Photographer Yumna Al-Arashi is interested in freedom. Born in the US, and currently based in Beirut, she's spent much of her adult life trying to digest what that word means, and how it is presented to us. She takes photos of bodies — naked, clothed and covered — and in turn has become an accidental expert in how flesh makes us feel.
Although she's taken photos her whole life, Yumna chose to study politics and international relations at university rather than go down the art school path. She felt that she needed to understand the world before she tried to capture it. Currently living in Lebanon to improve her Arabic before spending a year in North Africa, she's witnessed her own expectations and believes shift as she views the world through other people's eyes.
We called Yumna up to talk about learning to be free, and letting people decide what that means for themselves.
Can we start by talking about your images of women in Yemen? They were taken a while ago but have recently got a lot of attention online. It struck me that they're interesting because they show a quietness that feels unfamiliar in pictures of the region.
Absolutely. Previously when I thought of the Middle East, like a lot of people, I'd picture deserts, sand, dead people and all of these images that were repeated over and over again from the Iraq War to post 9/11 Afghanistan to Syria. With war torn countries, you don't see anything but that same type of imagery. So with my journalism I try to avoid disaster, to show people in their natural states. I'm not interested in conflict, there are enough people covering that. I'm trying to show the cultural, personal parts of people's lives. The story in Yemen was a surprise to people because you realise they have no idea what Yemen looks like.
A lot of the time when people try and present a considered or sensitive image of a place, they do so by trying to evoke sympathy, especially for women. But that can be very reductive. These shots aren't sympathetic, they're not callous, but it's striking to see people just existing.
Yeah, in that series there are only two shots that are posed: One is of the woman leaning on the road, the other is a self portrait of me. Normally when you see them (women in Yemen) they're sitting on the side of the road or holding a crying baby or hiding in a room — completely separate from the rest of society — and it always looks oppressed.
These photos were taken at the end of 2013, but have only really begun to circulate recently. Why do you think that is?
I think just because of the current social situation that's going around with the talk of women and oppression and clothing and all of these things. People are asking, what is a free woman, or liberated woman, what does she look like?
Once that conversation started the photos started getting a little bit more press. Before it was just, "Wow, these are beautiful photos, these are cool." But once a larger demographic of people started seeing them it completely changed.
People say, "These are not women" or "I don't see anything, I just see black clothing. There's no woman under there." People also call me an ISIS supporter or send me rape or death threats. I got pretty insane emails from people telling me how they would kill me or sending me screenshots of Google Maps of the area that I lived.
You start to question, what is your idea of free? Are you so interested in oppressing a woman, her rights, her ability to be different from your standard of beauty that you would kill somebody for it? That you would rape somebody for it? Where is the line between good and bad here?
It's interesting people think you support ISIS because you're showing them in these garments and not expressly saying, this is wrong.
Even if these women are oppressed in some way or another, it doesn't have anything to do with the way they're dressed. The issues are: are these women educated? Do they have the right to go out on their own? Do they have the right to choose who they want to be with? Are they free in their society? Can they vote? All of these other questions that have nothing to do with their appearance.
But it always comes back to that.
You talk to a lot of women who are covered and you realise it's their way of saying they won't be judged on how they look. That's really powerful in itself, to be able to completely take away the idea of your appearance. That in itself is beautiful and I think that that should be brought to life even more.
Especially at a time when in the West so much of the conversation around freedom has become equated to nudity.
It shouldn't be just the idea of, I can be naked or I can take naked photos of myself and therefore I am free. It should also be, I can completely cover myself from head to toe and I am just as free as you are.
These are choices that these women are making. Of course, there are situations where men are oppressing women and making them cover themselves, but for the most part it's their choice.
To shoot this and be open to their experiences, did you have to reexamine your own opinions on what is liberating and dominating, free and oppressed?
Of course, I mean I grew up in the US I was conditioned to think that if I could wear short shorts somewhere then I was more free. I've been conditioned to think this way, but by travelling and meeting these women it wasn't something I had to force myself to do. It was something I was learning as I got older, as I experienced more, that's the beauty of life right? You grow up and you learn and meet different types of people and it's eye opening.
We've talked a lot about Yemen. Yet all these issues are also explored in your other series, which features nude women.
Yes, and there's a dynamic here that I'm trying to address, trying to show that it doesn't have to be either or, I'm not on either side of anything, I'm for the right of the woman to do as she pleases.
We equate empowerment with physical appearance, and once we stop doing that I think we can really take a look at what that means, what all those words mean. It's time that we stop equating equality or freedom with the ability to capitalise on our bodies or sexually in any way at all. I'm just not interested in that.
Text Wendy Syfret
Photography yumna al-arashi