She Who Tells a Story: Interview with the Photography Collective Rawiya

Michelle Woodward, Thursday 14 Mar 2013

A collective of six female photographers from across the Arab region produce in-depth photo-essays and long-term projects tackling change in various countries


Rawiya (She Who Tells a Story) is a collective of photographers from the Middle East, which is garnering accolades and attention internationally. The members are Myriam Abdelaziz (Egypt/France, based in NY/Cairo), Tamara Abdul Hadi (Iraq/Canada, based in Beirut), Laura Boushnak (Palestine, based in Sarajevo), Tanya Habjouqa (Jordan/US, based in East Jerusalem), Dalia Khamissy (Lebanon, based in Beirut) and Newsha Tavakolian (Iran, based in Tehran). They concentrate on in-depth projects that explore a wide range of important social and political issues.

Michelle Woodward: What inspired you to form a collective?

Rawiya: The conversation about forming a collective began in March 2009 in Beirut. Names were suggested based on the quality of the work and a dedication to stories from the region. Inspired by the events and the photographs of Myriam Abdelaziz on the Egyptian revolution, she was asked to join in August 2011. While the seeds of Rawiya were planted in long talks in the bars, cafes, and restaurants of Beirut as well as via Skype sessions, we were invited to officially launch at the Collectives Encounter at the Format 11 International Photo Festival in Derby, UK in March 2011.
MW: Why create your own collective instead of individually joining existing photo agencies, especially since there are now more agencies that focus on in-depth social documentary work?

Newsha Tavakolian: I have an agency, Polaris Images, representing me. But I wanted something more than that – to have exhibitions, conduct workshops, and do other creative projects through which I could be more deeply in touch with different layers of society.

Tamara Abdul Hadi: We created this collective because we feel like "there is power in numbers." It’s a nice change in this competitive industry to work together, pool resources, and share ideas.

Dalia Khamissy: It is not very easy to join a good agency, one that is interested in long-term, in-depth stories like the ones we work on. The other agencies that are easier to approach would be more interested in stock images or projects that last only a few days, which is something we do but is not our main goal. Most of us at Rawiya have been working on individual, continuing projects for years now. The collective created a platform that gave us more strength and support. 

MW: Why are the members all women? Will it remain that way?

Newsha: It just happened to be that way. Of course we wanted to give some perspective on women’s issues by looking at the Middle East through the eyes of women. But we have nothing against working with men. Maybe in future this will happen and we will ask some male photographers to join our collective.

Dalia: Some very interesting and inspiring male photographers from the region have shared with me their interest in Rawiya and asked what they should do to join the collective; it was very flattering to be honest. Maybe one day? I am very sure they would add a lot to the collective. When we started, we never put a rule about men joining or not, so let’s see what the future brings.

MW: How is the collective different from an agency? Do you have a business model or is it non-commercial?

Newsha: It’s non-commercial.

Myriam Abdelaziz: We do use Rawiya to communicate about and share our work (which leads to eventual sales or assignments) but we do not do direct sales under this name and that is in my eyes probably the main difference between our collective and an agency.

MW: How has your professional life changed since the founding of Rawiya?

Tanya Habjouqa: Rawiya has most certainly enhanced my professional life. I was already in a transition in my personal approach due to first-time motherhood. Rawiya allowed me to reach a new audience. In my previous work, I had concentrated on journalism, documentary, and academia. The buzz created by banding together such a wonderful and diverse group of photographers from the region provoked interest from galleries and universities both regionally and internationally. For me, this was a new platform. It offered me a sense of freedom to re-envision my storytelling. At a time when I initially felt that my new role as mother would create limitations (not being able to cover the initial days of the Egyptian revolution, for example) a sense of liberation ensued. To shoot slower, more thoughtfully, not always thinking where the work would be printed in the relevant hard news cycle but more creatively instead.

Myriam: We have received a different type of exposure, more directed toward the art scene, which resulted in many group exhibitions around the world.

Laura Boushnak: I believe Rawiya has definitely given our work more exposure and brought new opportunities along, of course thanks to all my colleagues. We share contacts and that certainly brought more work to all. There is also much more interest in what’s happening in the MENA region because of the Arab Spring, so I guess the launch of the collective came at the right time as well.

MW: Has your photography itself - your approach, visual style, and your ideas for projects - been affected by being in the collective? Some of you are doing more art exhibits than in the past. Does this affect how your visual styles are evolving?

Tanya: Shooting for galleries is certainly new for me. I am relishing the change of approach. I feel creatively emboldened to personally say something on the subjects that I am documenting. In terms of how it is produced, intellectually I am more excited than I have been in years. I am envisioning so many more possibilities for the work. Again, a lot of personal transitions are leading to that, but certainly Rawiya is a part of it. I feel for the first time empowered on my own terms. We are calling our own shots and have created somewhat of our own institution.

Myriam: I personally always had exhibitions as well as publications, so, no, my style was not affected by joining Rawiya. 

Laura: I always try to push my work to evolve. I’m on constant alert for what might bring new ideas, inspiration, and motivation to what I’m doing, so for sure Rawiya must have added something to the way I do or see things.

Dalia: I think that each member has her own different style; this is a part of why Rawiya is interesting. I personally already had my proper visual style before joining Rawiya, when working on my personal projects. Actually, most of my personal projects I either started or finished before I joined Rawiya. Of course, I do ask the opinion of some members of the collective in the selection of my work, in the visuals, or even in the selection of new topics I am starting. But I also have colleagues from outside Rawiya
who have always helped me a lot and whose opinions mean a lot.

MW: Do you think you might do a group project one day, where you all shoot the same subject in different locales?

Tanya: This is personally something that I have long been hoping we start. I think Rawiya is in a perfect position to do so. There are several potential themes we have begun exploring. The possibilities are endless.

Myriam: I think that this is a great idea that some of us have mentioned before, but not in any concrete way yet. We most probably have other objectives we want to achieve first but that could be a longer-term possibility.

Laura: If we have the chance and were commissioned by a client, I would love to. So far we’ve been doing group exhibitions where we show many different stories.

Dalia: We have been talking about this for a while now, but I guess each member is busy with her own projects and assignments. It is a bit difficult to work on one long-term project and reject assignments these days. Maybe one day soon, it has been one of the serious things we have been talking about for a while now. Inshallah in 2013.

MW: Some of you travelled to Atlanta last fall when the Georgia State University was exhibiting your work. What was this experience like? What kind of reaction did your work receive from students and others at the exhibit, panel discussion and workshop you gave?

Tamara: Exhibiting in Atlanta was very interesting. The reaction from people was very positive, with many questions being asked surrounding our different projects. One of the more memorable reactions to the work I was showing, "Picture an Arab Man," was "I’ve never seen an Arab man this close before."

Tanya: This was our first US exhibit so far and the first time in a long time, so many of us were able to be in same place together and work. I found the students extremely curious and open. I found the faculty (especially anthropology and art) engaged and vibrant. Nary a racist element, cliché, nor resistance to a different telling of the Middle East came into play. It actually made me think there is a lot more we could do in the US and with academia there. I wish Rawiya could find funding to do a project in the US. For me, the southern states are rife for comparison to the Middle East. As expected in Georgia, we had some high-level hospitality.

Dalia: This was my first time in the US, so I had a completely new experience. I have had dozens of exhibitions around the Middle East and Europe that I attended and although my work has been exhibited in South America and the US before, this was the first time for me to visit this continent. Everybody keeps telling me I was lucky to first step on the southern soil of the US; I guess I was. The hospitality of the curator, the university personnel, the students and the people, even those we met on the street, was incredible. We had a panel moderated by Nadine Sinno from the Middle East Institute and even though the panel was 90 minutes long, a lot of people kept talking to us and asking us questions about our work after that. I guess people were interested in knowing more of the stories we tell and the experiences we have in the Middle East.

MW: What are you each working on now?

Newsha: My newest project "Look" is displayed in a solo exhibition at Aaran gallery in Tehran, which opened in December. My "Mother of Martyrs" portraits are at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition "Light of the Middle East: New Photography." Also, my project "Listen" will be on display at Paris Photo in November 2013.

Tamara: I am still in the process of working on the next phase of my project "Picture an Arab Man." Recently, I've been asked to be a Panasonic ambassador–to try out their new G5 camera and do a photo story with it that will be exhibited in the Gulf.

Tanya: I recently received a Magnum Foundation 2013 Emergency Fund for my new project "Occupied Pleasures." I have long documented and worked in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But now that I married and had a baby in East Jerusalem, this subject has become very personal. I will be raising my daughter within the constraints of this conflict. And I am very tired about how this story is told here. "Occupied Pleasures" is my perspective on life in the Occupied Territories. It is a series that captures moments of respite for people coping with limited freedom of movement. I hope this series reveals the quirky and often modest moments of fun for people in Palestine. In August 2013, my work will be included in an exhibition of Arab and Iranian photographers at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Myriam: I was recently in Casablanca attending the World Press Photo program – Reporting Change. After participating in the "Training the Trainer" sessions, I myself teach workshops (under the World Press Photo umbrella) with the aim to improve the technical, journalistic, and visual skills of photojournalists from Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia. On a personal level, I am working on a documentary in Menya (in the south of Egypt) about quarry workers.

Laura: I have been documenting Arab women and literacy since 2009. I’ve been to four countries so far, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan and most recently Yemen. I tackled a different issue in each place. I mainly focused on the importance of literacy as a means to enrich women’s lives, and also examined the major barriers that women face in accessing education. My next stop will be Tunis. I am also preparing for a show in Singapore with Sana gallery, which is the first contemporary Middle Eastern art gallery in Southeast Asia.

Dalia: I continue to document the story of the 17,000 people who went missing during Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war. I received the Audience Engagement grant from the Open Society Foundations for this project. The goal is to engage society, especially the youth of Lebanon in the issue of the missing. Because of instability in Lebanon in 2012, some plans were not carried out, especially since I work with youth from different regions and I did not want to put them in any danger when moving around the country. So this project will go on until August 2013. I am also starting a project related to gender-based violence soon with the partnership of a Beirut-based NGO. I am also very much looking forward to other projects I have in mind, in Lebanon and around the region.

On a collective level, Rawiya also participated in two exhibits at the beginning of 2013. One is "Realism in Rawiya," at Nottingham’s New Art Exchange, 25 January – 20 April 2013. The other is "Rawiya/She Who Tells a Story" at the Bildmuseet museum at Umeå University in Sweden, 24 February - 19 May 2013.

MW: Is there anything more you would like to add?

Tanya: While we were in Perpignan, France at the Visa pour l’Image photography festival we had a collective booth. It was incredibly rewarding to see the interest of both editors and photographers who knew who we were and came to see our work, expecting something special in our storytelling from the region. We have so much more we can do. My favourite moment was when a young Iraqi female photographer asked for a portfolio review, advice, and if we were taking intern, something to consider.

This article was originally published in Jadaliyya.

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