Through the Lens of a Yemeni Female Photographer

National Yemen
Photojournalist Amira al-Sharif
Written by Fakhri Al-Arashi

After returning from a year abroad in America, an inspired Amira Al-Sharif shares her experience of studying photography in America

Interviewed by Elham Hassan, National Yemen Correspondent

Amira Al-Sharif, a freelance photojournalist, returned to Yemen after one year of studying in New York on a prestigious scholarship. Amira studied Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at the International Center of Photography (ICP).

National Yemen was able to meet with Amira to discuss her education in New York, her career in Yemen, and the contrasts of life and culture between two disparate countries she calls home.

(NY): Can you tell us about how you were able to go to America and study there?

(AS):In the  beginning of 2010 I was working as a photography  assistant and translator for Stephanie Sinclair, a photographer for National Geographic. During this time, Alison Morley, Program Chair of the Documentary Photography and Photojournalism, saw my portfolio and both Alison and Stephanie supported me in getting the scholarship. I am so grateful for their support.

(NY) :What does one learn when studying documentary  photography and photo journalism?

Amira Al-sharif(AS):It is a One-Year Certificate Program that engages students in critiques and discussions, studying history and theory, building skills and techniques, and developing our photographic practices. As we define our own creative visions, students tap into incredible resources, including the school’s state-of-the-art technical facilities, guidance from professional faculty, internships with distinguished working photographers, educational programs that address cultural issues, and the limitless cultural and professional resources of New York City.

(NY): How did the experience of the ICP program impact you?    

(AS): It instilled in me the knowledge that my job as a photographer doesn’t end by taking the photo – it is where my duty begins. I must give the images a voice and to ultimately publish them. It also helped me discover what I really want to do with my photography and the importance of capturing the eyes and the hearts of the viewers by the way you position your photograph and explicate your subject.

 I now feel like an educator and that I must show people throughout the world more about my culture, traditions, my people and my country.

(NY):What was the reaction of your professors when they saw your photographs  at ICP?

(AS): We call our professors editors, rather than professors. They [editors] can gain an understanding of who you are just by seeing your photos. I owe them knowing great part of me. In the Editing classes we learned that it is more about you as a photographer, if you care about the subject or not, if you were focused or distracted in the field and the most important thing is that they can tell you how you see your subject. By observing them editing our works in the class, I learned the techniques I should apply in the field.

(NY):How are you different than from before you left America compared to who you are now?

(AS) I grew up in this year more than I ever thought I would. Speaking  out about my photography is important as the same as making the photos. I see and I feel people differently, I analyze issues differently and I’ve become stronger. I’ve also learned so much from my subjects as well. Being in the field is just like being in a big school as it forces me to realize people and life in the reality in which they exist. I am always inspired by being close to my subjects and being involved in their life and issues.

Also, after being in an intense year with a lot of deadlines exposed many of my faults, abilities and limits. It makes me to appreciate everything I have in my country and everything my family has instilled in me as an Arab woman.

(NY):As an Arab woman? What do you mean?

(AS):As an Arab woman means to be always surrounded with your family and relatives; remember my father and mother pray for me once I leave home in the morning; to be grateful for a lot of brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews; to realize how much the Arab world is rich with cultures and traditions; remember how it  feels to be close to your families, neighbors, and friends; and showing great respect to our elders by taking their advice.

(NY): What is your advice to a Yemeni woman who aspires to go to America? should she expect there?

(AS): She should be strong and keep an open mind to see a new world and to experience many things. She has to know that she is going to be running in a long marathon and she has to master being strong mentally to make the right decisions for herself and her career, and to expect nothing from anybody but from herself, and of course she has to have muscles!  American women are really strong. People will be always around and offer to help you, but you have to know you will be alone. So do not expect a similar reaction to any situation as you would in Yemen.

(NY):What the reaction of people in America when they see a photographer with hijab?

(AS):In the beginning, I was worried  but people are nice in America.  They showed respect and it was admirable that three of my American friends gave me multiple hijabs as gives for Chirstmas. I remembered the day France prohibited wearing veils in the public places, one of my ICP French friends sent me an email showing how much he is upset from this law. So a hijab really had nothing to do with Americans accepting me as a human being and as a photographer.

(NY): Now that you’ve returned to Yemen, how do you feel about your photography?

(AS): I feel inspired all the time because of the strength of the spirit of the Yemeni people.

But there are also many challenges. There are also many important issues to be documented in the field, and you find yourself in the middle of the road, even in the most difficult of situations whether to focus on the revolution or documenting life inside houses and the beauty of Yemen.

Additionally, we, all Yemeni photographers, face the challenge of being able to move quickly, to be on time, to be in certain area at the right time. But we also face a hard time trying to charge your batteries due to power outages. Or to be happily finished editing your work ready to push send when the power cuts off and only to listen to the collective ‘Noo!’ by everyone in the house.

Also you have to utilize that golden hour of electricity a day when there is actually power, but it also happens to be when all the members of your family are running to one charger to charge mobiles, batteries, computers, doing laundry, or using a blender.

Or when you want to work but you are prevented by someone who doesn’t believe that you should be there documenting the news or who won’t admit you as a photographer unless you have press identity card because there is no Yemeni syndicate for photographers.

(NY): Through your photos, who are you Amira?

(AS:)I am a Yemeni woman who looking forward to show the entire world the truth of Yemen and its people. People can see who am I by looking through my photos as my photos are an extension of me.

(NY):National Yemen would like to thank you for this meeting and wish you all the best.

(AS):Thank you, too.

Amira  is working as female photojournalist in Yemen, where most of her fellow photographers are male. She worked for many English newspapers, international newspapers, embassies, and human rights organizations. Her work has also been published in the Netherland and the United Arab Emirates. She won the first place in 2008 and 2010 in the Yemen Ministry of  Tourism photography competition. She held exhibitions in Yemen as well as outside Yemen, (Paris, Bahrain).

 For more information about Amira, please log on to www.amiraalsharif.com