I was really looking forward to this event as I'm always eager to promote women's rights and issues and curious to see how it had been arranged by the group of local women. I was anticipating a pleasant and relaxing afternoon and getting some high quality pics to share with the world but it turned out something totally different.
When I arrived at the event with my mom the honest, obsessive-compulsively rule-following inner-Finn in me whispered into in my ears, "you should ask permission" "you must obey the rules". I tried to fight saying chillax, it's Saudi, honesty and going by the rules don't always go down like that. But the inner-Finn won the battle and I approached the people involved in arranging the event. BIG MISTAKE, huge.
Naturally I'm aware of how some Saudi women feel about photos, especially in women only events. However, having attended many such events, I knew women often took pictures with their iPhones and small compact cameras without any disturbance from on-lookers. I always thought Saudis thought images taken with anything other than a so called professional camera were in fact, not images at all.
I told the women involved in organizing the event that I would like to take some pics to promote the event and spread the message. I underlined the fact that I would just shoot places and things, not women. I mentioned I work with an agency that sells photos to various international media about interesting events in the Middle-East, and this would be a great chance to promote their event.
The woman I talked to started the blah blah blah of how Saudi women feel about photography. I stressed I would not shoot women.
I was told they already have volunteer photographers there and they could send me the pics.
So photography is going on at the event. Wait, didn't you just say the women were so bothered by it? She wondered why they hadn't confiscated my camera at the door.
I told this person I obviously can't send other peoples pics to the agency as my own.
I think I'm a pretty decent photographer, so I asked can I be one of those volunteers and share all my pics with them?
Again, no. We already have seven.
Really, seven? So you have photographers in every corner taking pictures here, why can't I do it too? Because of how some women feel, apparently. Well I'm sorry but those women just need to get over themselves. I am not going to shoot you in your pink jumpsuit or show your heavily make-uped faces and huge hairdos. As if I have no respect and dignity. I'm here for the important cause and wish to promote it. Not to violate faces.
I mentioned to this person how I wanted to at least just shoot the floating lanterns. No, it's not allowed.
Come on it's LANTERNS not women. Geez. I had envisioned an image of hands simultaneously lifting the floating Chinese lanterns into the sky, maybe having a slow shutter speed to make it look a little hazy to capture the movement. But I should have known better.
It's just beyond me why the organizers didn't want to promote their event and the cause as much as possible worldwide. This indifference is the typical Saudi attitude for anything remotely interesting, it seems.
I bet it would do a lot of good for foreigners to see that such events do go on in Saudi, and best yet, the event is arranged by Saudi women. So it would spread a positive picture of Saudi women as doers and makers and also of Saudi in general, in addition to the actual event.
No but let's just keep to the bleak, joyless, confined image of Saudi women's life the rest of the world has. Why show anything positive?
I was pretty annoyed at this point. I tried to stay positive anyway and enjoy the event.
So we went in the hall where they had a few booths selling some pink items and then other educational ones teaching women about breast cancer. We bought some things and took brochures. The best booth by far was the U.S embassy health services booth. They had some rubber breasts you could palpate and try to detect the tumors.
I had already noticed Saudis and women of various other nationalities snapping away with all sorts of capturing devices that don't produce real images. Oh look it's me and the flower arrangement. Snap. Or look I bought this pink hairband! Snap. No one seemed to care. My annoyance grew but I kept my camera confined because the uber-honest inner-Finn still had the power over me.
Here is an example of a non-image. You can't actually see it, because it's been taken with an iPhone, but I swear I uploaded it and its right below this text. It shows the ambassadors wife wearing a really cool knitted pink scarf. "Photo" credit goes to Zaki Safar, founder of Saudi Men for Women Driving, whose sister actually made that lovely scarf. Thanks for letting me use the non-image!Check out his excellent blog on Saudi women's rights http://zakisafar.com/
After a few minutes the U.S ambassador's wife came to join them and the joyful photo shoot session continued. My irritation grew to the point I felt if I was a teapot my lid would fly in the air because of the steam in my head. Mom was pretty annoyed by all this too. She knew that I was missing a great job opportunity as well as the this whole no photos thing was turning out to be a complete joke.
We spent a few minutes talking to the embassy people, they were so nice and professional. Then something just clicked (not my camera, but perhaps the honest inner-Finn fainted from all the rule breaking going on) and I thought to myself why not just shoot a few photos here? So I asked the women and they agreed. The photo is not even that great because I was scared to use a flash in fear of being exposed and then jumped on by Saudi anti-camera activists, plus I had my wide angle lens on which distorted the photo a bit.
I did have one picture opportunity of the walk as I watched the women far away pass a "Think Pink" sign. I focused with my mega zoom onto the sign and the women walking past behind the fence remained unrecognizable blurry figures. My heart was pounding. I felt like a sniper.
I came back to the table to find this scene: One annoyed and freezing mother, pink flowers and women walking in the background. So I thought it's time to take a break.
I had set my goal to take that awesome lantern pic I had dreamed of. Nothing was going to stop me. Not even that enormous black clad security ninja. I knew everyone was going to want to capture that moment anyway with their non-camera capturing devices. But here's a pic of the clouds turning pink as if someone from above is sending a sign of support :)
No floating lanterns for us. I bet it was beautiful though.