by Nada Faris
This interview was originally published in Ink & Oil Magazine, issue three.
All photos used with permission from Alina Zolotareva.
Toward the end of 2018, I partnered with Kuwaiti visual artist, Maha Alasaker, on a book, Women of Kuwait. Maha’s work focuses on fine art, fashion and editorial photography. Her personal work engages with identity and cultural issues. Her art appeared in Harper Bazaar Arabia, Vogue Arabia, Marie Claire, Lady Gunn, Material Girl, and others. She also featured in numerous exhibitions across New York City, London, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. She has been represented by JHB Gallery since July 2014.
I was particularly interested in her decisions around craft. Maha has given interviews, lead panels, and discussed the gender and ethnic angle of her project, but she has not had an opportunity to talk about the aesthetic intricacies that made it possible in the first place. In the introduction of our book, I delineate my choices. I explain, for example, why I picked the present tense, and why I utilized the second pronoun. I also elucidate my reasons for foregrounding certain topics and not others. Throughout the entire journey of the project from exhibition in New York to publication by Daylight Books, Maha was only asked about the topic itself, photographing Kuwaiti women in their bedrooms, and her motivation behind highlighting that content to a western audience.
Let’s start with the basics. Did you have a particular philosophy behind these photos? For instance, did you know what you wanted to do with lights, angles, and props, before shooting?
Yes, I wanted natural light. When I visualized these photos, I realized that I wanted them as natural as possible, as though I wasn’t even there. So, definitely no studio lights. And since I wanted to use sunlight whenever it was possible, I began scheduling these photoshoots from morning until 3 p.m. Nothing after that.
How did you respond to darker rooms, ones in which sunlight did not penetrate?
I had a reflector and I used LED light. It’s softer and allows you to balance and make use of shadows. I used them minimally, only to get that type of lighting I wanted. You also have to understand that I did not see these bedrooms before the photoshoots.
So the moment you set foot into the room was go time?
Yes. I needed to be prepared for anything. So I would look around for a bit, take out my camera, look into the lens, get my feel for the room, the colors, the objects, and then I would tell my subject to move to different areas. That’s when I would be testing the lighting to see if I need to do anything about it.
Right, because, as you said, you wanted these photographs to appear as though you weren’t there… But I do have a question about the final poses. They do seem like postures. Can you tell us more about that?
Oh, yeah, well I am not a documentary or street photographer. Maybe I should explain what I meant when I said “I wanted natural photographs as though I wasn’t there…” I guess I wanted them to remove the masks. You know?
Ah, I think I know what you mean. You wanted to strip them down to their essence, their nature, their most authentic selves, and then snap the photo.
Exactly! You know how it is in Kuwait, right? You tell someone you want to take a photo and they spend hours applying makeup, wearing their most expensive clothes, etc. I didn’t want that. I wanted real, natural looks.
Yeah, now I get it. I took the same trajectory in my writing as well. When we started the interview, most of the women expected me to focus on the embellishments, the awards, the degrees, the extras. I didn’t want any of that, either. I was like, show me who you are when you are not performing yourself. Show me who you are, full stop. So, I’m curious, how did you take these photos? How many was enough? How did you recognize that sweet vulnerable essence?
I used a slow camera with 12 frames, and I told myself, I will only shoot 18-24 per woman, unless of course the room proved to be rich with opportunities, then I used more. But I had to minimize the shots to force myself to be more conscious in the process.
How did you know which ones to take?
Remember I told you that upon entering the room I would explore how things look through the lens, searching for possibilities? As I did that, I spoke to the women. I tried to get intimate with them, to get them to open up to me, because I am not only exploring the room, I am also exploring these women’s identities. I wanted to know the person beneath the mask. As I got to develop an image, I would then suggest poses that would highlight, what I thought, was her unadorned self. Then we’d stay like this for some time. I wouldn’t take the shot. I had the camera level near my stomach. I would be looking at her, looking at me. Nothing in between. Just… seeing one another. When she got comfortable enough that she let down her guard, that’s when you’d hear it, the click of the camera. Picture taken.
Do the women ever refuse or resist?
I don’t force them to do anything they don’t want to do. It’s always just slight suggestions. Would you like to lie down? How about sitting like this? Oh, I forgot to mention the bed. When I enter the room, the first thing I ascertain is the bed. I want it to be the focal point of the picture, but sometimes, even though women allowed me into the bedrooms, they still felt uncomfortable showing their beds, so we would look for areas in the room to shoot, and the bed would be poking out, or merely a hint of it will be showing. So yeah, when it comes to resistance, there was tons of it, but I was respectful of their decisions every step of the way.
Did you give yourself these rules before initiating the project?
Not really, projects take their shape with time. In the first photoshoot I did, even though I knew my sister’s angles, I took more photographs, because I was looking for possibilities. I did the same with the second, and then by the third, a picture began presenting itself. I got to know more about my guidelines as I continued.
That’s interesting! Because I had such a short time to interview 25 women, and then to write the pieces, I didn’t have leeway basically to experiment with a variety of strategies. On the other hand, by the time I joined the project, your guidelines were already palpable after the exhibition, so all I had to do was to translate what you did textually. Tell me about post-production choices. I know nothing about the programs you use, or your philosophy for edits. Did you edit these photos?
Oh yes, the post-production process was time-consuming. Following my philosophy of natural images, I knew that I wanted to perform the bare minimal when it came to retouching. But remember the shots I’d been taking on the slow camera. I used a scanner for these frames. Sometimes it took from 3-10 minutes just to scan one of them. Then I had to convert them to the appropriate .TIFF version. In the process, these images are like raw files so I have to go over them to color correct everything. To ensure, for example, that skin appears beige like real skin. That process takes time. And there’s dust too that needs to be corrected. That’s when I would use Photoshop, and then add a bit of clarity and contrast.
Sounds like a lot of work is needed for that “natural” look, right? I think that’s important to emphasize, because we live in a world of surfaces and final images. New artists and writers are growing up, not with an ethics of process, and improvements, and revisions, but of final, sparkling, filtered perfection. That’s dangerous to art and creativity, which is everything that comes before the finale. But now people compare wherever they are in the process, with someone else’s “outcome.” It damages self-esteem.
Tell me about it!
Ha! How about you tell us about it, instead? Have you had issues with self-esteem? Or the artistic equivalent to writer’s block? And how have you dealt with them?
Until last year, I was so mean to myself! I thought I knew how to think, but apparently I didn’t, and as a result I would beat myself up. When I wasn’t being creative, I tried to convince myself that I was a hack, that I wasn’t good enough, that everything I’ve accomplished so far was merely an illusion. It was horrible. I would write these thoughts out, and then I would live them. Actually, you helped me with that.
Yes! I watched your TEDx talk, the one about journals, and I realized I should be more conscious now with mine. So now I’ve separated them. I have an anxiety journal, a sadness journal, but also a happiness journal. I think it is important to remember these moments in writing. Of course, my journals are visual, though.
Yeah, I learned that the hard way too, but I am very glad the speech helped. What else did you do to handle the dark moments of creativity?
Friends are a big part of my recovery!
I agree wholeheartedly! The people you keep around you either help you grow or sink. It’s important to pick them cautiously. I’m very stingy with my time now, only because I do not want to play the victim record of so-and-so made me angry, or so-and-so hurt my feelings. In taking responsibility, I have cut down the time I spend with negative people, or jealous “friends.”
Yes, I was really lucky with mine. When I hit the lowest low, they were there to pick me up. I was blocked for a while. Actually it was after I showed unfinished work to someone who critiqued it harshly and I couldn’t do anything for six months. And I was sinking and sinking, telling myself I’m not an artist. Then my friends stepped in. They reminded me of the good stuff that happened. And they offered to help. I think that’s the other thing. We aren’t taught how to ask for help, so I had to learn this.
These are all beautiful: separating your journals and emphasizing the happy moments; choosing kind friends who contribute to your growth and wellbeing; and also learning to ask for help. Anything else?
To break things down to smaller steps. Before I would feel so bad when I wasn’t being creative or productive. Now I tell myself it’s ok, and then to do something else. For example, when I am researching for a project, I now tell myself that this is work, this is creativity, this is productivity, so it’s ok. Even when I am updating my journal, or just looking out of the window thinking of a project, I now tell myself that this is being creative. It’s part of the process. Oh, and I have a small, digital camera with me all the time now. Maybe I am not “working on a project,” but if the camera is near, I can take photos and be creative all the time. So that really helped!
Excellent point! I struggled so hard with this one myself because I am such a workaholic. I used to evaluate myself on my level of productivity too, and only recently I’ve learned to add all these small steps leading to the development of a particular project to the list.
Speaking of lists, I now write them, and scratch bullet points when I accomplish them to inspire me. I had to learn to create my own self-discipline.
That’s amazing. The one thing I hear often when speaking to creative people is that it is much harder for them to stick to their own deadlines, than it is for them to respect deadlines others have set for them. But now let’s conclude with the book. Tell me about the creative choices in the making of Women of Kuwait. How much of a struggle was it to transfer the material from the exhibition format to a book version?
You said it, they are two different mediums. When I had showcased the images earlier in exhibitions, it was actually more than one. I changed some images and sequences for each showcase.
Can you share your philosophy behind these changes?
Yes, I asked friends, other artists and teachers. Since the project takes it shape with time, I didn’t mind the process, changing things overtime. As an artist, I have my own vision, which I use to make and shape the project, but I don’t know how it will be perceived by the viewer, so every time after a premier, I ask other artists what they thought and how they suggest I improve it. Then I exercise my own creative judgment. But like you said, the book is a completely differently format than the exhibition, a space, where people would wander and cast their gaze on walls. The book is composed of pages. People will have to flip them. And this time, we added text to these images. I had to think about not just the story the images would tell through tension and trajectory, now there were words and their relationship to these images. Oh, and in the exhibition, I was adamant. Only one image per subject. In the book, I had more flexibility. I changed some images, and I added more than one for some candidates. I was interested in exploring tension and complementarity.
Was it easy to finalize the book? I mean, I know you finally received more than what you needed for the Kickstarter campaign, but was it smooth sailing?
Not at all! It was difficult because I was still finalizing the book when I started the Kick starter campaign, and was honestly shocked at the reaction from the audience in the Gulf, and in Kuwait in particular. I assumed that most people knew what Kickstarter was, but I kept getting messages from people asking me to explain. Then of course there were others accusing me of “begging.” I needed to explain why the fundraiser was necessary even though I had a publisher. I said photo-books were different from text-only books. These were two industries and followed different operation guidelines. Either way, it was a struggle, and I had to put on many hats. To continue finalizing the book, to market it on Kickstarter, and to educate the audience. But like you said, thankfully, it all turned out well.
Women of Kuwait comes out May 7, 2019, from Daylight Books.
Learn more about Maha Alasaker by visiting her website: www.mahaalasaker.com. You can find and friend her on Instagram.
Nada Faris is a Kuwaiti writer and performance poet. For social media handles and more information please visit her website: www.nadafaris.com.