Olivia Arthur, Jeddah Diary, Fishbar 2012

 
 

The forbidden is always an alluring subject for a photographer. How does one capture that which is supposed to stay hidden? As viewers we revel in a chance glimpse of a world that is outlawed for the eyes of most. We seek encouragement in lifting back the veil from our own eyes so that we can have a greater perception of the world and people around us. And as image-makers we are captivated to share stories that would otherwise be lost or never told if not for our own inherited ambitions to do so. Arguably the most well known photographic co-operative uncovering the previously unseen is Magnum Photos. From legendary war photographers to contemporary artists, Magnum represents a diverse group of image-makers with a shared commonality in expanding global consciousness through photography. However, Magnum does lack significantly in numbers regarding one vital demographic, their representation of women.

 
 

© Olivia Arthur, Jeddah Diary

 
 

It’s hard to image with only five living female photographers currently being represented by Magnum, the organization can continue to keep up with the drastically changing world around it. No matter how historically domineering male photographers have been, they have never been able to fully represent the voice of women, nor can men gain access to every corner of the earth. Magnum Associate Member Olivia Arthur is an exquisite example of the significance women bring to the organization. Her book Jeddah Diary tells a story that could only be informed from a female perspective… a story both hidden from the world of men and only privately discussed in the world of women.

 
 

© Olivia Arthur, Jeddah Diary

 
 

Jeddah Diary is a chronicle of the time Arthur spent in Saudi Arabia from 2009-2010. While in Jeddah teaching a photography class for women, Arthur quickly became enveloped in the cultural taboos that coincide with the women’s own fear of being photographed. Her students would assure her their apprehension was just for show – a cultural principal that wasn’t necessarily based upon religion – a façade that at times was freely tossed aside. The women she befriended would take her into a world out of the mainstream. A world where men and women freely dated, where parties transpired and the rules of Saudi society were overlooked. The photographer floated from one bubble to the next, soaking it in and capturing a revealing account of the realities of modern life in a society often closed off to outsiders. Arthur shows us homes built to resemble private compounds, indoor swimming pools and rooms darkened from tightly drawn shades. She shows us a glimpse of how some women in Saudi society openly hide in one world, and secretly live in another.

 
 

© Olivia Arthur, Jeddah Diary

 
 

The complexity of Arthur’s subject is weaved together with the help of the book’s striking presentation and the photographer’s distinctive use of technique. Often blurred or hidden behind a veil or stylish head of hair, her subjects’ faces are rarely shown. Arthur also avoids exposing the women by making prints and later photographing them under a harsh light – causing a beautiful white obstruction. It is a technique seen throughout the book – one that not only gained the women’s trust in Arthur’s ability to hide their identity, but also allows for a small glimpse of their physical beauty and stylish sense of fashion to be known to the world. In one instance, after showing the final prints to the women she photographed, one replied, “That’s great, but can’t you show a bit more of her eyes so that people can see how beautiful she is?”

 
 

© Olivia Arthur, Jeddah Diary

 
 

Jeddah Diary allows us a brief glimpse into a forbidden world. It is a world Arthur depicts as a contradiction – one where some openly live an appearance of conservative values, but secretly seek to escape in youthful indulgence. Her book shows us a reality only a woman would be allowed to bare witness to, and shares a story that could only be told from a woman’s perspective. Jeddah Diary displays many sides to this reality, becoming a mesmerizing and haunting paradox. As Arthur states, “Inside I found a world that was at the same time appealing for its childish fun and unsettling for its lack of self-reflection.” The photographer’s own reflection of her time in Saudi Arabia transforms into a masterful narrative contained within the pages of this book. With its impressive design, Jeddah Diary functions as a rare example of documentation and personal journal, and seeks to lift the veil from our own eyes, guiding us to uncover a world previously unseen.

 

 

Antone Dolezal