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Amira Al-Sharif

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Amira Al-Sharif

A few weeks ago I met Amira Al-Sharif in the Balie in Amsterdam. The meeting gave me quite a headache. How can I, as a Dutch curator from Amsterdam, judge pictures of a Yemeni photographer from Sanaa? From the newspapers I know that since early 2011 the situation there is unstable; from the director of Human Rights Watch I know it is a beautiful country that has everything; from Al-Sharif I know there is hardly any photographic tradition. That's my frame of reference, along with a bucket of knowledge of Western photography. What else can I do but look at the work of Al-Sharif, listen to her stories and then try to put it in context?

Al-Sharif has been photographing since she was eight and has taught herself the 'rules'. Friends asked her to capture memorable events and so she became more and more adept. She went to college and then to work as a journalist. In addition, she made pictures for the Ministry of Tourism. With help from photographer Stephanie Sinclair she spent one year at the ICP in New York and afterwards returned to a very restless country. Initially she was asked to make pictures for the ministry again, but the situation made her decide to start making news photos. The country had changed and she wanted to visualize it. She developed a critical attitude towards the president, but also the opposition.

Technically and compositionally, many of Al-Sharif pictures are perfect. Some of them I find a bit too National Geographic-style. But she also has wonderful images. Powerful images of women until recently hidden in male-dominated Yemeni society. If you look at the series, Women of Yemen, you'll see what I mean.

Her woman-hood is also expressed, but in a different way, in a series on Friday prayers in Yemen on September 9, 2011. Since Al-Sharif as a woman cannot get close to the praying men the pictures are taken from a roof were she could hide herself. This perspective provides a rich palette of prayer rugs. Another picture is taken from a high position as well. A sea of men in white and in the top left a tuft of women in black. Al-Sharif turns the limitations of her freedom as a woman into effective photography.

Kim Knoppers

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