Photography in Yemen is a work in progress [Archives:2008/1168/Culture]

June 30 2008

Khaled Al-Hilaly
For The Yemen Times

Despite some progress, fine art photography in Yemen still lags behind other art forms such as painting and music.

Portraiture and studio photography are the most common forms of photography in Yemen. This type of commercial photography usually involves taking posed pictures of people in a studio or commemorative photos at weddings, graduations and other ceremonies.

Only a handful of fine art and commercial photographers can be found in Yemen, a nation with a population of more than 20 million.

“There's no syndicate or union for Yemeni photographers,” notes Iraqi photographer and trainer Salah Haider, who is also spokesperson for the Union of Arab Photographers. “They don't agree with each other, so they lose out on participation in Arab and international competitions and exhibits.”

Another less common form of photography in Yemen is photojournalism, which focuses on capturing people and events in the news for mass media purposes.

“Worldwide, publications use photos as essential elements of their news, but we still use the camera randomly, ignoring many of its features,” observes Sadiq Al-Hamadani, a journalist and photographer for the Yemeni Parliament's web site.

For those with a passion for photography, there are obstacles to their ambitions. such as the lack of equipment, lack of training and lack of galleries or exhibition spaces to show their work.

“Photographers could join together to form a club or a photographers syndicate where they could exchange ideas, establish standards, help one another in commissioned work, hold group exhibits or classes for learning photography,” suggests Boushra Al-Mutawakel, one of the few recognized art photographers working in Yemen.

Aspiring photographers in Yemen can get more information via two forums, the first of which is the Information Ministry's Media Institute for Training and Qualifying, which offers photojournalism courses. The institute recently launched a two-week workshop in digital photography and photojournalism for nine photographers from around the country.

Abdullah Nasser, dean of the institute, says there soon will be an exhibit for the participants to display their photographs. The nine trainees went on specific photojournalistic training trips throughout Yemen, where they shot the country and its people as practice for larger assignments.

“The current standard of photography in Yemen isn't what we're looking for,” notes Ali Al-Hakimi, head photographer for Al-Jumhuriyya, a Taiz-based government-run newspaper, adding, “Training is very important for us because it helps refresh our photography skills and knowledge.”

The other venue for aspiring photographers is a photo club held by Haider, wherein a group of six photographers, including three amateurs, meets at 9 a.m. every Friday near the outdoor theater in the Old City of Sana'a.

The group discusses general photography techniques and critiques the photographs they took throughout the morning. The photographers first choose a subject and then photograph it from different angles and perspectives.

They then shoot in the Old City, stopping at a small restaurant to breakfast together and review their pictures on their digital cameras while Haider explains technical tips for better photographs. Their journey usually ends at noon, when the group lunches together.

Mahdi Karman, a 30-year-old participant in Haider's photo group, says he practices photography simply for the fun of it, but he sometimes gets to use it in his work as a graphic designer. “Learning, participating in exhibits and competitions and analyzing the works of other successful photographers are all effective ways to improve a photographer's skills,” he points out.

Establishing a reputable Yemeni artistic and commercial photographic community could provide job opportunities, as photographers could help the work of non-governmental organizations such as charities needing to document their projects. Additionally, they could work for the police, doing crime scene photography, or work for any of the numerous media outlets both inside and outside of Yemen.

“I have a staff of skilled photographers and their approximate monthly salaries range from YR 30,000 to 60,000 (approximately $150 to $300),” notes Mansour Al-Bahri, owner of a portrait studio in Sana'a, adding, “They all acquired their proficiency through practice.”

“We now have commercial photography, which we can see examples of on the large billboards that can't be missed while walking or driving along Hadda Street,” Al-Mutawakel points out.

Haider, who is working on an encyclopedia of Yemeni photography, advises Yemeni photographers to avoid arrogance if they want to succeed because there's always room for improvement.

He further requests Yemen Times readers to help preserve the photo archives of elderly Yemeni photographer Ali Asemah, whose photos are considered a part of Yemeni history.

As Al-Mutawakel notes, “Yemen has a rich history and culture that's gradually changing, with some aspects disappearing completely. Photography can help preserve certain aspects of our rich heritage, in addition to being used as a form of free artistic expression reflecting one's society.”