The photographic exploration for Single Saudi Women began with taking photographs of the women’s spaces by using a large format camera in order to have control over perspective as well as the ability of a 4″x5″ negative to create large and detailed prints if desired.
The dialogue between the women and Wasma is therefore enmeshed with the ‘photographic event’. This event comprised setting up the 4×5 camera, composing, proofing the image with polaroids to discuss with the participants and finally creating the final image. Wasma initiated this process with a portrait of the participants’ physical presence in their private spaces.
The second series of images explore the other aspects of Saudi women’s lives that relate to their dwellings and possessions. Their creation was predominantly inspired by the women’s accounts of their lives in the United Kingdom. In many ways these private spaces became blank canvases whereby many aspects of the women’s identities unravelled. Wasma soon realised that the significance of these contexts lies in them being un-negotiated spaces, whereby the women have the freedom to do whatever they please.
Wasma Mansour interviewed by Niccolò Fano
I met Wasma Mansour in 2011 during my first week at Roof Unit, a desk and studio share for visual artists housed three floors above Four Corners Gallery in Bethnal Green, London. I rented a desk-space alongside a dozen photographers, filmmakers and artists. Wasma, who had been there for a few weeks, worked just two spaces across from me.
That period was dedicated to PHD applications and I often left books scattered on my desk. As we both share a keen interest in the relationship between Anthropology and Photography, an afternoon chat about one of my research texts by Christopher Pinney started off a friendship and a number of collaborations. In this interview I talk to Wasma about her project Single Saudi Women, the challenges of creating a 5-year long body of work and her relationship with the chosen subject matter.
Niccolò Fano: These last two years have been intense and pivotal for your practice and career. You are in the last stretch of your PHD, your long-term project Single Saudi Women has been showcased internationally and you have had a very well received solo show in Rome. How has the whole experience been?
Wasma Mansour: Working on the show in Rome has been somewhat a steep learning curve because I had no previous experience of putting together a show from A-Z. I previously had a mini-show as part of the London Festival of Photography in the summer, but I did not need to worry about the printing and framing as these were provided by Metro. What was tremendously helpful was working with professionals who appreciate your work, understand your vision, who are communicative and supportive. I was lucky in a sense that from the outset of this experience I encountered those who worked with me to make sure that the show in Rome was the best it could be, and thankfully it was well received.
NF: As we all know things are never constantly positive, what were the challenges?
WM: The experience was daunting for me, because I had to step back and try to look at my work from an editor’s point of view. So I understood the curator/gallery director’s decisions behind their image selection. The way to do it is to strictly abide by a production schedule, which is what I did. It requires discipline and frankly sometimes it is difficult. During that phase I was approached by another overseas gallery for an exhibiting opportunity but unfortunately their requirements for the show were unclear and as a result I wasn’t able to work on preparing for that show, therefore had to bow out of it.
NF: In Photography, the subject of Saudi women has been explored extensively in the last few years, Olivia Arthur’s Jeddah Diaries comes to mind as a recent example. Single Saudi Women is your prolonged study on this subject matter, tell us about your project and the importance of the relationship with the women you have collaborated with.
WM: My work looks at the lives of Saudi women in the United Kingdom. In some way, it is an inverse of Olivia’s work with Saudi women. Building the relationship with the women requires trust, patience and a lot of listening. I started this project under an academic umbrella that facilitated many opportunities to meet potential participants. This also made me very conscious of the critical nature of working with people and made me aware of the ethical codes of conduct required by academic institutions. Abiding by these guidelines is compulsory and each student is required to submit an ethics form stating the ethical grey areas likely to arise in their work, these have to then be approved by a committee before a researcher is to begin their official practical work. So these have been safety nets for the participants, as they feel that on an institutional level, they are protected and their welfare is looked after.
NF: What is your relationship with the women photographed now that the majority of the work is completed? Do you stay in contact?
WM: I try to stay in touch with them and let them know about the progression of the work. There are some participants who are interested in maintaining a friendship after working with me on this project, although I cannot say that all feel the same way and I respect that.
NF: What do they think of the photographs?
WM: Every woman was happy with her personal portrait, if she wasn’t we’d work on constructing a new one. However, there has been interesting feedback about the photographs. Sometimes they try to guess the identities of other women pictured, other times try to imagine the scenarios of their living situations. Personally, these insights are very important, this project is not only about the women projecting their own experiences on others, but sometimes they subconsciously reproduce the stereotypes that they complain about.
NF: Having an insider’s perspective on the issues you deal with is extremely important particularly in regards to gaining access to the lives of your subjects. What were the challenges and how did you find and get in contact your subjects?
WM: After several attempts to reach out to the women via email, Facebook and Twitter, I realised that these methods do not offer the potential participants the security needed to want to take part in my work. So I changed my approach, and started with my personal networks and gradually expanded.
NF: Single Saudi Women is multifaceted and purposely divided into sections that differ greatly in aesthetics and content. What are these sections and the reasons for the inclusion of multiple viewpoints?
WM: Before taking any photograph, the participants and I would have conversations, many times lengthy chats about being single. These are useful because they lead to discussions about perception, representation and thus reveal how the women feel about them. I allow the women to steer the conversation, inevitably photography becomes a part of these chats and it somehow developed organically that the portraits were taken first and then household objects and possessions. Of course sometimes the conversations would veer off to discussing their possessions or symbolic objects they own and I’d photograph those whilst we talked about it. The last body of work to emerge was the package of a package of a package. This was encouraged by the fact that I noticed a pattern with the participants’ methods of giving me their veils to photograph.
NF: As you mentioned package of a package of a package features veils in shopping bags given to you by the women and photographed in front of a white background. You have made the decision to survey the veil as a ‘distant’ object rather than a highly politicised and culturally dense symbol. What are the reasons for your detachment from a direct political and social comment?
WM: Since the veil is required by the state in Saudi, it could even be seen as a prosthetic for the women in the public domain. Had veiling practices not been obligatory, the interpretation and implementation of the work would have been different; yet the women who participated did not veil in the UK. These garments were kept, often left in suitcases, for when the women travelled back to Saudi Arabia. So I couldn’t misrepresent this reality and show the women wearing these garments in the UK because the participants did not wear them there. As mentioned earlier, after noticing the number of women giving me their veils in the bags I realised that there is something more to it, especially in the fancy bags that become indicative of their lifestyles. Again, it goes back to the question of representation and how they want to be perceived – regardless of the fact that they are all anonymous.
NF: How much of Single Saudi Women is autobiographical?
WM: My interest in the subject matter is tainted by my personal experience as a single Saudi woman and the idea that single women of a certain age are placed on the margins, or worse, rendered invisible or thought of as anomalies. I personally encountered a funny situation during the early stages of my work: I was asked by my mother to accompany her on one of her formal visits to a friend of hers who was hospitalised. We were joined by my younger sister who at the time had just gotten engaged. During our visit an elderly woman struck a conversation with me. Whilst talking, she found out that my younger sister was engaged and had abruptly halted our chat, and turned to talk to my sister. Although I had not anticipated this sudden change, I was not surprised.
NF: I have followed your work closely for a long time now. Your notes and journals are elements that add extensive context to your work as well as functioning as a day to day collection of thoughts, quotes and annotations. Is this something you plan on adding to the structure of your work when exhibited? If so, in what form?
WM: I think it is important to add them once I have arranged them. The back-end of my work on Saudi women, exemplified in my notes, polaroids and time-lapse photographs of my process, is vital and perhaps it could become the evidence of the biographical underpinnings of the work.
NF: Tell us about your current PhD at London College of Communication.
WM: I am doing a practice-based PhD at the LCC. Which basically means that the research heavily relies on the practical component. The theory, or written element, is also to be thought of as part of the practice. I am very fortunate to work with a great supervisory team, comprising of Prof Val Williams and Dr Sara Davidmann. It is tremendously helpful because the PhD process can be very lonely and your interest in the subject, although important, can lead to lots of diversions from the subject. My supervisory team has been supportive, constantly offering advice and useful insights into my work and research as a whole.
NF: You have been working on Single Saudi Women since 2008. I imagine it will be very hard to call this project finished. Have you thought ahead, past your PhD and Single Saudi Women?
WM: I think having a little bit of distance from this project will be good for me. I will definitely be working on a long-term project with an interdisciplinary approach. I am meditating on doing something different with Saudi women, certainly a subgroup but I won’t reveal anything more until it is more researched.
Wasma Mansour (b. 1980) is a Saudi photographic artist. She relocated to the United Kingdom in 2007 and is now in the process of completing a postgraduate research degree at the LCC. Her practice is mainly lens-based which incorporates text and and an oral history element.
She has been working on a long-term project titled ‘Single Saudi Women’ since 2008, a body of work that explores the articulations, constructions as well as the representations of single Saudi women residing in the United Kingdom.