1000+ Songs of a Former Caged Bird
By Amani Rohayyem
For me, a woman from Saudi Arabia, raised with certain cultural and social constraints, taking a photograph of the full moon every month, for three days in a row, for almost a whole year was never an option. The ability to leave home after sunset, sometimes even midnight, get in my car with or without my kids, and drive to the river just to sit quietly waiting for the right moment to capture the beauty of the moon, is a big deal. It is not the ability to drive like many might deduct from this, though it helps, and it is not the financial independence to make a decision to invest in an expensive camera that many would have denied me if I gave them the power to decide. It is the freedom to be who I am and to do the things that make me happy. As an adult woman, consciously and willingly creating happiness, with nothing and no one else involved. It is about giving myself the value I deserve, and about gaining the voice to sing again, the brush to paint, the pen to write and above all the camera to express both art and the freedom to capture it.
About a year and a half ago, my relationship with social media was nothing more than dormant Twitter and Facebook accounts, both created for work. This was not because I lacked the knowledge, the capacity, or the electronic sense of direction. It was other deeper issues and constraints which were placed on me due to my gender, outlining what is acceptable and what is not for a woman my age and with my religious and social background.
Deeper thoughts, considerations and mostly a re-evaluation of the ideological and cultural “bars” placed around me as a woman, like the bars of a metal cage surrounding Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird, a poem which always brought tears to my eyes. All of the constraints, the illogical limitation based on irrelevant interpretation of how I should be as a woman drove me to one conclusion. Those dense, parallel and illogical bars are not mine.
I created an Instagram account, even before receiving my multi-installment camera, and with it I made a promise that once I reach 1000 images I will write about how photography gave me a new sense of freedom and a metaphorical voice to sing again. Here I am, almost a year later with 1000+ photos on Instagram and many more planned.
I struggled with many personal and ideological issues this year, so I decided that a camera would be one of the very few things I’d get myself. I have always wanted a professional camera, a new set of eyes to recreate my world, to capture moments that I value so much in a city that I have always loved and roamed freely. I wanted to rebuild my world, one which has been darkened by burdens and obstacles, with images of sunsets and light. Not only did I want to share the beauty I see with others, I wanted to share my voice, the sense of freedom and who I am. Walking around New York city with my camera, is not just a symbol of my freedom to move, it helped me gain a better understanding of myself, to question ideas, to have the most amazing conversations with strangers who only see me as another human being, to be able to capture their moments of pain and happiness.
Then came my other reward; mindfulness. It was a foreign concept to me before this year, and I am almost certain that even if it has ever crossed my path, I would have dismissed along with many other great practices and ideas deemed unacceptable or unfit. Increased awareness of myself, the world and the people around me allowed me to look deeper, to listen more attentively, to speak less and to assume the best of everyone. I was able to forgive those who hurt me, abused my willing to give endlessly and let go of their haunting images. I opened my heart to new friendships and I learned to walk away from many bad ones. “Don’t take a picture just because you think it will be a good picture” was the best advice from a very dear friend and mentor. I’ve learned to take pictures of moments, of experiences, of emotionally meaningful event. Moments when I am shedding a tear witnessing the majestic colors of a sunset, smiling with content due to the magnificence of the moon, hearing my heartbeats racing from the sense of freedom a breeze creates across my face, and by the overwhelming joy of watching water splash and flow. Photos are not just still images of life anymore, they are uncontested evidences of my continuous growth, of my understanding of life and participation in it as a free, conscious human being.
I, among many, firmly believe that photography is an expression of identity and voice. For the past twenty plus years, and in the same manner my identity as a woman have been socially and culturally concealed, my love of photography also was. It became restricted by geography and location, allowing me to take pictures at home or once we are abroad for one reason or the other. As years passed, they brought no resolution, since age, regulations and social obligations piled more burdens and obscured my passion for photography. It was never the way I was raised or the amount of support I received from my family but rather by the perceptions and expectations of everyone else around us.
When I told my mother about my renewed interest in photography, she reminded me how in high school I used to dress my little sister and take pictures of her in the privacy of our room. She was around five, enjoyed all the attention, our room’s pink curtain behind her with her standing on our dresser, dressed in the most contradicting personas ever, somewhat a representation of the identity struggles my generation was going through then. I dressed her in a traditional Egyptian woman custom, a Madonna inspired look, a Muslim “nun” and an interpretation of Bruno Amadio’s Crying Boy, a painting which was in almost every house then.
This also reminded me of my father’s aggravated voice, in the late 1980s in New York City, after picking up developed Kodak rolls and paying a huge amount of money, only to discover that they were all pictures of trees, bodies of water and squirrels. It also reminded me of the long list of cameras I had throughout the years. They paraded in my mind like a long line of beautiful models on a runway; the Polaroid, Kodak, Nikon, Canon, Sony, the digital Sony and the many nameless ones. A recollection of the endless amounts of pictures I took of my kids when they were babies followed. This led in itself, to another kind or realization. My pictures changed according to my age, to becoming a woman, a wife and a mother. There is almost a bold line marking that transition, on both sides of it, the words private and public. Suddenly I became a woman, I moved slowly and without realizing it from public photography to the private, from landscape and nature to confined spaces.
I started taking pictures when I was thirteen, and being from the pre-digital photography generation, my hobby created many burdens for my family, so I was repeatedly and firmly instructed not to waste money on ‘trees and squirrels’ which was a valid argument at the time. In addition to the financial burdens of developing film rolls, came the burden of becoming a woman in my country. Movement, travel and the ability to point a camera at something as simple as the beach or the sun, were calculated, premeditated and controlled. Due to the actions of a few, the society was and is still paranoid and suspicious of anyone pointing a camera at anything. Added to this general mistrust, A long line of Fatwas on the religious permissibility of taking pictures, which sadly resulted in the destruction of many families’ valuable memories of loved ones.
There will be many voices jumping to counter my argument for all the right and mostly wrong reasons. To these I say, although the human experience is generally shared, the personal circumstances and restrictions that govern each one of us are different. Moreover, any arguments in defence of women’s ability to take photographs freely should not ignore the limitations and restrictions on women’s freedom of movement within and out of Saudi Arabia. I am privileged, like many women who are abroad or who come from families that are able and willing, but many women back home are not. The current campaign to change guardianship laws, and the brutal verbal wars it created on social media is only the tip of the iceberg. I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself, but within my story there are many unsung songs of other caged birds.