Saudi Arabia is known for its very conservative culture, this is also reflected in all forms of media. Arts and entertainment; magazines, movies, photos, and Internet are permitted but under control. Photographs are not usually permitted in governmental in
stitutions, schools, historical monuments, or mosques. Although things have started to change, photographers have to endure difficulties expressing themselves, taking photos in public and adapting to the culture.
Hythem Daham an aspiring Saudi photographer gave me a little sneak peak to his thoughts and how it’s like to be a photographer in Saudi.
How did your photography career start? I took a photography course in 2007 and was hooked since then. After I came back from my Masters and got married, my beautiful wife bought me a set of studio flashes and it was history from there.
How hard is it to get people to get into the mood of acting or getting your ideas across in photo-shoots? It’s not easy, a lot of people are afraid of the camera, so it takes a while. Usually I like to meet my clients before the shoots, sit with them, and get to know them so when they come into the studio they are more relaxed. It takes a couple of shots in the beginning; I try to fool them into smiling; once they feel comfortable it’s all smooth sailing from there.
Is there a certain approach you take when your clients are females? I have my wife with me every time I have any photo session with a female, or a family in the studio. I respect their privacy, so I never show any of the pictures I take of them without consent.
In Saudi people are a little more conservative about their pictures displayed online, how does that affect you? It’s not the best thing in the world not to be able to show your pictures. It can be a set back sometimes, but in the end we live in a conservative culture and I have to adapt to clients’ wishes. I have done many projects that I can’t show. It doesn’t help my portfolio, but I get my satisfaction from the satisfaction of my clients
How do people in Saudi react to you holding a big camera on the streets, do they get defensive? People notice the camera like they do all over the world, it’s just that our streets are not that busy like London or New York were people are too busy to notice what you’re holding in your hands. In Saudi if you’re just walking around with a camera you do look suspicious. You should just try to avoid shooting random people in the streets. As long you are not invading anyone’s privacy you’ll be fine
Do you feel that censorship ties your freedom of expression? It is an obstacle, but not a major one. You have to try your best to work around it, and meet half way. It pushes you; when you have boundaries you try to push, dig into your brain and be more creative in your shots, angles and ideas.
What would you say to the people who bring down what you do, people that say this is an easy job you just click a button? I would like them to try it ☺
There are many people who are interested in photography, but feel held back because they don’t have the Big SLR, and all the other sophisticated equipment? It’s really not about the camera; new technology has made it easier for beginners to showcase their talent. I’ve been doing a 365 day project, , where I take one photo a day and I’ve been taking most of my pictures with an iPhone ! To be honest sometimes I question why I have all the other gear because I’m producing amazing pictures with just an iPhone. It’s really not about the equipment, it’s about the person behind the camera.
In Saudi, usually being a girl can be very limiting in terms of work, but one can say it’s the other way in Photography as most of the clients are women and don’t accept the idea of a male taking their photograph -how is it being a guy photographer? Females do have a huge advantage because they can photograph men or women. This is why I always encourage the ladies to get into this profession. Although they have the biggest portion of society I don’t see that being a man is a huge problem. Males can focus on male related work or take the commercial route .
Project Hope –The Breast Cancer Campaign, was one of your successful campaigns, can you tell us more about it? It was inspired by a famous Saudi photographer called Mokhtar Chahine, who started this project by taking pictures that represented hope as a part of the breast cancer campaign. I really wanted to do something that would spread hope and raise awareness, so I contacted him, and started with my Hope Project. Unfortunately I didn’t do as many pictures as I hoped to this year, but will definitely continue doing this in the coming years.
What kind of social campaigns you intend to address in the future? I look forward to do campaigns that touch people and address cultural aspects in Saudi. Social Campaigns are an opportunity for everybody no matter what profession they are in to somehow give back to the community. If my abilities can help me to send a message across and raise awareness towards an important issues I’ll do it
What do you say to people who people who questioned your intentions criticized saying that you have used a social issue of a way to advertise your work…? To be honest I don’t really care much. Intentions are scared and between a person and God, so people can judge all they want.
How do you deal with criticism? I mostly take criticism form people who understand photography. I do listen to everybody’s point of view, and try to improve. But I highly appreciate people who critique my work from a technical or conceptual point of view. But when people critique me just for the sake of critiquing I let these people slide and continue on.
Hythem you have a background in Arts, Graphics design in addition to photography, what do you think can help the art scene pick up? We are not raised to love and appreciate different form of arts. So when you are raised as a kid not knowing much about art you don’t really value it. A lot of things start when you are young, you learn languages when you’re young…learn ethics…and We don’t emphasize on Arts and humanities in our schools. When you go into a shop that sells Iranian carpets and you don’t know the story of how it’s made and that it took 6 months to be produced you won’t value or pay for it. All this is new to us so it will take time.
How much in your opinion twitter, Facebook, and other social networks have helped? They helped a lot in terms of exposure because when you first start you don’t usually have the money or the assets to do marketing campaigns for yourself. I have a website but I still do get most of my clients through Facebook and twitter it’s amazing how these social networks get around.
Can you give me an example? I was doing a Vimto campaign in Ramadan, and by the end of the campaign the CEO of the company that owns Vimto in Saudi contacted me after he had seen it on Twitter.
What are you working on at the moment? I’m working on “My New Baby Project” ; A photography show that will go on YouTube soon, it’s a mix of different things, as we try to get a lot of messages across to people. Photography is not about equipment or the glamour its about the person behind the camera
What advice do you give to beginners who are starting up their businesses in photography or Art related projects? Persistence is Key; they have to keep doing it. I know how they feel when they are sitting with family member in Eid or other occasions and they feel awkward or embarrassed or unappreciated. We are used to certain jobs that we tell our kids to go into, and going outside this bubble can be hard; but when there’s a will there’s a way.
How important is it to have the support of people around you? Very Very important, you need all the support you can get from family and friends. There has been times where I thought of quitting it’s not easy in Saudi because sometimes they don’t really understand the talent that you have. I’ve been told my numerous photographers that no matter how good you are, no matter how big of a name you have, there will come months when the phone never ring. It’s important to have the support of people who keep pushing you to get better.