Omani Women’s Liberation Through The Camera Lens

In Oman, many women today are enthusiastically embracing photography as a means to express their perceptions of the world they live in. Farhat Al Harthy, 29, and Amaal Al Busaidi are two such women. They had always wanted to present their world view through art but could not find the right medium until they picked up a camera.

Al Harthy’s tryst with photography began in 2006, although it was not until 2008, when she moved to Bahrain for a year to work for the Danish company, COWI, that she found herself completely hooked. She was thrilled by the sheer variety of stories she could tell through her pictures. It led her to join a weekend class for beginners to fine tune her basics and then follow this up by enrolling for a six week documentary photography workshop conducted by noted photographer Camille Zakharia.

The workshop had a great impact on Al Harthy and her style of photography. “Apart from honing technicalities of the craft, I also learnt a lot about how one presents an image,” says the young woman, who has worked on projects relating to women working in male-dominated spaces and empty spaces, specifically abandoned playgrounds.

Currently, Al Harthy is exploring conceptual photography in a big way. “I like to work with the image, creating a story or layering it with multiple graphics and images,” she says. The nature of her engagement with the genre reflects a desire to move beyond the image per se. “After a while, you become more conscious and think, okay, I have taken the pretty picture – now what?” says Al Harthy, who is still hesitant to bracket her photography in any particular genre. “Of course, I would love to have a body of work, which is reflective of my vision; however, conceptual photography is still unfamiliar in this part of the world and I too have to evolve and grow as a photographer,” she states.

When asked to list the advantages women photographers have over their male counterparts, Al Harthy notes that women are more adept at working with people as it’s easier for them to understand and navigate a subject’s emotional graph. They are also more open to experimentation and re-interpretation of traditional photography modes and norms. Men are more inclined towards portraits and landscape photography, she believes. “Guys definitely have it easier, logistically speaking. They can go camping and stay out for a few days, be up all night to photograph the sunrise, for example. There’s still a way out for us [women] but it takes much longer,” she says. “As a result, [men] tend to perfect tried and tested themes of landscapes.” It’s the restrictions on mobility – many families having issues with the vocation – that have led to women to pursue abstract and conceptual photography, thus entering a different realm altogether. However, Al Harthy resists from making any blanket judgments regarding photography and gender: “It depends a great deal on your individual vision and your mentors.”

Does negotiating complex technology pose a problem for women? Al Harthy is comfortable with her equipment and software – she uses a Canon 5D mark II camera; for prints she either goes to a photo center or uses her Cannon printer. To showcase her work, she uses the Internet, mostly social networking sites like Facebook, which have proved to be the ideal platform to incubate, showcase, and promote artistic talent. “I believe Facebook is the fastest way for exposure, it really is our community [when it comes to interaction and feedback],” she says.

Amaal Al Busaidi can certainly vouch for the facilitating role that Facebook has played in initiating her into photography last October. “I was always artistically inclined but finally found my true calling,” says Al Busaidi, who is a psychiatrist by profession. A member of the Oman’s Photographers group on Facebook, she received an invitation to an event showcasing the works of three photographers, followed by discussion. “I attended the event and found it very absorbing. I liked the way people from diverse walks of life were avidly discussing photography, all bound by the common passion for it,” she remarks. “I felt I belonged there.”

Around that time, Al Busaidi was due to visit Barcelona, Spain, and having become conscious of her interest, she invested in a Nikon D-90 camera. Her first photographic subjects were a group of children playing in a church school yard every morning opposite her hotel. She could observe them from her room window. “They would wake me up at 9 am sharp and I began taking random shots of them and their colorful environs,” Al Busaidi smiles. “I photographed by instinct, framing what I perceived to be a good composition,” she says. Soon, Al Busaidi began exploring the streets for pictures. “I would take a shot, not conscious of the people and actions it contained. Then, on returning and re-examining it, I would see a story emerging from it,” she says.

When she returned, Al Busaidi joined the Omani Photography Club, a society that is a part of the Omani Society for Fine Arts. She regularly attended its meetings and even showed some of her Barcelona pictures to senior members. “Everyone always said that I had an eye for photography and just needed to train it!” exclaims a delighted Al Busaidi. Some of her Barcelona pictures were put up at a recent exhibition the club organised to showcase the works of its members and she received a lot of praise for her raw, unvarnished images. “In fact, all women photographers present there presented exciting innovative work,” she shares.

However, Al Busaidi says pursuing photography in Oman is not easy. “Women are still inhibited and, of course, restricted mobility is a constant concern. I personally am not interested in nature or landscape shots; however, those women who are, find it difficult to overcome restrictions,” she says. Furthermore, social dynamics impact women differently. “I am from [the interior Omani town of] Nizwa; I cannot go into a Nizwa souk [bazaar] where everyone knows me and my family and start taking pictures there. If I want to photograph a souk, I would have to go to one in a different town,” she explains.

But Al Busaidi has overcome such handicaps because photography helps her capture that one nebulous element amid the frenetic action of life and she greatly enjoys returning to the image and figuring out what was going on within that frozen moment. “When I alter and manipulate the image through photoshop (computer photo software), I am investing a little bit of myself in the work,” she says. She claims to have become a photographer because she was essentially a lazy painter, “It is as if the image is a skeleton and I am fleshing it out with what I consider to be focal and significant to the image through colouring, cropping or other digital alterations.”

Despite her palpable enthusiasm for the medium, Al Busaidi says that she has a long way to go before she can hold a solo exhibition. “I am still trying to figure out my identity in photography. I want to express Amaal in my work, rather than just any other photography enthusiast,” she firmly states. Now, as she plans to go abroad for further specialisation in Psychiatry, she would also like to pursue street photography there. As she puts it, “For me, photography has played a vital role in helping me rediscover myself.”

Clearly, Omani women are embracing the craft of photography as much as a means of expressing themselves as for presenting their visual identities to the world.

(c) Women’s Feature Service