A member of the Rawiya collective, the 33-year-old Tamara Abdul Hadi was born to Iraqi parents in the UAE and began her photography career in Dubai. Now based in Tunis, she still looks back on her time in the UAE with great fondness.
“It was a great experience,” she says. “I’m self-taught and my journey began in Dubai; its people were my very first subjects. While there are, of course, plenty of people taking pictures of Dubai looking beautiful, I wanted to scratch below the surface, take a look at the creek and the labour workers. Things that were interesting to document, the subjects behind the scenes.”
Which fits perfectly with Rawiya’s remit: to “present an insider’s view of a region in flux, balancing its contradictions while reflecting on social and political issues and stereotypes”. Abdul Hadi was one of the founding members in 2010 after a meeting with the Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian and Lebanon’s Dalia Khamissy.
“For me, Rawiya was about showing the Middle East from our perspective, rather than having foreign photographers coming in and perhaps missing the point. And although photography and photojournalism is a competitive business, there’s power in numbers, so it’s nice to work together. We’re all very different, but the ideas are the same – to challenge stereotypes. And by joining together we can share that on a wider scale.”
So while the current exhibitions in Nottingham, England and Umea, Sweden, showcase and celebrate the more artistic side of Rawiya’s work, there is a commercial imperative at play, too. Abdul Hadi worked for Reuters and The New York Times while in Dubai and still freelances for the latter.
“I was in Amman recently and went to do a shoot for the The New York Times in Ras Al Khaimah. Providing images of what life is really like in the Middle East to mainstream newspapers, meaning they get seen by more people, is surely a good thing. In fact, I found that my Arab Man project did just that.”
Abdul Hadi is referring to her Picture an Arab Man series. Indeed, one of the mainstream newspapers that featured it last year was The National. It was a fascinating project through which Abdul Hadi aimed to subvert the image of the Arab man as an “angry bearded terrorist” by taking gentle, beautiful, peaceful portraits. “I was trying to reflect the Arab man I knew,” she says. “I’m Arab, I grew up with an Iraqi father and Arab brothers and friends. I knew the idea of them had been twisted.”
So what’s next?
“Well, I had 35 portraits a year ago – and I now have 85 from all over the Arab world,” she says. “The next step is to publish a book with interviews next to the photographs. I want to share this project with as many people as possible."
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