Canon Ambassador Tasneem Alsultan on breaking gender stereotypes through photography

Saudi-American documentary photographer Tasneem Alsultan is best known for her work on gender and social issues in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. We sat down with her to talk about how she uses her photography to change the narratives that surround women and men in Saudi Arabia and the importance of having greater representation behind the lens.

Tasneem’s’ interest in photography began when she was about nine years old and asked her parents for a camera for her birthday. They bought her a cheap camera with about 30 frames on it, which she used to document everything.

Professionally, it wasn't until about 2010 that Tasneem’s’ career kicked off. It started when Tasneem moved to Saudi with her daughters, wanting to capture the move and their experience. At the time, Tasneem didn’t know how to use lighting or the camera settings and manual functions. She had the tools, but not the knowledge. She played around with it and got some photos which she ended up sharing on Facebook. She receiving around 1000 likes and all these messages from people wanting her to take photos of their children. At first, Tasneem was just shooting them on her camera and printing them at home to send to people and now Tasneem’s’ photos of Saudi women have been showcased in photography festivals around the world.

When talking about the barriers she may have faced as female photographer and how she overcame them; she expressed that at the time she started photography, she was working as a lecturer teaching English as a second language. She had no background in photography – in fact, her Master’s degree was in anthropology – but she always had a dream to do something more artistic. She never expected that one day she’d be a professional photographer, so in a sense the barrier Tasneem faced was her own - an internal mental block. Tasneem just didn’t think she could do it. However, after a year or so of capturing photos of people’s children, Tasneem was asked to shoot a wedding. It was at this point that she became really invested in herself as a photographer, because “ if someone is paying you to document your wedding, then you really need to know how to use your kit and to predict when those special moments are coming.”

Talking about her inspiration behind capturing gender and social issues in Saudi Arabia, Tasneem expressed “Well, my photography mirrors what I was focusing on in my thesis around Saudi women and their understanding of themselves in relation to Saudi men. Saudi has a variety of people with different backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures, but they were united by the fact that women were seen as less important than men. Up until a year ago, my father was my legal male guardian. He allowed me to travel, but for many women their male guardians wouldn’t have allowed this.

Now, with the leadership of the crown prince we are witnessing change. For instance, women are now able to drive. Analysing these changes in a written thesis is so different to having a visual archive. That’s why I am so passionate about capturing these sociocultural changes and one day being able to show my daughters how things have transformed for women.”

Tasneem also expressed how in photos, Saudi women tend to be portrayed as victims, and they’re men villainised and it’s just not always accurate. Tasneem’s grandparents insisted that all their daughters were treated the same as their sons. Her mother was supported by her father to go to school, and she is a professor and dean of a university. In fact, many women of her generation became doctors, engineers and CEOs. She grew up surrounded by women who had careers and that’s not like the stereotype that’s perpetuated of Saudi women as ‘stay-at-home princesses’. “People forget that the change we are seeing is not something that’s just happened over night, it's been happening for generations enforced by her parents and grandparents.”

Tasneem’s job is to portray Saudi women with more respect than they are normally given. “You can always tell if a photo of a Saudi woman has been taken by another woman or a local, because they will leave room for their story.I love photographing the women of Saudi in the way they see themselves – I let them instruct mewhen I take their picture. They usually choose the location and what to wear.” She expressed

When talking about the importance of having a female behind the lens, Tasneem mentioned; “It's incredibly important to have representation. Even if I wasn’t documenting Saudi women in relation to Saudi men, I have to be able to relate to my subjects beyond just seeing them as a stereotype. Many women in this part of the world have been marginalised and stereotyped by the rest of the world and that’s incredibly harmful. They are not just subjected to this view by Saudi men, but the rest of the world.”

When Tasneem photograph her subjects, she gives them the agency to direct her in the way they want to be perceived. Even if one of her subjects has been abused, Tasneem doesn’t want to just portray them as a victim – many of these women are superheroes. For instance, one woman she captured who wanted to get out of her marriage went and found her husband a second wife, she paid her dowry and then divorced him. It would be so inaccurate for Tasneem to just portray her as someone that was physically and emotionally abused when she was strong enough to do all this and free herself. “ There are so many women that have surpassed the obstacles and constraints of society, religion and even our own government. That’s why its important to have photographers that relate to their subjects and try to understand them on a deeper level – not just by portraying a stereotype.”

Discussing what can photography bring to this narrative that words can’t, Tasneem said that instead of writing a thesis that only a few people would read, one image can be as striking as a whole book. “If that shot triggers emotion, then I've succeeded as a photographer. That’s my aim - to have an impact on people around the world who may never get a chance to meet these women. I want to change the way the rest of the world sees Saudi women and help people relate to them. Emotionally we are all very similar - we grieve and celebrate in the same way, but a lot of the differences we see are portrayed by the media.”

Tasneem’s dream would be to have her images printed and displayed somewhere outside of the Middle East. Already, her images have been in a photo festival in Nepal and the impact of it was incredible.

Prior to the festival, Tasneem was a bit apprehensive about what the Nepalese opinion of Saudi women would be, but it was completely different to what she experienced. “I remember being at the festival and a Nepalese man stopped and looked at one of the pictures and said, “I can relate to this woman. I just got divorced and am a child of divorce.” Another said, “Oh I relate to this woman and the struggle of raising my kids on my own.” They looked past the clothes and the homes and saw the person within. And that’s my goal as a photographer to break down some of those borders.”

If you are a female photojournalist inspired by Tasneem’s story, why not consider applying for Canon’s Female Photojournalist Grant .

Applications will open on 15th March 2022.

About Tasneem Alsultan:

Born in the US and raised between the United Kingdom and Saudi where she is currently based, Tasneem Alsultan is an investigative photographer, storyteller and global traveller. With an inquisitive eye and camera at hand, she offers intimate and unique perspectives into the everyday lives of her subjects, telling their stories from her heart while striving to humanize and connect their realities to her audiences. Her work largely focuses on documenting social issues and rights-based topics in Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf region through a gender lens, challenging stereotypical perceptions of the Middle East and portraying a region and people that do not conform to expectations.