'People are shocked to see a Saudi woman in this profession'

Mona Al Jeddawi is the first female Saudi photojournalist to work for a Saudi newspaper. She spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about her passion for photography and the difficulties she has faced in her profession.
mona al jeddawi.jpg
Mona Al Jeddawi. © Asharq Al-Awsat

Q: How did you get into photography?

Photography has been a hobby of mine since I was about eight years old. When my father noticed that I had a strong passion for photography, he bought me a Kodak camera even though it was expensive at that time. I loved that camera and I took it everywhere with me and I took pictures of my mother, my family and all the different regions of Saudi Arabia that I visited with my family as well as other countries.

Q: You are the first Saudi female photojournalist to work for a Saudi newspaper; how did you enter the field professionally?

I entered the field of press photography by pure chance. I have practiced photography for 34 years as a hobby and then this became a profession through my husband Adel Kamal, who is an executive at the Saudi newspaper Al Watan. Seven years ago, my husband suggested working for the paper; especially since it was looking for a female photojournalist at that time because newspapers were facing problems taking pictures in women-only areas because of the customs and traditions of Saudi Arabia and of the lack of Saudi female photographers.

I welcomed the idea but the only problem was that I had no qualifications and I hadn't completed any courses in this field. So I suggested that I enroll on a three-month course in photography, so along with seven other Saudi girls, I started [studying] at the Dar Al-Hikma College in Jeddah at my own expense and under the instruction of a female American teacher. After that I officially joined Al Watan as a female photojournalist.

Q: What were the outcomes of that course?

The course relied on a lot of practice rather than theory. We used to go out everyday from 7 a.m . until 9 a.m. to take pictures of different parts of Jeddah. I also learnt a lot about various ranges and about technical matters that I did not know about and this added other dimensions to my hobby.

Q: What are some of the differences between photography as a profession and photography as a hobby?

The only difference is with respect to the assignments. For example, I am sent to take pictures of female events at schools, colleges and other places where women work. I have had many different encounters at these places because they would look at me strangely because I am a Saudi woman and people used to ask me about myself and my background and my family's opinion of me as a Saudi woman working in this field that is confined to men or foreign female photographers. Some female teachers in some schools made [negative] remarks about me and refused to let me take pictures of any girls even if they wore the hijab [head covering] or the niqab [face covering].

Q: Do you believe that photography is a difficult field for women to work in?

That is true but it is interesting despite the risks that women face.

Q: Could you explain some of the difficulties and risks that you have faced?

There are many stories and risks especially in this line of work, some of which have caused me to visit police stations and to be subjected to investigations. For example, when I took pictures of a building belonging to the Department of Education for Women in Jeddah, a security man arrested me and accused me of taking pictures of the building "in order to bomb it," adding that he had never heard of a Saudi female photographer. The then editor in chief of Al Watan, Qeynan al Ghamdi, was the only one who saved me from this predicament.

There was another incident that I will never forget. I was leaving the women's department of the National Commercial Bank with my camera on my shoulder as usual and opposite the bank was the American consulate in Jeddah. The security men spotted me and insisted on taking my colleague, Mona al Manjumi, and I to the police station and they interrogated us for six hours and inspected the camera until they were assured that I had only photographed the women working in the bank.

The problem lies in the lack of acceptance, not just because I am a woman, as many Arab and foreign women work in Saudi Arabia, but the problem is that the people that I meet are shocked that I am a Saudi working in this profession. There should be more Saudi women in this field.

Q: Do you face difficulties during events because you are the only female photojournalist among male photojournalists?

To be honest, photojournalists cooperate with me and give me space to take pictures even if that means they are putting me first. Some of them offer to take my camera and take pictures for me and I reject that as I like to capture images in the way that I view them. I would never let anybody do my work for me despite the difficulties in capturing an appealing or moving image.

Q: Which images are you most proud of having taken?

The best picture that I have taken is of four children drinking from a fountain inside the Malika building [in Jeddah] and the newspaper really liked that. There is another picture I took of a vehicle belonging to the state defense department as it fell into a hole. Even though a member of the personnel refused to let me photograph the vehicle, I took it anyway and it was published in the newspaper.

Q: In your opinion, what would be the best photo opportunity?

I dream of capturing the Hajj pilgrimage and the delight of pilgrims as they carry out the rituals. However my family situation prevents me from doing so because I am responsible for the household and I have four children. Furthermore, the conditions for Hajj stipulate that photojournalists must use motorcycles to travel around and that would be difficult for me [as a woman.]

Q: What are your future ambitions?

I have many ambitions. For example, I want to open a private studio and a center for training and qualifying women in this profession.

This article was republished with permission from Asharq Al-Awsat.