Why is it difficult to take pictures in Yemen?

8 Dec
By: Malak Shaher, 07-12-2011

Yemen is a challenging place to take pictures. Despite its unique beauty and interesting culture, photographers have to deal with an array of issues from people refusing to have their photos taken or just being too eager to getting in the shot, to insecurity and violence.


Amira Al-Sharif, a freelance photographer who studied at the International Center of Photography, said that because Yemen is a conservative society, people usually do not accept photographers. Yemenis are often suspicious about “what you are going to do with the photos,” she said.

Al-Sharif said that even when some allow her to take their picture they don’t hang around long enough to get a good shot. “Once they hear your camera shutter they assume you have finished taking photographs and leave,” she explained.

“So you need to keep convincing them that it is not enough that you still need to take more shots,” she said.

Shooting women is a more difficult as she has to “get prior permission from their relatives, fathers, brothers or husbands – otherwise it could create problems between tribes.”

However, she said that Yemen is changing and people are slowly become more open to photographers and photos – partly because of the revolution. “I can tell you that a lot of Yemeni youth tried to protect me in the demonstration marches so that I could document the truth,” said Al-Sharif. “It was also a really nice feeling to find myself surrounded by men who took each others hands to make a circle around me so that nothing would happened to me.”

A Psychological problem

Al-Sharif said that the most serious problem her fellow photographers might face is a “lack of confidence”. Al-Sharif, who conducted a workshop for 26 photographers in Sana’a’s Change Square, said that many felt encouraged to take natural pictures.

Because of the country’s security situation, many photographers face psychological stress trying to take pictures in Yemen, according to Al-Sharif. She said that most of the 26 photographers she trained felt they could not take good pictures during protests because they were too busy worrying about their safety.

“In protests, photographers feel afraid because of snipers,” she explained. “Photographers are threatened with death yet nobody admits their importance here.

“They do not feel confident and are not comfortable in the field. Intimidation, beatings, kidnappings and arrests have become commonplace for journalists and photographers covering the protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.”

Taking a natural shot

Even aside from controversial photos of conflict and the current crisis, most Yemeni photographers agree that it is very difficult to take a natural picture of people here.

Sami Al-Ansi, a Yemeni photographer with Agance France Press (AFP) said that he struggles to take natural pictures.

“In Yemen people gather in front of the camera and when I finish, they follow me from location to location just to see what I’m doing or to be in my shots one more time,” said Al-Ansi.

Al-Ansi was in Cairo last month and he found “a big difference compared to Yemen. People there never ask why I am taking pictures and very few looked into the camera or gathered around each other with big smiles for a photo like Yemenis do. They act normally as if nobody’s taking a picture for them.”

Al-Ansi said that he always finds “funny people ruining his work” with silly behavior in front of the camera while he is reporting live.

“I was asking people’s point of view on something in the street and suddenly one of those funny people stood in my shot and shouted the name of another journalist ‘Hammoud Munasser, Al-Arabya, Sana’a!’ he yelled.”

Posing for females

Gender and nationality also play a role in the types of shots you get or the reaction from Yemenis. Iman Al-Awami, also a freelance photographer, said that it is easier for her to work as a photographer as people, especially men, pose for pictures, saying cheese with a big grin.

Once men notice her, they gather in front of the camera asking her to take pictures for them. Al-Awami said they even follow her around until she shows them her pictures.

On the contrary, she finds great difficulty when shooting women or even places where women accidentally walk into shot.

“One day I was shooting in the Old City of Sana’a and as I took a picture of a building, a woman walked in front of me. She stopped and asked that I delete the picture even though she was covered from head to toe,” Al-Awami said.

“One day, I was with working with foreigners and we were in front of a girl’s school where we were taking pictures of little children. But very soon their parents came out and started shouting at us.” She said.

“They wanted to take the cameras but we spent a lot of time convincing them that we would not use the pictures.”

The female photographer said that, nevertheless, Yemenis are more likely to allow foreign photographers to take pictures of them. Al-Awami said that when she is with foreigners, “people are nicer”.

A photogenic Yemen

“On top of being the friendliest country I’ve ever visited, Yemen is the most photogenic,” said Carl Conraldi of Canada. “The portraits I’ve taken there are easily the best I’ve taken anywhere in the world,”

He said that people are so enthusiastic about being photographed. He could only recall one man refusing to have his photo taken – “out of literally hundreds”.

Conraldi added that it is really easy to take pictures of anti-Saleh protesters. The only time he felt the least bit afraid of taking photos was when he was approached by a “shady-looking young man” at Tahrir Square, where pro-government tents are pitched. The man told Conraldi that government thugs were watching him and that he should leave as soon as possible.

Conraldi had his camera temporarily confiscated by government soldiers while making for Change Square to listen to prominent cleric and Islah party leader Al-Zindani speak – but says that was just routine and not scary.

For Giulio Petrocco, a photographer from Italy, the people of Yemen are welcoming. He said that a lot of people were posing and that taking pictures of protesters against the government was easier.

“Yemenis in general are amongst the nicest people I ever met,” he said. “Whether pro or against Saleh, that did not matter. I was always treated well.”

Afraid of Photoshop

Salah Al-Deen Al-Juma’e, a psychology professor at Dhamar University, said that the reason why Yemenis welcome foreign photographers more that natives is that they feel afraid of the society itself.

There have been cases when some people in Yemen use peoples’ pictures in a bad way “like using Photoshop and making people naked,” said Al-Juma’e. In a conservative society like the Yemen, this is considered a scandal that might escalate as far as violence and even killings, he explained.

“However, Yemenis believe that foreigners simply take pictures and do not misuse them,” Al-Juma’e said, adding that educated people are more likely to allow someone to take their picture.

However, some people, Al-Juma’e said, believe that photography is forbidden in terms of religion and that’s why they refuse, believing that it is a sin for which they might go to hell.

Eric Lafforgue, a photographer from France, likes taking portraits.
For him Yemenis some of the best subject

Throwing stones

Eric Lafforgue, a photographer from France and a member of the European Agency for Photography, has been to Yemen six times.

Lafforgue agrees that Yemenis are welcoming. He said that had so many great places to visit, from the coast to hills and mountains, and such a rich cultural country. His specialty is portraits.

“Something I noticed in remote areas is that someone will stop and pose and few seconds later you have 20 people around him,” he said. “I like to take posed portraits and Yemenis are good models,” he said.

Lafforgue fist visited Yemen in 1973 but he and his father had a bad experience.

“I remember my father running away as locals threw stones,” he said, though he hasn’t had any similar experiences since.

Photographing conflict

Things have always been difficult but Al-Ansi explained that the political crisis has made it even harder to work. Now many people completely refuse to be on camera, while others stop him from filming until they know who he is working for.

Al-Ansi has been attacked by pro-government forces twice. But his friend, Hassan Al-Wadhaf, 25, a cameraman for the Arabic Media Agency, was not lucky enough to get away with his life. He died after being shot in the face by a sniper loyal to the government in September leaving behind a pregnant wife and baby daughter.

“I cannot carry a big camera anymore. Sometimes, I do not know whether I am going to get back home safe or if my wife will receive bad news about me one day,” he said.

Sami Al-Ansi, a freelance videographer and journalist,
said that photojournalism in Yemen difficult and dangerous,
needing a lot of focus and an ability to accommodate people.

People’s reactions to photographers depends both on their political affiliations and who you are working for, according to Salah Al-Hitar, a freelance Yemeni photographer who worked for both Suhail and Al-Aqeeq channels, one with the regime and the other with the opposition.

“If you are working with a pro-regime organization and take pictures for people with the regime, no one will say anything. But if you are trying to take pictures of the president’s supporters while working with the opposition, you might have problems,” said Al-Hitar.

One day Al-Hitar was doing a documentary on the damage caused by heavy shelling in Al-Hasaba when he was caught by Al-Ahmar tribesmen who interrogated him, asking him why he was filming in the area.

“When they realized that I was doing a documentary on the damage in Al-Hasaba [where clashes between the tribesmen and regime forces took place], they released me,” he said.

But sometimes he might get into trouble before anyone even asks who he’s working for or what he’s doing.

Outside Sana’a airport, Al-Hitar was hit by a man, who then ran off before he was able to do anything, though he was not seriously injured.

Even before the political uprising against Saleh’s regime began in February, photographers and filmmakers faced problems getting the shots they needed.

“Two years ago I was making a documentary on pesticides when people gathered around me and questioned me on why I was making the video,” he said.

“I had to argue instead of filming,” he added. “They wanted to take my camera.”

Al-Hitar recalled a day he was taking pictures of the long lines of cars waiting to fill up with petrol when “the owner of the petrol station came out with a machine gun threatening that if we did not leave he would open fire”.

“They consider cameras fatal weapons.”

There is clearly a significant difference in terms of the experiences of people taking pictures of the Arab and West, between Yemen and other Arab countries. But there are many reasons for this; culture and education both play a role while Yemen’s traditional, conservative society plays a big role, as Mohammd Al-Sayaghi, a photographer with the state news agency, Saba, explained.

Being a photojournalist in Yemen is a difficult and dangerous profession that needs a lot of focus and the ability to accommodate people with different perspectives and views – but in a country with a photo opportunity on every corner, Yemen is also one of the most rewarding places to work.


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