Photos by Julia Sashkina, story by María José Contreras
Born and raised in Washington DC, Yumna Al-Arashi has followed a journey that has taken her from New York, to Yemen, to now London, where she moved two years ago. A self-thought photographer - with supporters such as The National Portrait Gallery, The Magnum Foundation, and The International Center for Photography, among others - Yumna's work is an honest exploration of sexuality, feminity, human rights, and cultural heritage - always digging below the surface in order to evidence the positiveness and beauty that tend to remain otherwise ignored.
On an early spring morning, Hanna, Julia, and I visited Yumna at her studio in Hackney Wicks. Read on for a conversation on the ethics behind photojournalism, what it feels like to constantly carry the "Muslim woman" label, and the learnings from her work with other women in the Middle East.
You’ve been the first woman in more than 40 years to make a nude self-portrait for Playboy magazine, which is caused some controversy. How does this commission happen and what opportunities do you find in it as an artist?
I know that for many years Playboy has been problematic in many aspects of the representation of women, and women sexuality, and I’m very aware of that. When they first approached me, they asked if I was interested in being featured and photographed by one of their photographers; and I said no. We were still in communication with their editors and they asked if I’d be down to make a body self-portrait for them, and I said “yes, absolutely” - because in that way I can use their space and their platform to talk about the problems that I have with Playboy as a publication. Not only that, but I’d be performing a historic act by creating these. So I felt it was fantastic. There are many people who believe you should not participate in any of these rounds of publications; you don’t participate in something that has been offensive to women for many years but, to be honest, you could then say the same thing about Vogue and most fashion titles, which I actually need to work with in order to survive financially, to get my name out there, and to question those publications and allow the readers to question themselves, to question what’s been going on for so long in the gaze of the way we say the body - specially the women’s body. Now that Vogue is changing, that we are starting to see different types of bodies - and I’m just using Vogue as an examples, many publications have this problem. On Playboy, you always see white, blond women who are hypersexuallized; these bodies that are unnatural and photoshopped - I didn’t photoshopped my body at all. And my body was not in oversexualized positions; and that was my protest, showing that my body is beautiful in the way that I want to portray it. Also suddenly adding symbols within each photograph of something even bigger. There is a photograph of me being covered by three different white men and this was to symbolize these ideas of the gaze, and show that actually this white male gaze is often the one that surpasses me more than anything else in this world; I’m not allowed to see the world as equal playgrounds, I’m not allowed to speak about the world, I’m not allowed to show my body as it is - and there was nothing sexy about my body in those photos; It is a real body, it is how it should be seen. So I feel very proud of what I did and I’m happy that people have discussions about it; I think that’s important.
There is an ongoing conversation regarding how the lack of female role models in certain fields contributes to upset the balance between men’s and women’s career choices - Is this something that resonates with you? Did you have female photographers to look up to as a kid?
Of course. I didn’t have any role models. Not one single woman in mass media. Let’s be honest here, I couldn’t search for alternative media until I was about fifteen years old, which is a long time to be forming images in your head about what is beautiful and what is standard. There was nothing, and by the time I was able to start doing my own research and understanding the world beyond what media was saying, from there I found role models and incredible women who are from where I’m from, who are similar to me. Still today I see very extreme representations of Arab women - myself included. I’m an American woman before anything else, but I’m still “the Muslim woman in Vogue magazine”, and I’m an atheist, I don’t even practice any religion; so why is my family’s religion the first thing somebody wants to say about me? - yes, I make work about the culture, I make work about my own history and my own life but I don’t necessarily believe that the word that’s attached to my work is fair. Also, I don’t represent many Muslim women, you know?; There’s not one single type of Muslim, just like there’s not one single type of Catholic, Jewish, or Buddhist person. Does anybody else get those labels?. No. Most European or American women have the right to be nothing, they can be just themselves; they can be completely alternative, or completely conservative, or nothing, there’s not alignment. And this is when you realize that the world is really having a strong hate campaign against Muslims; we have to carry some sort of label for the rest of our lives in order to be put in a box. And what is digestible? I’m digestible. I’m the digestible person because I’m American, I don’t cover my body, I don’t cover my hair, and I get naked occasionally, so I’m now consumable. So that’s the role model for young girls who only see that and then see Halima Aden - who covers her body and is completely different - so where’s the middle ground? Where’s this spectrum where everybody can be represented?. I make the work that I make because it’s me, I’m not going to change my artwork because I want to be a better role model; I’m just being myself, and if someone finds interest in that and wants to look up to me, fine, but I don’t feel it’s fair to make every woman feel that she has to be a role model to every single person out there. It’s not fair.
You’ve spoken about how the 9/11 was a trigger for you to research and learn more about your background. How’s this journey of rediscovery influenced your work?
Before 9/11 I was just another person, I was just a kid. I didn’t even know what race was. After 9/11 I was “from where the terrorists are from”. Non-stop. That’s why I needed to do the research; I needed to be able to defend myself, to understand where I’m coming from; to be able to actually getting the right kind of knowledge. Like I said, it wasn’t until I was around 15 years old that I was curious about understanding it, because I was fed again on this bullshit about someone like me. Again, as a child, you don’t really think about these things.
I had an intuition that I come from a place of strong women, and it was my duty to find and reteach myself that that was true when everybody else felt pity and always told me I must had such a depressed background. But these women are still alive, this is a matriarchy that still exists, so it’s not only my discovery but is about me teaching other people whilst I’m discovering and using my work to break the word ‘Muslim’ down, get rid of it. You don’t even understand how much it’s just a useless word that doesn’t even allow people space. Do people ask you when they first meet you what your religion is? It’s just what’s on the news.
Responsibility in the arts - especially when it comes to photojournalism - is a conversation you’ve openly discussed. How do you come to terms with said responsibility in your work?
I think I just try to remember how I would feel if someone did that to my family, or me; how would I feel if somebody just took a photo of me in the street without me consenting to it? I’d feel horrified, I’d feel violated in many ways. I’ve been angry at men, and yelled at someone on the subway because he was taking a photo of me, and I lost it. Photojournalists feel they have the right to go to Africa, the Middle East, Asia, all these places, and just take photos of people without asking. Not only that but also misrepresenting, catching someone’s grieving moment. Imagine someone’s crying on the street, or is in pain, or is homeless, and you just take a picture of him on the street and walk away and tell your own story about that. That’s absolutely horrible and we’ve been doing it for so long. It’s mad how we’ve shaped the image of the other through what we call responsible photojournalism. It’s not. I don’t agree with it in many ways.
It’s so interesting that you’re saying that because it tends to be the other way round. I’ve punished myself so many times for not being able to feel confident enough to get my camera and shoot someone on the street...because that’s what many photography schools tell you it should be like.
It’s an act of violence. I’ve felt that before when I was in school. Someone telling me I have the right to invade somebody’s space and make a story about it which I feel is suitable for the news. That’s just not ok.
What’s your favourite part of what you do?
Meeting wonderful human beings. I’ve met so many inspiring people, whether is just you guys coming into the studio, or the people I meet on the street just coming to me and telling me that they admire my work, or going to conferences... I meet so many fantastic human beings and it gives me a lot of faith in this world. That’s the best part about it.
If a kid came to you today and told you she wants to be a photographer, what piece of advice would you give to her?
Don’t do it (laughs). I would probably tell her not to rely on it as a means of making money if she wants to make art. If you want to make artwork, treat it as a sacred practice. Making art is not about financial gains, it’s about creating spaces in which you can express yourself and bringing people together. But if you want to be a photographer and make commercial work, then it’s not easy, and I cannot imagine what is going to be like for a littler girl in fifteen years from now. What is this world of Instagram going to do for a photographer? But yeah, I think I’d have to be very honest because I don’t like when people think children should be fed lies. Children should be told the truth about things and not being misled. I’d definitely encourage anybody to express themselves through art, but don’t rely on it as a financial means.
Yumna is wearing the Oscar top, the Karl trousers in ivory, the Simon top, the Bernhard trousers, and the Helmut top in ivory.