This month on PDNOnline, photographer Peter DiCampo, co-founder
of Everyday Africa, talks about supporting stories told by African
photographers and changing the media’s portrayal of the continent. 34 p dn on li n e. c om JULY 2017
What may surprise Western audiences about Tasneem Alsultan’s
take on love, marriage and divorce for Saudi women is how familiar it
all feels. Her subjects fall in and out of love, raise kids alone and live
day-to-day like women everywhere. Alsultan, a 2017 PDN’s 30, has
won accolades for “Saudi Tales of Love.” But she says her refusal to
tell a more predictable narrative has cost her.
“If [the women] were all wearing niqab and you could only
see their eyes, if I gave that story of victimized women, and how
injured they are, and how the Arab man is the worst person ever,
that story would have given me much more power, it would have
been published everywhere…I would have gotten much, much more
recognition,” Alsultan says. “But I didn’t want that because it’s not
the truth.” (Only a small percentage of Saudi marriages end because
of rape or abuse, she explains.)
Alsultan was born in the U.S. to Saudi parents, and educated in
the U.S., UK and Saudi Arabia. Straddling cultures, she is attuned
These stories dangerously focus on the superficiality of sex rather
than the complexities of gender identity,” she says.
In Lima, the local media also tended to depict the women as
thieves and criminals, Villasana says. She attributed those negative
depictions to machismo, and to conservative social and religious
values that so marginalize trans women in the first place, they have
little choice but to turn to prostitution to survive.
Villasana didn’t ignore the sex work of her subjects—it’s an
integral part of their story, she explains—but she saw it as far from
the complete story. “I’m sensitive to making sure I’m photographing
all aspects of a story,” including images that showed their relationships
and how they live their lives day to day.
It hasn’t been easy to eschew a sensational approach. Villasana
recalls that when a well-known photographer critiqued her work,
he told her: “Don’t photograph the daily life stuff. That’s boring.
Nobody wants to see that. They want to see the sexy stuff.” She concedes
that the “sexy stuff” is a lot easier to get published. But to give in
to that, she says, “just contributes to the stereotypes in the media.”
It’s important to show the many sides of subjects’ lives, she explains,
“so we’re not creating the same narrative over and over again, which
is most of the time largely negative.”
To her subjects, of course, she’s an outsider they had no particular
reason to trust. Villasana worked hard to overcome that, in order to
get the access she needed to tell the story with depth. “Photographs
don’t come first. It’s building relationships, getting to know someone,
getting to know the issues, doing a ton of research, building trust
with someone. And then taking pictures.”
She explained to subjects that she was trying to raise awareness about
their lives, and use that to affect positive change for them. But she also
offered to help more directly, though she wouldn’t give them money.
She recalls saying when she first met one of her subjects, “It’s fine if you
don’t want to be photographed. I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”
Villasana proceeded to make sure the woman, who had tuberculosis
and HIV, had a healthcare volunteer to oversee her medications and
other needs. “She had no friends, no family. She had nobody,” says
Villasana, adding, “Yeah, I did cross the line between caretaker and
photographer. But am I going to leave her there to die? I’m not going
to do that.
“We can only hope our stories create change, but if there are
opportunities to help [subjects] on a personal individual level, I feel
it is my duty to do that, otherwise I would just be taking, taking, taking,”
Villasana says. —DAVID WALKER
Tasneem alsulTan on arab Women
above: Early viewers of Villasana’s work sometimes discouraged her from
pursuing LGB TQ topics because they were “trendy,” but she’s glad she
persisted. When people lack basic human rights, “if there is something I can do
to try to change that, then I should,” she says.
“I learned to gIve the people you’re
photographIng a voIce—that they’re
In control of the narratIve, not you.
It’s never about the photographer.”
— Tasneem alsul Tan