This Week In Photography Books – Olivia Arthur

by Jonathan Blaustein

“You can’t kill an idea,” said the great Sherlock Holmes. (As played by Benedict Cumberbatch.) How true. It’s the reason behind censorship, gulags, and Ministries of Propaganda. It’s also the reason that information has become one of the world’s most prized commodities.

Stories are ideas, as well as information. They’re the core methodology through which human knowledge was disseminated before writing. Early humans had stories, and, of course, pictures. It’s always been thus, and unlikely to change.

That’s why we, as photographers, have spread to all the globe’s corners, looking for stories. Personally, I’m not sure why people get so enraptured by tales they’ve heard and seen many times before. (Though that is how children learn: through repetition. Ask any parent who’s seen Madagascar 42 times.) Furthermore, some would believe there are only a few meta-narratives that keep repeating in an endless loop.

I think that’s why Stacy Kranitz kicked up such a shit-storm with that CNN debacle a few weeks ago. Like it or not, whatever her reasons, she delivered images that re-enforced what people already thought, and had seen before. We’re all familiar with depictions of Appalachia, seen through the white shroud of a KKK douchebag. Been there. (Jörg Colberg had a nice reaction to this as well.)

No offense to Ms. Kranitz, of course, but I’m more interested in seeing things I haven’t seen before. (Yes, I know, I’m repeating myself. But not everyone reads the column each week. Forgive me.) When I choose a book to write about, you can be assured that I found it fresh. I look at a lot of books, and many are good, but lack the proper spark for my curiosity. Others, like Olivia Arthur’s new volume, “Jeddah Diary,” published by Fishbar, give me a perspective I’d not encountered.

Ms. Arthur spent time in Saudi Arabia, hanging out with several bubble cultures of women. I’ll spare you any sort of Western proselytizing on why the subjugation of women’s rights in the Muslim world is any of my business. Some would dismiss anything I said as the mark of Cultural Imperialism. (If you doubt that, just ask Pieter Hugo, who defended himself from such attacks in our comment section a few weeks ago.)

Where was I? Right. Ms. Arthur’s book. It’s powerful, personal, and innovative: a difficult combination to conjure. She uses text well, introducing the photos with a bit of backstory, and then including blurbs opposite the pictures as well. I must say, that’s the path I think I’ll take if I’m able to publish a book of my own work. Words and pictures, not one or the other.

But this is a photo blog, so let me at least give the images their due. We see women covered by black abayas, sitting in kitchens and on sofas. But we also see seductive glimpses of flesh, legs in particular, that riff on the supposed reasoning behind the big “cover up” phenomenon. Remove the temptation. Kill the serpent.

Ms. Arthur’s most interesting formal invention, though, is the way she chooses to obscure the faces of women who need the protection. She makes a print, then blasts it with light, and rephotographs it. The scattered glare mars any facial recognition, while imparting a metaphorical discomfort to the viewer. Really smart, and also visually compelling.

The book also delves into hypocrisy, that most human of conditions. The subjects in the book apparently find loopholes through with to party and booty shake, via private beaches and estates. Apparently, it’s OK to show off your belly-button-ring on holiday in Lebanon, but not in the comfort of one’s own home if there are any men around. Typical.

Bottom Line: A fascinating inside view into a hidden society

To purchase “Jeddah Diary” visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 3 Comments On This Article.

  1. Nice write up JB, I am not to keen on this one though, then again not every book is going fit what I like is style and story.

  2. Thank you for the review. I have just received my copy. This is one of the best books i have seen the past years. And i have seen a lot. This is something new to me, and it is done in a smart way.