Western photographers working in the Middle East and North Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries often played up the exoticism of people and cultures of those regions in the images they produced. In staged portraits of women, for instance, their subjects were sexualized, feeding the fantasy of a harem catering to the whims of men. Alternately, they covered women from head to toe, presenting them as mysterious shrouded figures to be pitied for their lack of freedom and identity and feared for the mystery of what was hidden beneath their veils. Such images entered the public consciousness through postcards, magazines, and newspapers, amplifying false narratives.
“They’re part of what we call ‘othering,’ ” says Iraq-born photographer Sama Alshaibi, a photography professor at the University of Arizona School of Art whose work deals, primarily, with the ways in which women from the Middle East and North Africa are represented. “These were all staged portraits that were part of scene-making by these photographers,” she says, explaining how photographers created images that were intended to look like authentic representations of place. “The women were staged among other ‘Oriental props,’ like the Oriental carpet, the hookah pipe, painted backdrops of palm trees and desert vistas, and traditional, ornate clothing that often included a headdress or vessel for carrying water over their head.”
Alshaibi is one of the photographers participating in Center’s 19th annual Review Santa Fe Photo Festival (Thursday, Oct. 17, through Sunday, Oct. 20) at the Drury Plaza Hotel (828 Paseo de Peralta). Center is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit support organization for documentary and fine art photographers, and sponsors the festival every autumn. Vetted photographers at all stages of their careers have their work critiqued during the festival. The event also provides networking opportunities for them to connect with publishers, curators, and other professionals in the field.
During the festival’s run, Alshaibi gives two presentations on her project Carry Over. The first, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, is open to festival pass holders. The second (1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 19) is part of an event in which Center’s 2019 awards and grants winners discuss their work; that presentation is free and open to the public.
Alshaibi is Center’s Project Development Grant winner for 2019. Other Center award categories include Curator’s Choice, Editor’s Choice, and Director’s Choice. There are also Juror’s awards and an Excellence in Teaching award. The Project Development Grant is given annually to a photojournalist, fine art, or documentary photographer engaged in a project, and includes a $5,000 cash award as well as an invitation to Review Santa Fe.
Carry Over is a series of powerful images that uses the language of staged photographs from the early days of photography — the painted backdrops and other props — and was made with the antique albumen photographic process. Carry Over references the albumen tradition, which was among the first processes used in commercial photography. But the series isn’t an homage. Rather, it is a powerful statement from a more contemporary perspective. “A lot of the images that I created for Carry Over act as a reclamation or a resistance,” says the 46-year-old photographer, who also appears in the work. “The body feels far more empowered and strong. That has a lot to do with the subject being the photographer, rather than the subject having no power in her representation.”
The albumen process involves many steps. First, the paper used for the print is coated with an emulsion made from the albumen found in egg whites, which is mixed with salt (sodium or ammonium chloride). Then it’s dipped in silver nitrate, which renders the paper light-sensitive. Alshaibi says learning the technique, which she had never worked with before, was an education. “I believe the painstaking process itself created some parameters for photographers back then,” she says. “There were real practical reasons to be creating these studio constructions right next to where you’d be developing and printing.”
In some of the photographs, Alshaibi wears elaborate (if sometimes nonsensical) headdresses. In others, she holds some contemporary object over her head in place of the anachronistic water jug. These objects — each created by the photographer — are sculptures with no actual utilitarian function. Even the headdresses, impractical as real headwear, are sculptural and often exaggerated, soaring to absurd heights over the subject’s head. In several images, her direct gaze — a sharp contrast to the early depictions of Middle Eastern women — confronts the viewer.
Like Alshaibi, the photographers participating in Review Santa Fe are juried in on the strength of their work and artist statements, not their reputations. The jurying process is blind. Center receives approximately 500 submissions annually from photographers all over the world, but only has 100 slots available for the portfolio reviews. This year, a panel of 47 reviewers are on hand to give expert advice to the emerging and established photographers. The reviewers include editors, publishers, museum curators, and gallerists.
The review sessions are not open to the public. But the public can view all of the portfolios during an evening portfolio walk (6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18) at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Pavilion (1607 Paseo de Peralta). Other free public events include a photographic book fair at the Drury, where you can find the latest titles from Radius Books, Photo-eye Bookstore, Gnomic Book, and others (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20).
Review Santa Fe participants represent a broad spectrum of contemporary photography. Digital photography proliferates in the information age, but some festival attendees also work with film and traditional darkroom processes, as Alshaibi did for Carry Over. In 2014, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholar Fellowship as part of a residency at the Palestinian Museum outside of Ramallah, where she encountered examples of the historic prints that inspired the series.
“I had seen these images many times in books, but it was very different seeing actual albumen images,” she says. “They’re very seductive as photographs, so old and tactile. Think about the time and effort it took to construct them. I immediately eliminated the idea that I could do this in Photoshop or use a filter that was digital. There’s always something to learn through the medium itself.” ◀
▼ Review Santa Fe Photo Festival
▼ Thursday, Oct. 17, through Sunday, Oct. 20
▼ Drury Plaza Hotel, 828 Paseo de Peralta, 505-424-2175
▼ Festival pass $75; 505-984-8353, visitcenter.org