OMANI PHO­TOG­RA­PHER QUI­ETLY CHAL­LENGES SO­CI­ETAL NORMS

▶ De­clan McVeigh speaks to Mah­mood Al Zad­jali about cap­tur­ing his com­mu­nity in his doc­u­men­tary-style pho­tos

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE -

In a se­ries of vivid, grip­ping images by Mus­cat pho­tog­ra­pher Mah­mood Al Zad­jali, a young Omani groom stands up to his knees in the sea, look­ing all the world like an Arab King Canute, pow­er­less to hold back the tide.

But un­like the 10th-cen­tury monarch, Al Zad­jali’s stoic, khan­jar (dag­ger)-wear­ing groom – flanked by two in­scrutable grooms­men – stands with his arms bound tightly to his sides with a bright red cloth, a tra­di­tional wed­ding sym­bol that in this im­age takes on a new mean­ing.

“The red rib­bon in my pho­tog­ra­phy is a metaphor for so­ci­ety’s ex­pec­ta­tions,” Al Zad­jali, 25, tells The Na­tional,

“while the ocean is a tidal wave of costs.”

Oman is renowned for the cost of its lav­ish wed­ding cel­e­bra­tions, which of­ten sad­dle young peo­ple with sig­nif­i­cant debt as they start out on mar­ried life. In 2013, the coun­try’s Shura Coun­cil rec­om­mended a 4,000 riyal (Dh38,200) pay­ment so lower-in­come Oma­nis could af­ford to get mar­ried, and to re­verse the trend of Omani men mar­ry­ing for­eign women to side-step the is­sue of pay­ing a dowry.

“So­ci­ety ex­pects cer­tain things from men who want to get mar­ried,” Al Zad­jali says. “Gold, jew­ellery, an in­cred­i­ble wed­ding dress, but I know how much it de­pends from one fam­ily to an­other.

“These ex­pec­ta­tions form a cir­cle that we have to en­ter. Some peo­ple struggle with the so­ci­etal ex­pec­ta­tions and get bur­dened by over­whelm­ing fi­nan­cial costs, which drown out that happy wed­ding day they were look­ing for­ward to.”

With wed­dings cost­ing about 12,000 Omani riyals only a few years ago, it is clear that

At What Cost – painstak­ingly shot in what Al Zad­jali calls “ab­so­lutely ex­haust­ing” June tem­per­a­tures – comes at an op­por­tune time.

Al Zad­jali, who also works as a doc­u­men­tar­ian and film­maker, says he was “happy to see so many peo­ple dis­cussing the is­sue and nor­mal­is­ing it”.

“I saw peo­ple talk­ing about what sac­ri­fices they are will­ing to make, to make mar­riage more ac­ces­si­ble for a part­ner they want to spend their lives with, which is won­der­ful.

“How­ever, un­for­tu­nately I also no­ticed a sub­set of peo­ple turn­ing it into a ‘blame game’. I saw some women say­ing that men are more will­ing to spend money buy­ing cars than for mar­riage. I also saw some men turn­ing bit­ter about the fi­nan­cial ex­penses, blam­ing their fu­ture brides for the costs.”

The At What Cost se­ries ties in with the themes of free­dom and trans­for­ma­tion that un­der­lie Al Zad­jali’s work, which of­ten casts an an­a­lytic eye over Omani cul­ture and so­ci­ety.

“It’s fair to say that the more closely knit a so­ci­ety is, the more of an in­flu­ence other peo­ple ap­pear to have on you,” Al Zad­jali says. “This has its plus sides, and it also feels re­stric­tive in other cases.

“I re­ally like to high­light this idea of ‘what peo­ple want’, and the tri­umphs of per­sonal choice when so­ci­ety gives peo­ple an op­tion to do as they want, as well as how some­times you feel like your choices have been in­flu­enced by oth­ers.

“Con­sider the red rib­bon in this shoot, for ex­am­ple. That rib­bon is purely cre­ated from a well-mean­ing so­ci­ety that just wants you to have a beau­ti­ful wed­ding, but it can tie you down fi­nan­cially,” he says.

Al­though At What Cost and the con­ver­sa­tion it has sparked are rooted in the cul­ture and tra­di­tions of Oman, Al Zad­jali’s visual art of­ten casts the sul­tanate in a new light. In his More Pre­cious Than Gold se­ries, gar­ish colour il­lu­mi­nates a hi­jab-wear­ing woman in a modern, visual re­flec­tion on food and Ra­madan. The pho­tog­ra­pher’s Arab Space­man se­ries last year – shot with retro 35mm film – fea­tures a raff­ish kef­fiyeh and kan­dura-wear­ing man car­ry­ing a space hel­met, with cryp­tic sub­ti­tles.

Al Zad­jali’s en­thu­si­asm for his Olym­pus OM-1 cam­era and its 35mm film – which gives his sub­jects and Mus­cat a grainy, washed-out look – is rooted in what he calls the “raw as­pect” of it.

“In a 35mm film cam­era there are no com­puter aids and chips to help you along, and you never get to see your pho­tos un­til you are done de­vel­op­ing them,” he says. “Sure, this means dif­fi­cul­ties along the process, but I just love the con­cept of this equip­ment. Once you start us­ing one, it’s so hard to go back to modern meth­ods. And the end re­sult could never be re­pro­duced by dig­i­tal cam­eras.”

This in­trigu­ing mix of Ara­bic style visual im­agery – of­ten ex­e­cuted with pur­pose­fully vin­tage tech­niques and an eye for 21st-cen­tury themes and is­sues – makes for ar­rest­ing im­agery.

Al Zad­jali’s work, in­flu­enced by Aus­tralian pho­tog­ra­pher and mu­si­cian Re­gan Mathews, also known as Ta-Ku, sits com­fort­ably along­side other Omani pho­tog­ra­phers such as Hus­sain Al Amri, Meyyan Al Said and Shamsa bint Hamed Al Harthi.

“I’m an Omani to my very core at the end of the day,” Al Zad­jali says. “So, I usu­ally tackle ideas that re­late to me and the world around me, even while try­ing to ad­dress the sto­ries of all peo­ple.

“It’s im­por­tant as a cre­ator to un­der­stand that at the end of the day, we all have a lim­ited view of the world. No­body can cap­ture the whole world in a photo, so we tell sto­ries that re­late to us some­how.”

Al Zad­jali is now work­ing on a new doc­u­men­tary short, but is coy about re­veal­ing the sub­ject mat­ter. If it is any­thing like his pre­vi­ous work, his in­ter­est in peo­ple and their sto­ries will be at the heart of it.

“All of my sto­ries re­volve around peo­ple and how they in­ter­act with the world around them,” he says. “It’s es­sen­tial to have a hu­man or emo­tional as­pect, and I love to ex­plore how hu­man be­ings live and breathe the world.”

Or, as his Arab Space­man might say: “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is al­ways some­thing to see.”

I usu­ally tackle ideas that re­late to me and the world around me, even while try­ing to ad­dress the sto­ries of all peo­ple

Pho­tos Mah­mood Al Zad­jali

Mah­mood Al Zad­jali, inset, is in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing hu­man be­hav­iour, as seen in his works, clock­wise from right: ‘More Pre­cious Than Gold’; ‘At What Cost’; and ‘Arab Space­man’

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