Regulars / Nicer Tuesdays

Yumna Al-Arashi on representation, tokenism and the attitude-changing power of photography

Writer, photographer and filmmaker Yumna Al-Arashi treated the audience of March’s Nicer Tuesdays to a thought-provoking and nuanced discussion of representation in photography, while also presenting several of her projects which challenge and complicate stereotypes of Muslim women.

Yumna began her talk by addressing how representation has become a “hot topic” for organisations but one often paid lip service without actual change. “I wonder if our rallying for representation is actually of substance or if it’s actually creating more division in our spaces,” she told the Nicer Tuesdays audience. She stressed how the highest grossing people in photography were still white and male, making it an industry desperate for reform. “Diversity becomes irrelevant if the framework for our institutions remains the same.”

Through her work, Yumna aims to create powerful imagery that both stands out and creates more spaces for people like her, she explained. A question she often asks herself is, "How can I use my photography to inject my perspective into a narrative that has been so long dominated by a gaze which is satisfied by a one-dimensional view of people like me?” Spanning anthropology, journalism, fashion, fine art and commercial work, Yumna explained it was important for her to not be put in a box. "My work is a representation of me and I contain multitudes,” she said.

Yumna started off her career working in journalism but was deeply dissatisfied by the moral compass she found. It was particularly unjust and sensational when depicting Muslims and people from Arab nations. "The bodies that we see in the news deserve the same respect as we’d give our own families,” she said. She went on to discuss her 2013 project Northern Yemen, where she photographed women she deeply respected wearing veils and in powerful positions, using their body to express themselves. Yumna spoke of her struggle to get the series published, despite offering it to “every editor under the sun”.

Yumna then led the audience through another fascinating project documenting the decline of facial tattoos among women in the Middle East and North Africa. Yumna’s great-grandmother on her Yemeni side had herself been tattooed, a sign of power and matriarchal strength, but the practice has decreased dramatically with younger generations. Communicating directly with the women she was photographing, hearing their stories and respecting their voices was vital to the success of the project, and was a dramatically different approach to that of the white colonialist writers she’d read to learn more about the practice’s history. “I learnt so much more than from all the books at SOAS,” she said.

Commercial projects have offered Yumna opportunities to explore topics in depth – an insight that challenged the notion that important work can only be done through personal projects. Yumna shared her Shedding Skin project, a series of large-scale photographs and a film depicting Arab women in a hammam as an antidote to the orientalist trope found throughout art history. The project was funded by Asos, without any stipulation about what she could produce. “I knew my work could lure people in if I could present them with familiar images and once I had them in those spaces in LA and New York, (literally a few months after Donald Trump was elected – there was this heightened sense of stress and fear in the air), I could present them [with new ideas] through the film.”

Next, she shared The 99 Names of God, a film she made for Nowness about the rituals of Islam. “I thought, ‘There is no positive imagery out there made by a woman from a woman’s perspective about the religion’,” she said. Reassuring the audience that if they felt confused by some of the ideas her talk had presented, that that was a positive outcome. “Confusion can challenge us to question the world around us, and that’s what we need.”

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