nine, I ventured into literature and linguistics as a major for my undergrad. I remember pleading to study graphic design, and later on a masters in photography. Yet my parents thought photography wasn’t a direction that would feed anyone.

Years later, whilst I was an English language lecturer in Bahrain. I started posting images of my two daughters on social media. Soon after, many friends and family asked me to photograph the same spontaneous images of their own children and families. After a few months, a big mall in Bahrain asked to use those images, featured on my website, to be used for their women and mothers campaign.

Fast forward a couple of years later, I quit my teaching job and decided to focus on documenting weddings primarily, and also cover topics that I thought were personally rewarding.

Kuwait City, Kuwait- May 1, 2018: A large group of domestic workers look after children, during a Kuwait birthday party. Assignment ID: 30219656A

The Phobographer: “Maid in Saudi”. How did the idea come about for this project?

Tasneem AlSultan: I was born in the US, and grew up in the UK. I remember as a young girl, my grandparents and relatives would have a driver and a domestic worker living in their homes. Speaking fluent English, and not so well in Arabic, I found friendship with the Philipino domestic worker named Alifa. She was nineteen, and I was nine. I remember she would open her closet and show me photos of actors and would read out handwritten poems to me. A few days later, my cousin cautioned me to stop speaking to Alifa. “She’s just not someone you should trust,” she whispered. I was shocked and confused but I still became weary. I felt guilty for not spending as much time as I’d liked, and think back at how insensitive that must have been for Alifa. Moving back to the Middle East, and later becoming a photographer, working on stories that dealt with topics of domestic workers was the first to come to mind.

The Phobographer: How many maids were photographed as part of this series? What was the criteria for their selection?

Tasneem AlSultan: Any foreigner from a country that wasn’t referred to as an expat by people here, was interesting for me to photograph. Builders, waiters, stage builders, cleaners, drivers, babysitters,…

The Phobographer: Were the households cooperative with having their maids photographed? What were some of the difficulties in getting them to pose for the camera?

Tasneem AlSultan: I didn’t want anyone to pose. Portraits or documentary, I hoped to photograph everyone in a natural setting. Not many household owners agreed to be included, so I didn’t pursue them. The only difficulty was that everyone photographed felt uncomfortable having me photograph their bedrooms. I didn’t want anyone to feel like I was invading their small private sanctuary, so I only photographed their bedrooms if invited in.

Every day, Saada would wake 30 minutes before the rest of the household to prepare breakfast. Most of the time, she preferred listening to the recitation of the Quraan, while she worked during the day. During the four years, Saa’da had self-taught herself to speak and also read and write in Arabic, using only the Quraan as a book and recorder.

The Phobographer: They make a tough decision to be separated from their families and work alone in order to be providers. How does this disconnect affect them over the years and decades?

Tasneem AlSultan: Greatly. Many of the men that have left their homes won’t see their children and wives for years. The women are either working to feed their families or to put their siblings in schools and receive a better education that the one they were offered. No one accepts to come work in a strange country, under these conditions and has a better option back home. I remember photographing a domestic worker who’d come to Saudi Arabia, and later found out that she had to leave due to having a rare incurable disease that the Saudi authorities would have to send her back. She weeped and begged to stay. It was heartbreaking to witness.

This is the first time Seef has left her home country of Namibia. Without any electricity nor appliances, she sees the vast differences and is trying to adjust in the home she’s to live in for the next two years. Although she’s paid a high fee to her local office for visa and permits to bring her to Saudi, the family she lives with was informed last week that Seef has failed her medical test. Seef’s blood test shows that she had previously been diagnosed with Tuberculosis, and Saudi ‘along with many other countries’ health regulations do not allow any employees or visitors with any chances of carrying the disease. To make matters worse, one of her six children is very ill, and her working abroad is the only chance of her sons survival as his cost of medical help is costly. Upon hearing the news of her having to go back, Seef collapsed in tears. Although there was no common language, the family she lives with the understood that she is worried about returning home without any financial support, everyone was relying on. She has three days left in Saudi, and everyone in her Saudi home have been sombre. 27.4.2017

The Phobographer: In many families these maids integrate seamlessly into the household. But sadly this isn’t the case for all of them. Does your series shed a spotlight on this too?

Tasneem AlSultan: Yes. I have images that captured verbal abuse, and stark contrast in the working environment. I haven’t published any of these images, but hope to one day.

The Phobographer: Apart from photographing their daily lives, did you also take posed portraits of some of them? Why or why not?

Tasneem AlSultan: It’s a mix. Depending on the situation I’d met each person.

However, the spectrum of their reasoning, and how attached they become to their hosting homes is wide. Whilst some of the domestic helpers see themselves as mere workers that count the days on returning home, others see their duties as an escape from a worse scenario. Cleaning, cooking, and sometimes even taking care of the children or the elderly are normal duties expected from them. But without normal occupational hours, they either become included in the family or attacked as a scapegoat for every problem that arises, as soon as their arrival.

The Phobographer: When you photographed the ones who weren’t having an easy life here, how easily were those struggles coming across in their faces?

Tasneem AlSultan: Everyone deserves to be photographed in a manner that shows them dignified. So however difficult their situation and livelihood is, you’d usually know from reading the caption.

The Phobographer: Returning back can’t be easy for many who may emotionally root themselves into Saudi society and find it hard to re-assimilate to their native countries. Have some expressed a desire to stay longer or live out their lives here?

Tasneem AlSultan: Yes. I’ve met quite a few families that have all moved or were born in Saudi because either of their parents worked for a family that was compassionate and offered all the support to help financially and even to take care of the education and employment of the children .

The Phobographer: Was shooting this series similar to your other photo documentary projects?

Tasneem AlSultan: The topic may be different, but the style is the same. With the project Saudi Tales of Love, I include collaborative portraits, but with the rest, I photograph in whatever manner that is quick, non-invasive, and respectful to the person I’m photographing.

The Phobographer: The concept of a live-in maid isn’t as common in the West as it is in the Middle East. As someone with roots in both types of societies, what similarities and differences do you see regarding this?

Tasneem AlSultan: I hear the term “modern-day slaves” being repeated by the West. While I agree that there are many horrific cases of abuse, this isn’t the only workspace where abuse happens. Offices of executives and managers can include toxic and misogynist attitudes toward women and anyone in a less position. Humans can create a crippling and dangerous environment. This is universal. I hope that laws change to protect the less fortunate in every working space. The system is far from perfect, and I hope that every worker receives protection and respect in every domain and every position.

All images by Tasneem AlSultan. Used with permission. Take a look at her website, Instagram, and Twitter pages to see more of her work.







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