Dubai: When she takes pictures inside her conservative country, she is always prepared for harassment or even having pebbles thrown at her. People don’t know who this photographer is. But Saudi Princess Reem Al Faisal decided some 22 years back to make photography her career. Interestingly enough, her parents supported her.
Princess Reem Mohammad Al Faisal, granddaughter of King Faisal, has also travelled to many places around the world to take pictures from a “stranger’s perspective”. “Photography was a hobby for me [at an early age], and I was always taking pictures but never looked at the issue [photography] as something important in my life,” Princess Reem told Gulf News in an exclusive interview during her recent visit to Dubai. “Now, it is the most important thing in my life.”
She has visited many places, including France, where she studied photography, UK, Italy, US, Turkey, Iran and China. Today, Reem, who is in her thirties, wishes to “take pictures of the whole world”, including her country.
Her attachment to the camera goes back to 1992, when she held her first exhibition in Paris about Jeddah, the Saudi city in which she was raised.
Later, she was asked by her aunt, Princess Haifa, wife of then Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, to take pictures of Saudi Arabia for a calendar to be distributed later.
Princess Reem went to Jeddah Port and became not only the first photographer to enter the port, but also the first woman. The project was so successful that the calendar “became a collector’s item”, she said.
However, the young ambitious princess took a courageous decision to take pictures of Haj — the annual ritual by Muslims from around the world in Makkah. It took her three years to complete her project; before, after and during Haj seasons during the years 1999 and 2003.
“Haj is a world of its own. Even if you have some 100,000 photographers, who could take 1,000 years to take pictures, each one of them would come out with something different.”
Also, previous pictures of Haj were “more limited and traditional. I tried to show the artistic side of Haj, and let it speak for itself as a human motion and not just an Islamic one,” she said.
Still, her pictures on Haj are the topic “dearest” to her.
And it was during Haj pebbles were thrown at her by some people at a time pilgrims were heading from Mount Arafat to Muzdalifah and who actually told her photography is haram (sinful). “Thank God they were small stones,” she recalled. “I have faced people who cursed me and I have faced people who wanted to hit me. ”
“I have been taking pictures in Saudi Arabia for nearly 10 years so I know how to take care of myself. I always have an escort, who would at least block people and give me a chance to run away [in case of tension],” she added with a laugh.
The fact that the Saudi princess’ pictures are developed in black and white give them a certain beauty.
“To me, black and white is the highest level of photography, and it gives you depth and symbolism that don’t exist” with colour pictures.Also, “I keep reminding people, it is not black and white. It is different degrees of grey. It has a deeper philosophy which is that life itself has degrees of grey,” she said.
Speaking in her photo gallery in Dubai International Financial Centre during her recent visit to launch a second gallery for artists from the Gulf countries, Princess Reem explained that she opened the gallery because she wanted to “encourage photography in Arab countries”. “I wanted to have an international gallery similar to those in Paris, London and New York.”
Since its opening in 2008, scores of Arab and non-Arab photographers have exhibited their work at the gallery.
Asked about opening a gallery in Saudi Arabia, she said there were “difficulties and harassment of women”.
“I opened my gallery in Dubai because the city is an international centre. It has all the nationalities in the world. People from different countries visit my gallery,” she said.
Reem Al Faisal was the first artist from the Gulf to exhibit her art after the implementation of the Palestinian autonomy agreement in the early nineties of the last century, known as “Gaza, Jericho first”.
A Palestinian culture centre contacted her and asked her to display her pictures. She agreed. However, the culture centre was taken over by Israeli soldiers during the 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Reem’s collection was either lost or destroyed during the crisis. She sent another collection later, which she was told is kept in the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s office in that centre.