‘My interest lies in the spaces around people, and what that space reveals about them,’ explains Wasma Mansour, the charming, erudite Saudi photographer exhibiting her Single Saudi Women project at the London Festival of Photography this year. The project is the culmination of a four year practice based PhD in which Mansour travelled the length and breadth of the UK, finding Saudi women who were willing to participate in her work. And participant, or musharikaat as it translates, is the operative word for Mansour. She explains further: ‘It’s a privilege for me to have been given access to these women’s lives and to their stories. I’m very much indebted to the women for allowing me in. They are willing participants, very much a part of the process and not just subjects or sitters.’
At the heart of Mansour’s work is the need to convey who Saudi women really are, rather than the stereotypical Western perceptions which have accumulated around them. In a contemplative series of intimate images, Mansour builds up a portrait of each participant; images of random objects on a kitchen table, a veil in a plastic bag, neatly folded clothes on a chair and a dress laid across a bed. For each woman, there is an anonymous photograph to draw the viewer inside her private life and reveal clues about her identity and sense of individuality.
‘Coming from an interior design background, my eye is drawn to spaces, objects and things which signify meaning for the women,’ says Mansour, ‘This is the starting point from which the stories emerge.’ The stories, which she gently draws from the participants, are highly personal and emotional, leaving the viewers with a feeling of having been part of the scene themselves.
For Mansour, the physical process of photographing is all part of the relationship she cultivates with the participants, with whom she spends months and in some cases, years.
Throughout the project, large format, medium format and DSLR cameras are all part of her methodology. Particularly when using a large format camera, with a lighting set up, the photography process is long and elaborate, ‘I feel the process is a dialogue in itself,’ she explains, ‘The participant and I have time to talk while I set up. We chat, we eat, we relax together before shooting the photographs.’ Mansour is adamant that the participant sees the proofs before printing them, to make sure they are happy with the result and doesn’t feel compromised. ‘I’m always amazed by the conversations that are sparked by the proofing exercise,’ she says, ‘It’s so different than using digital; much more tangible, which ensures the participant is thoroughly engaged in the process.’
The London Festival of Photography, of which Mansour’s work is a part, is a not-for-profit event bringing photography to the forefront of London’s cultural scene. Only in its second year, the mostly free festival offers a diverse programme of exhibitions, workshops, talks and screenings concerned with work from well renowned photographers such as Martin Parr and Chris Steele-Perkins, as well as up and coming photographersnd student practitioners such as Mansour. Grace Pattison, the festival curator who invited Mansour to present her work, explains: ‘The festival was curated around the theme Inside Out – Reflections on the Public and Private. We want to show photography as a tool for documentation, expression and collaboration.’
On finishing her PhD in November, Mansour is planning to return to Saudi Arabia to continue the project. ‘I originally began photographing Saudi women in Saudi, but it was impossible to get the film processed quickly enough, as I had to send it out of the country. I only had four years to complete my thesis so decided to relocate to the UK where there would be no issues with developing. But when there are no time limitations, I will continue with my original plan.’
Photography: Wasma Mansour (Images have been slightly cropped)
Single Saudi Women can be seen at the Hardy Tree Gallery until 30th June 2012
The London Festival of Photography www.lfph.org