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A Talk With Tasneem Al Sultan Whose Lens Captures Tales Of Female Empowerment

Tasneem Al Sultan is a female Saudi photographer who conveys empowering stories through her photo-journalistic work like no other. Al Sultan’s work challenges the gender stereotypes of the Arab region and culture, and sparks conversation through her lens about important social issues.

Describing herself as a “storyteller,” the Saudi photographer aims to raise awareness about the existing gender issues within the Kingdom through her lens. With Saudi Arabia embracing major modernization and rapid change, Al Sultan hopes to highlight some of the most empowering stories from the country.

Al Sultan first began her career as a wedding photographer, shooting local Saudi weddings, and developing her work, and having become the first Arab female to become a global ambassador for Canon in 2018, she now sits on a panel of judges and as a mentor for the “Women Who Empower” campaign for the international photography brand. In this role, Tasneem encourages and aids budding career photographers to keep pursuing their passions and is also part of the “Women with a Vision” pillar under the same initiative, where she inspires others to address social issues that hinder women from empowerment.

Moreover, with Canon participating at Expo 2020, Tasneem Al Sultan shares her story on an international platform and spoke to her to find out more about her journey of empowerment, what inspires and empowers her, and her incredible way of telling a story in just a flash of a second… 

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Tell us a little about your background...

I am a storyteller born in the US, raised between the UK and Saudi Arabia. I studied English Literature and Social Linguistics and obtained a master’s degree in Social Anthropology and Social Linguistics.

Culture and social issues have always been parts of my interest and I believe there is a need to talk more about these topics to make an impact. Through the power of photography, I can raise awareness about gender and social issues in Saudi Arabia as well as in other parts of the Gulf. I want the world to see the changes happening in the region in terms of gender stereotyping. There are numerous stories across the Gulf that challenge the typical perception that the world has about Arab women.

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But most importantly, I want to empower other women through these visual stories.

A strong woman empowers other women – and I strive to do this in every story I share, in every initiative I create, and in every woman I meet. Thanks to partners like Canon, who have chosen me as a brand Ambassador and one of the judges for the “Women Who Empower” campaign, my efforts are being amplified at a bigger platform. It is a wonderful experience to become part of an esteemed panel of women entrepreneurs who are on a similar journey and provide mentorship to participants. As one of the judges in the "Women Who Empower” campaign, I also have the privilege along with other judges to review entries submitted by talented individuals from across the Middle East and Central and North Africa region.

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What is it about photography and capturing a moment that pushed you to take it up as a profession/art form?

More than the technical aspects of photography, it is the unique ability of a photograph to deeply capture one’s emotion which makes it appealing, and this is what deepened my passion in this field. I quit my teaching job when I realized that photography is a career and a passion at the same time.

To me, photography brings people together; it connects them and stirs emotions that could inspire, motivate and ignite changes in the society. Photographs encourage the viewer to step out of their comfort zone and do something that they love.

I see photography as a medium for communicating and revealing an aspect of reality when conventional words fail to do so. It is also a platform for me to break down walls and challenge the social stigma about Saudi, particularly with women.

Every photograph I take has a larger message I would want to convey.

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What can you tell us about your partnership with Canon?

Being a part of the Canon Ambassador program, and the first Arab female photographer in this initiative, I am fortunate to work with other talented individuals, and share my passion and technical knowledge while hoping to inspire others through stories that matter.

As a judge and a mentor for the Women Who Empower campaign, I have the privilege to guide budding entrepreneurs and help them in bringing their work forward. The campaign serves as an opportunity for me to encourage other talented individuals to continue honing their creative skills and pursue their passion. Further, the Women with a Vision pillar serves as a broader platform for me to inspire others to challenge and address gender bias, and empower them to share their stories.

Through its participation at Expo 2020, Canon further amplifies its campaigns on empowerment, inclusivity, and diversity. This global platform enables Canon to reach a broader audience for its initiatives such as the Women Who Empower campaign. As someone who advocates for women and their roles in shaping the society, I am proud to be a part of Canon’s Expo journey as partners in sparking positive changes through women empowerment.

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What kind of camera do you use to shoot?

I use Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, and EOS M, Canon’s first mirrorless EOS camera. In photography, aside from other elements, lenses also affect the quality of your work, so I use various ones to test which one works best for me. Some of my favorites include the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens from Sigma, Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM Lens, EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro and EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens. I also love experimenting with Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 Tilt Shift.

I have a number of lenses, some of those are mine while others are borrowed.

In photography, the subject holds greater power over what kind of camera or lens you use. I believe that it is not about owning all the kinds of cameras and lenses. What makes a photography project successful is the subject, your skills, and a camera that suits you.

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What are the essentials in a kit that an aspiring photographer should be looking at investing in?

First, it is important to know what form of photography you wish to pursue and what are your priorities as a photographer? Do you prefer an equipment that is light or heavy? Are you into documentaries? For documentaries, it is smarter to have something that is easy to bring around and get started immediately. And for taking portraits, I suggest something you would experiment with to add light and movement to your images. It is also worth considering your mobility as a photographer. Do you have to move or stay? There are various considerations a starting photographer must weigh in before investing in an equipment, and it is also crucial to remember that what works for me might not work for others.

For a start, I suggest EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM or a camera like EOS 5D Mark IV. Whichever camera you prefer, play with it, familiarize yourself with its features and qualities, and know it by heart. Practice and spend time learning what it has to offer.

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Your body of work suggests that you address social and gender issues through your photography, and your subjects are predominantly women, how has this kind of social commentary been received by viewers in Saudi Arabia?

I am pleased to share that most viewers have been sharing positive and encouraging feedback. I attribute these to how my subjects awaken compassion in others and give them a sense of joy because of their dreams and inspiring stories.

Aside from that, majority of my work portrays the positive changes happening amongst women in the Gulf and the new roles they play, particularly in Saudi Arabia. These visions of women convey historical moments and stories that break away from the stereotypes and misconceptions around gender roles. I am sharing the changes that are happening in Saudi, and I am very happy to see that these efforts are being warmly welcomed by people.

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You are able to shoot at an important time in Saudi history, where a cultural change is taking place. What changes do you hope to see and how do you feel these changes will impact your work?

As a Saudi woman myself, being able to capture the changing tides in our own culture is both personally and professionally rewarding. It is time to show the world that Saudi has empowered women who challenge their cultural and social environment.

Those images I took of women doing their ‘first’ are meant to be shared as they are a part of our history. My presence on the ground is not a coincidence, I am meant to be there as a witness of those moments. These stories are not to be kept within four walls; they are intended for everyone to see.

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What changes do you hope to see and how do you feel these changes will impact your work?

I would like to see more inclusivity of other photographers, especially those from minorities. We should provide them with more support and opportunities to follow their passion in photography and use this platform to amplify their voice. I’ve been fortunate to receive grants and recognitions in the past, but I know that many of my peers have not been given the same opportunities. I know there are other talented people out there, we just need to tap them, and unlock their full potentials.

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How do you feel your view from behind the camera empowers your subjects?

It is never about me even though I am the one holding the camera. I do not control the narrative, rather, give them the control for a more honest and truthful story. It is about mutual trust between me and my subject. I am just giving them a voice, a medium to tell their story.

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Who has influenced your photographic work the most?

I have several people who inspired and influenced my photography journey like Aïda Muluneh and Laura El-Tantawy, both are also Canon Ambassadors. They photographed their own people in a way that reflects and brings more pride and dignity. I love and admire that. Just like in other forms of arts, I am inspired by the work of others, the subjects, and the eyes behind those works.

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Lastly, what empowers you?

I am empowered by the fact that there are still a lot of stories about women that are waiting to be shared. I am empowered by stories of women in my society, my daughter, my own mother, and the others from minority groups. I have access to women in a way that the opposite gender doesn’t, and that further drives me to take advantage of this position to spark positive change. The power that other empowered women has, empowers me. The power within me, empowers me.

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