The American Suburb in the Middle of the Saudi Desert
We spoke to photographer Ayesha Malik about her new project, which focuses on her hometown: a settlement built to house the employees of the world’s largest oil and gas company.
Christmas lights at Lava Circle. All photos: Ayesha Malik
Above the Oilfields, a new project by photographer Ayesha Malik, is a window into her childhood. Malik grew up in Dhahran Camp, a town that looks like your typical American suburb but built in the Saudi Arabian desert to house the employees of Saudi Aramco, the world's largest oil and gas company.
For all the inherent strangeness in images of suburban banality transposed into an alien landscape, the book is not scathing or critical. In it, Malik has intentionally avoided passing judgment on the place she calls home, choosing to focus on the settlement's positive traits and the normality of her childhood.
Her photos—along with reproduced company literature, found object,s and family mementos—create a strangely personal, honest, and childlike view of a place that, to most, seems bizarre.
VICE : Can you describe Dhahran Camp?
Ayesha Malik: On paper, it's a gated community in Saudi Arabia originally built for American employees of the Arabian American Oil Company, now known as Saudi Aramco, one of the wealthiest companies in the world. These days, it's home to employees from all over the world. That description is full of associations for so many people. Someone reading this might already have them in mind.
On that note—preconceptions and so on—how did the culture of Dhahran strike you when young?
I don't really know where one culture ends and another starts in Dhahran, and I didn't grow up trying to find out. I grew up being more concerned about getting to the pool after school, getting my math assignment done, and managing to fit in watching a show on the Disney Channel just before my Qur'an class at home, where I learned to read Arabic.
I played lots of softball. In sixth grade, I went to my first school dance, the Halloween Social. I dressed up as an angel. I remember not wearing my glasses so that I could look pretty, because I'd hoped that when the slow song came on—probably something like NSYNC's "This I Promise You" or K-Ci and JoJo's "All My Life"—that maybe I would get asked to dance.
During Ramadan, all of Dhahran would take part; it was like a month-long season of solidarity and celebration. I'll never forget our wooden coffee table being a sort of Christmas tree in our house during Eid, where my mom and dad would secretly and quite mysteriously leave gifts to be found early in the morning before Eid prayer. The special extra cheap Barbie perfume I had requested was the gift of my dreams.
In ninth grade, as a Pakistani American, Saudi-born girl raised as a Muslim, I played guitar and sang "Your Body Is a Wonderland" at my school talent show.
It sounds pretty idyllic… and far more "normal" than many might expect.
I can't speak for everyone because there is no such thing as an "ideal town," nor do I think Dhahran is ideal, but I always felt safe and able to focus on being a kid. I think everybody in this world deserves to have that, and sadly that isn't the case. My life was so ordinary, that if it wasn't in Saudi Arabia, or part of the wealthiest oil company in the world… I'm not sure you would look twice.
As a kid, I definitely didn't look twice. It was my extraordinary ordinary—all of it. I talk about my identity crisis often, but I'm starting to realize I'm proud and thankful to have a multi-faceted identity. I get to be so many things at one time, and a part of so many worlds. It's taught me kindness and compassion above all else. It taught me to be human and see the world as a human.
In terms of the book, what's the message you want it to convey to readers, or would you rather not hone in on that?
Sometimes I feel describing the work too much defeats the point. It might be best to allow people to take their own directions with it. At the start of the book, I don't really give that much information to the reader. I guess I would describe it as "from my perspective" and no one else's. It's about the place I grew up in. Growing up there has defined how I see as a photographer. How I see the world. I felt like it was important to share that.
Not to make it more weighty than it is, but I think it's important to understand that common humanity and understanding among different people can happen. I grew up with a mixture of people; from the day I was born, that was my life. The xenophobia we still see today doesn't need to happen. In the book, I connect "different" people's lives to one another—through universal values of shared human experience and of family—to question and combat the prejudice we see toward Muslims, Saudis, and other Arabs. It's kind of my version of first aid to a problem I see in the world.
I had expected the book to be more critical at points, but it's a highly affectionate portrait of a community.
There are critical moments in the gaze of my affection. For every viewer, those critical moments can be different. If your intuition says there is a theme or idea explored in the book, there probably is. The whole work is a practice in trying to find a visual language to navigate those critical ideas in more complex ways, instead of dictating.
The book is made up of new photos, and also old family snaps, archival materials provided by Aramco to residents, found objects… There's a real depth to the project. How long have you wanted to make this book?
Even before I went to college, I was taking pictures. In my application to Parsons School of Design, I had done a project on the workers of Aramco… but when you go to school, and you're outside of the place you grew up in, you start to see it a little more clearly. While back home on holidays, I was taking photos—not thinking of a project, but because it was one of my favorite things to do, to document life there. When it came down to picking a thesis project, I decided I didn't want to waste my time looking for projects in New York that I wasn't really interested in; it had to be something that held weight for me, which I thought other people could relate to in some way.
Poring over the book, one feels at times almost strangely engaged with you and your life. There are the childhood letters, notes, your family… was it hard to make something so personal a public document?
I am a shy person. I don't really like to talk about myself. It was hard to make the book reflect how I feel about my life and myself. The book is personal, but I tried to make sure it wasn't so personal that it would isolate someone looking at it. There are, of course, parts of my life that are not in there. There are moments that some people will respond to and others won't. I wanted it to be personal without drowning the viewer in my memories. There is, I hope, a lot of space in the book for people to come to their own conclusions.
"Big oil" is a charged subject. It must have been hard to make a book that's ostensibly about the biggest oil company in the world, yet also so personal. How did people react? Did you find people wanted you to be making a statement about oil or politics?
I've been talking to my family and friends about this a lot. This is where I grew up. The book is about this community. I'm not naïve about the fact that it's part of an oil company. I am aware of the political or environmental ramifications of that, and lots of other routes people might want to go down. It's a weird conflicted thing for me. I don't agree with the environmental and societal impact of oil. It becomes a game of policing my identity for other people and a historical "what if?" I am not oil, and I am not an oil company. Where does one draw a line between Aramco as a giant oil company versus Aramco as home? This place happens to be my circumstance. My time there was very positive, and I wanted to share that.
The book does touch on these moments—toward the edges of this suburban neighborhood there's a huge oil tank with the company logo on it, for example. It was something I didn't think about growing up, but which occasionally would confront me. You can look at the book in so many ways. As a formal photographic project, as a child's view of growing up, as a political statement... there are about 80 different ways you can go at it, and none of them are explicitly wrong. Everyone has a right to his or her interpretation.
I think that the message you get from that almost childlike viewpoint is that how you grow up, and the world you grow up in, really does change how you see things as an adult. If anything, what I want people to take away is the idea that we should question the world around us and how we interpret information. We should slow down and think.
Aramco: Above the Oilfields is out now on Daylight Books.
See more photos below:
For more check out Ayesha Malik's website.