Olivia Arthur Photographs a Side of Women the West Rarely Sees
Last year, we struck up a partnership with Magnum – arguably the world's most famous photo agency – that allowed us to run some of their most amazing pictures at our website. Now, the series of interviews with their member-photographers, all of whom have to undergo a gruelling induction process, returns for 2014.
Olivia Arthur’s groundbreaking work on young women in Saudi Arabia became the 2012 book, Jeddah Diary. This project, along with her wider project, Middle Distance, examines women’s lives along the fault lines between Europe and Asia, and in societies often deemed closed to the West. Olivia became a Magnum member in 2013.
I spoke to her about the difficulties of working with women in segregated societies, and whether there’s an over-arching theme to her work. Turns out, there’s probably not.
VICE: So, first off – how did you go from being an Oxford Maths student to being a photographer?
Olivia Arthur: Well, it was a bit of a jump. I was working at the student newspaper, which got me into taking photos. I had enjoyed photography before that, but working there I started taking it more seriously. I won the Guardian Student Media Award and thought, 'Oh, maybe I can make a career out of this.' People try to make a connection between the Maths degree and photography, but really they are just two very different things. I was more interested in the real world than the abstract, in the end.
After I finished university I went to India. I didn't go out and do anything big; I just went there and started working, shooting small bits for magazines and newspapers, mainly British titles.
In what way do you think your early career in India directed your work?
I think I learned to be a photographer in India. Which obviously shaped what I have done since. In terms of photography, India is obviously a very hectic, colourful and chaotic place, and while there I switched to medium format, which is a lot quieter and stiller. I think I was trying to see through all that chaos to something calmer. Also, in terms of subject matter, my time there led me to a couple of years – well, many years – of working on projects on women.
Your photos of India's "untouchables" and the caste system in the country, were they part of your early work there?
No. That was something I have gone back since to do, and is ongoing. I did do a fair bit of work in Kashmir the first time round, which certainly initiated my thoughts on working on women.
When you mention your projects on women, are you referring to your book project, Jeddah Diary, or Middle Distance?
Well, Middle Distance was the project that was directly influenced by my time in India. After India, I was in Italy doing my residence at a place called Fabrica. I wanted to start working on this project about women at the points of crossover between East and West. The project itself was about the border between Europe and Asia – that was the starting point – but ultimately it was about the stories of different women I met on my journey along that border. Off the back of that I ended up going to Iran and then to Saudi Arabia. I want to make this earlier work into a book as well, but Saudi Arabia was more of a concise part of the project involving a relatively small number of people, that became Jeddah Diary.
Saudi Arabia is a famously cloistered society, at least in the eyes of Western observers, and especially when it comes to the lives of women. Jeddah Diary conveys both that cloistered aspect, but also a rarely depicted relaxed side to the life of women there. I assume it was a very difficult project to do?
I didn't really go with an expectation of what it would be like. But it was the hardest thing I have ever tried to do. At some points, I was ready to give up. One thing that helped my access was that I was teaching a workshop there for women photographers, that was a great help, but it's not a place where you can meet someone in the street and take photos, you can't do that at all. As a woman I could be invited into the home and could see these inner worlds.
Despite being very private people, they are also very hospitable. The camera was bringing some of the outside world into their inside world, which could be hard. Some of the girls actively liked the idea of having their photos taken and made public, but I – having, for example, met their parents – at times thought it was not a good idea. So the motivation to obscure identities in the book came from them, not me.
It’s terribly closed there, and even when you get inside this closed world, you can then take pictures that you then can’t use. There are so many layers of complication, sets of rules about what you can and cannot show, and just as you think you have understood it, there’s some different version of the rules. It became very confusing.
That’s what I tried to do with the book, to show people the journey I had been on. Not to say: “Saudi Arabia is like this and this,” but to say, “It CAN be like this and it can be like this,” drifting into these different worlds I saw while I was there. That’s something that I think people forget when they talk about a place like Saudi Arabia – they try to put it all under one big banner. Everyone’s really conservative, or everyone’s having these crazy parties. And it's not true, there are very different worlds, and some people cross between these worlds, these separate bubbles.
Some of the photos in the book, you chose to obscure the faces by re-photographing prints with glare on the faces. It sounds like a compromise, but I guess it works with the book's whole subject to convey that world and the pressures in it?
It was absolutely not something I planned on doing. But yes, in a way it re-emphasises that point. I went through this process of taking a lot of photos, and realising I couldn't use them. And it took me a long time to figure out how to do it. Could I blur the faces? Or can you cut them out? I didn't want to use black marker and make them look like criminals. It took a long time to come up with it. I think it works, it’s quite soft, and it retains that closeness and at the same time offers anonymity. People might find it odd, but yes, I think it explains their situations well. The contradictions between intimacy and actually being quite far away.
How did working with women in Iran differ to your work in Saudi Arabia?
Obviously, as countries, they are so very different. What you have in Iran is long-standing Western influence. A large middle class in Tehran who are very aware, very self aware and very much in touch with the West. They don't live in that "bubble" in the way that people in Saudi Arabia do. Saudi Arabia is a younger country; the Western influence is more recent. In Iran, the women I met know what they think and they aren't afraid to say what they think, they are far more confident and tougher.
In Iran you also have a much tougher ruling system. The problem there is whether the police will stop you taking photos, whether they see you as a threat and so on. I found that less of a worry in Saudi Arabia; the religious police there might tell me to put my headscarf on but they seemed more concerned with privacy than my being a threat to security or political danger. The people themselves in Saudi are more likely to judge you, and actually to judge each other when it comes to photography. People are worried about what others think of them, it’s a small society, and that’s a concern for people.
Thinking about Middle Distance, Jeddah Diary, your work on the caste systems, and the weird places where East meets West; do you feel they are tied together by some wider theme? About segregation, maybe? Or dual standards between sexes or social classes?
Is there a link? I don't know. I started doing work about women because, I suppose, I was surprised or moved by what I had seen in India – what was expected of them and how they were treated. The work about the caste system obviously came out of my time there, so I suppose it's connected in a way, but each thing is different.
When I was first in India I always had this feeling that everyone was talking about change; I was there from 2003 to 2006, and it was all the "India shining" stuff – "India’s going to take over the world". But I was struck by how, in some ways, things didn't change at all. The caste system is, I think, something that really holds back a lot of change in India. I am interested in that feeling, that idea, and how even if you get rid of the names of these castes, people are still judged on the colour of their skin and other things. That’s what fascinates me and that's why it's such a big project. Can you throw off these feelings of superiority and inferiority?
So, in that way it is very different to my projects on women, which are not about hierarchies. I don't see it that way. The projects about women are about women and how they deal with their situations. It's about them, not the men around them. Its not: "Women are treated as second-class citizens," it's a much more feminine thing than that – about women in their lives, making what they can out of a situation, good or bad.
Click through to see more photography by Olivia Arthur.