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A Closer Look -- Jeddah Diary

Jeddah Diary
Magnum photographer Olivia Arthur has shown a dedication to photographing the lives of women, particularly those who live on the cultural divide between the east and west. Invited to teach a photography course to a group of women in Saudi Arabia, Jeddah Diary is Arthur's exploration and attempt to photographically document the lives of the women she met there. She approached them earnestly, grateful for their friendship and curious about their lives, but photography in Saudi Arabia, particularly photography depicting women, is a complicated issue. It is a world that is perhaps not easy for a Westerner to understand, but Arthur's work gives us a glimpse into the intricacies of these women's lives.

from Jeddah Diary
The book is small, larger than a typical diary but similar in size. The opening text sets the scene, explaining the circumstances under which the photographs were made, making the difficultly of Arthur's project immediately evident; she recounts being yelled at for taking a photograph of a woman on the street. Photography is complicated for Saudi girls. The young women Arthur knew were interested in taking pictures, but photographs of women not wearing abayas must be hidden from men. What follows is a narrative of sorts, images and text arranged to tell a story, yet Arthur herself is the only stand out character. Her companions seem to swirl around her, taking her under their collective wing and introducing her to the most intimate facets of their lives, yet as individuals they are kept mostly hidden. It's hard to tell who we are looking at in the images -- some girls are named, but we see few faces, and in a small postscript Arthur makes it clear that in no way should one infer that the girls attending illegal parties are the same girls depicted elsewhere in the book. Her thank-yous show that many chose not to be named.

from Jeddah Diary
The combination of short blocks of text and images pulls the reader into and through the book, keeping the story moving while allowing for slower moments of intimacy and beauty. The restrictions Arthur encountered when photographing lead to some creative documentations to maintain her subjects' anonymity. The re-photographed portraits, using the reflection of the flash on the image surface to obscure the sitter's face, are among the most memorable of the book. The fine pores of the print reflecting small spheres of white, the women look to be wearing a halo of stars. I imagine that Arthur's archive of unusable shots is extensive and eye opening, but the images she did include are vastly communicative. The girls seem happy and full of laughter in each other's company, yet a sense of loneliness is pervasive. Sumptuous interiors feel impersonal, high walls and covered windows indicating that the lives lived within them are done so in secret. A pair of images depicts the boxes for an inflatable child's pool, children and father playing happily, mother blacked out completely with marker. Outside the home, a Saudi woman is a black shape, indistinguishable from any other. Dance party images show girls behaving wildly, faces always obscured by mops of dark hair. Any moment of rebellion is deeply relished.

from Jeddah Diary
I keep returning to the conceptual dissonance created by the very nature of Arthur's project, her attempt to photograph what cannot be shown. By necessity, her subjects live their lives in a bubble, cloistered from the world at large, which for Arthur led to further challenges, frustrations and confusion. The lives of Saudi girls is nearly an impossible photographic subject, and perhaps their world too is nearly impossible to know by someone not immediately in it. Even so, by approaching from oblique angles, Arthur has allowed us a peek in. The book is personal and memorable, and a notable accomplishment. -- Sarah Bradley

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