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Sebastian Farmborough is a photographer with a mission: To clear up misconceptions surrounding the Middle East. Armed with his camera and the belief that the Muslim world is severely misunderstood, Sebastian sets out on a photographic project to capture a subject that has been the topic of debates for as long as we can remember: the veil.
He was born and educated in England, but having lived in different countries around the world, Sebastian has bred a love for languages and diverse cultures. Here, he talks about one of his works, ‘An Emerging Mystery’. The photograph has gone viral with almost 20,000 hits from 133 different countries.
Toonari Post (TP): What inspired you to capture this portrait?
Sebastian Farmborough (SF): The image itself was inspired by one of my very first experiences in Saudi Arabia. I headed down to the Arabian Gulf for a dip and there, I became mesmerized by something black and obscure out at sea. It looked like a huge jellyfish. Then, as it approached, I realized that it was in fact a woman.
It was such an overwhelming experience that I just had to capture it for myself. It is entitled ‘An Emerging Mystery’ and I feel as though it is extremely symbolic of the Muslim women’s increasing prominence in the world.
TP: What was your main aim in producing the picture?
SF: Having lived in Saudi Arabia for 3 years and having had some wonderful experiences, I became really fed up of seeing the Saudi veil portrayed in such a degrading way in the Western media. I wanted to produce an image that would convey the beauty and dignity of their women, whilst at the same time respecting their cultural and religious beliefs.
TP: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the veil?
SF: The largest Western misconception is that women are forced to wear it when in fact, most women choose to. With particular reference to Saudi Arabia, it is important to note that the young men are not used to seeing women exposing parts of their body, so should women do so, they run the risk of attracting an awful lot of unwanted attention. I think it is important for Westerners to realize that this is indeed a different world, one which cannot be easily compared to theirs.
Apparently, in the past, it was different. Women typically covered less as they lived in small communities, largely composed of their families. I can imagine that the rapid development and necessity to incorporate themselves into city life must have come as quite a shock. With this considered, it seems quite understandable that a conservative society would encourage greater precaution amongst their women.
TP: How do you intend for the photo to clear up these misconceptions?
SF: I hope that my image can intrigue and encourage Westerners to be more open-minded, while at the same time please those for whom it is both a natural and common occurrence. This is not the face of terrorism, this is a representation of Muslim women as a whole, strong and confident, emerging and progressing into this developed world.
TP: How has the reaction to ‘An Emerging Mystery’ been?
SF: I have received e-mails from women expressing how much the image means to them, and even a lovely e-mail from a Saudi princess. Some Saudi women have even used it as a background to their phones. This image was for them, so I find it enormously fulfilling that they identify with the lady in the water.
Having said this, not every reaction has been a positive one. Some people have become rather enraged, claiming that it is sexual in nature. Though that was never my intention, it is of course enormously difficult to please everyone, particularly where differing cultural perceptions are concerned.
TP: What is in store in the future for your photographic project?
SF: I would love to return to Saudi Arabia and produce a collection of photographs to illustrate the positive aspects of the kingdom. Only negative stories seem to get through in the Western media and I hope that in my lifetime I will be able to do something to redress the balance somewhat. In actual fact, there are many things that we Westerners could learn from Saudis and it would be a real pleasure to convey these to a Western public.
More of Sebastian Farmborough’s work can be found here.
Image Courtesy of Sebastian Farmborough