"I had this tutor who was in my undergraduate degree in London, when I was studying graphic design. He was quite misogynistic, if I'm being honest. He said, 'When you go back to Kuwait, they're going to marry you off, Daddy's going to buy you a Porsche, dah dah dah…' I was just like…" Lara Al-Hadeedi sighs unamusedly. She says, "And so, that comment planted the seed."
The Gulf state of Kuwait is a large presence in Lara's life. While it boasts more women than men in the workforce, and the country has ranked best in equality in its region, gender stereotyping is rife—something that Al-Hadeedi noted when she went through local magazine offerings. "There's such a disconnect between the progressive stuff that women are doing and what's bring put out there for the mainstream. There should be something else that other women can look towards locally, rather than having to constantly import ideas."
Al-Hadeedi then put together the Active Arab Women series, which raises awareness of Kuwaiti women across the fitness spectrum: from Zumba instructors to Crossfit fans, to kickboxers and triathletes. The project, which is a website, a book called Sweat & Dust, and a forthcoming Instagram account, also serves as a way of subverting typical female stereotypes.
"The strength, the discipline, the pushing through the hardships, the moving past things that were drawing attention to their personal lives…" Al-Hadeedi lists. "[Fitness] is just about a whole other mission, which should be respected more. That sense of, 'No-one, not even the men, not even the conservative Islamic fundamentalists in the government, is going to get in my way' is, for me, quite activist in itself."
The idea of fitness as activism was tempered by the everyday pressures leveled at Kuwaiti women. "I think also the development of muscles and the idea of the tomboy is very looked down upon in society, so a lot of women back in Kuwait have to say, 'Well, I do this, but I'm also very girly.'" Al-Hadeedi needed to reach an aesthetic detente between stereotypically masculine and feminine traits.
"I wanted to shoot them as best I could, with assured poses. I did not want the stereotypical body posing that you see in those magazines there. I tried to keep that in the back of my mind when I was taking pictures and just try to get to know their little quirks, or what makes them stand out for them. Rather than constantly being about what they look like, it was more about how they are present in the shots."
The strength of the portrait poses is tempered by a diffuse pink light. "The muscles against the lighting looked great. I thought just from an aesthetic point of view it was really strong and it made more sense. Although it's drawing upon a massive cliche, I wanted something that would contrast in bold. I'm hoping that the lighting doesn't remind people of red neon, which is a whole different connotation," Al-Hadeedi laughs.
For the book, she shot one athlete in her sports bra, who agreed to it only on the proviso that the photos stay off the internet. "She had the most incredible body. And she said that no-one had ever seen her body like this. No-one ever, not even in the gym. When she saw the pictures, she was so surprised and amazed and really proud of herself, that that's what she looked like through the lens of my camera."
Despite the satisfaction these athletes draw from physical activity, many aspects of sport and fitness are seen as shameful or immature by society at large. "Even to this day, these girls—not just the ones that I was talking to, but generally—sport isn't taken seriously. There comes a point where the families, maybe in the case of five of the athletes I shot, once they reached the age of 20, it was like, 'C'mon now, when are you going to settle down and make some proper life choices?'"
"People are obsessed with beauty bloggers and fashion addicts. While that's ironic to me because I love all that kind of communication, I do think it's a bit jading. I thought that I could take a more objective role by viewing something that I don't partake in at all. If I was really into sport, I'm not sure if that would affect the way I've shot them. Because I don't want those shots to look uber sporty and like they were preparing for the Olympics in the gym… I didn't want to do that at all. I wanted to bring it back to a more elevated, everyday [aesthetic]. I wanted it to be translatable across any kind of audience."
As of now, the project stands alone, but Al-Hadeedi is looking forward to returning to Kuwait and getting more done. For the Active Arab Women series, she had only two weeks to shoot. "I pulled it together quite fast. It was lucky and unlucky at the same time. I'll do more in the future. Hopefully, when I go back this winter, I'll have a few more."