Saudi artist Abdullah Alhumaid puts Riyadh street life in the frame 

Experimental film photographer Abdullah Alhumaid has produced a piece of work called “Rats of Bat’ha,” a project capturing daily life in a Riyadh neighborhood. (Supplied/Abdullah Alhumaid)
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Updated 18 October 2020

Saudi artist Abdullah Alhumaid puts Riyadh street life in the frame 

  • Abdullah Alhumaid drives film photography’s revival at the crest of a wave of creative potential in the Kingdom
  • The experimental film photographer’s ‘Rats of Bat’ha’ project captures daily life in one Riyadh neighborhood

DUBAI: Experimental film photographer Abdullah Alhumaid is not your average 25-year-old Saudi. His creative journey, which began unexpectedly on the streets of Beirut, has flourished, resulting in “Rats of Bat’ha,” a project capturing daily life in a Riyadh neighborhood.

In the age of smartphones and Instagram filters, old-fashioned film photography is a dying art — limited by a finite roll of film and the patience required to develop it. But Alhumaid’s eye-opening work could provide the flash of inspiration needed for a wider comeback.

“The experimental experience started at the beginning of 2018 when I was going for a quick trip to Beirut,” Alhumaid told Arab News. “Two hours before my flight, I met a friend who had a film camera, which I had never operated. I borrowed it for the trip to experiment and to see how it goes.”

What stuck with Alhumaid after his trip were interactions with Beiruti locals who became his photographic subjects. While convincing them to shed their inhibitions and pose for portraits, he too was coaxed out of his comfort zone. Something had clicked.

“It was surprisingly beautiful, given I’d never operated a camera before, especially a film one, which was not at the top of my list,” he said. “The interactions were breathtaking — I allowed myself to interfere with people’s daily lives and tried to put them on the spot.”

 

Although many of his subjects were hesitant at first, the process of persuading them was central to Alhumaid’s experience, from careful first impressions to the questions he posed to put them at ease.

“It’s not about nagging, because that’s not comfortable,” he said. “I got to interact with different types of people, including homeless people, and got to know their stories. It’s about connecting in a human way. And when you open up to them, that gives you a worthwhile experience that you wouldn’t normally think of.”

Unfortunately, his first roll of film was damaged, erasing his earliest work. His second shoot, however, proved far more successful thanks to some valuable tips from an experienced Beirut photographer who took him under his wing.




Although many of his subjects were hesitant at first, the process of persuading them was central to Alhumaid’s experience. (Supplied/Abdullah Alhumaid)

The end result is Alhumaid’s signature style of moody city snapshots, many of them employing the sharp dualities of light and shadow, while others mesh urban straight lines with a blur of motion. The dated quality of film lends the images a hue of nostalgia.

“What I love about the film camera is that you’re not attached to the results,” he said. “You don’t see results immediately, so you’re not distracted by the tool; rather you’re inspired to be in the moment and to place your focus on the interaction.

“You only get 36 images, so you’ll be pickier and more aware of what you shoot because you don’t want to waste your whole film on one subject.”

In the age of digital photography, where pictures can be captured, cropped, retouched and deleted faster than you can say cheese, it is surprising to see old film cameras making a comeback in modern Saudi Arabia.

However, there are now very few stores in the Kingdom fitted with darkrooms to develop rolls of film — just one in all of Riyadh in fact. As a result, Alhumaid is on the lookout for like-minded shutterbugs who want to rebuild the industry.

Al-Bat’ha is one of the oldest commercial districts of downtown Riyadh — increasingly diverse and always buzzing. In October 2018, after returning from Beirut, Alhumaid made this distinctive neighborhood his source of inspiration.

 

“It is unfortunately left behind, and now only expats live there,” Alhumaid said. “It used to be the downtown of Riyadh. Going there and seeing the contrast we live in, in terms of bubbles we create for ourselves, was mesmerizing — the simplicity, the colors, the fruits, the expats, and how they were shocked at how we were taking photos of them. It was lovely to touch base with the city.”

It was here Alhumaid framed the idea for “Rats of Bat’ha.” And in case you were wondering, he and his shoot team are the eponymous rats, weaving through the urban maze with rodent-like curiosity, he says.

“Al-Bat’ha is the street that pushed me again to take this passion forward and keep it as a funnel feeding itself with simplicity,” he told Arab News. “I didn’t want to plan anything; I wanted everything to be spontaneous and take it everywhere.”

And that he did. From Japan, Portugal, Versailles in France, and everywhere else his photography has taken him, Alhumaid has tried to connect with local street life by capturing people on film. In the process, he said he has evolved.




From Japan, Portugal, Versailles in France, and everywhere else his photography has taken him, Alhumaid has tried to connect with local street life by capturing people on film. (Supplied/Abdullah Alhumaid)

Born and raised in Riyadh in a conservative household of academics and consultants, Alhumaid feels blessed to have grown up without technology. “They forbid it, not just because of religion, but because of how much it consumes you,” he said of his parents.

“And I’m grateful for that, because they allowed us the space to create, to generate ideas and to work with what you have so it reflects your intellect.”

As such, his five siblings ended up in fashion design, psychology, French literature, law and medicine. “It’s derived from not having a TV,” he said. “These elements played a role.”

After a six-month stint playing for Al-Shabab football club, Alhumaid’s interest turned to Riyadh’s art scene, which was burgeoning in 2013. There he met a whole new community. After working in Dubai for a short period with Careem Wallet, he moved back to Saudi Arabia in July 2019 and enrolled at the Misk Art Institute, in collaboration with the palace of Versailles.

“We went to Versailles for five weeks and it was unbelievable,” he said. “I worked in the cultural development department, where we did this program to attract Saudi tourists to Versailles, given that the smallest number of visitors come from the Middle East and the GCC.”




Alhumaid is continuing to build his photography portfolio and someday hopes to feature his work in local and international exhibitions. (Supplied/Abdullah Alhumaid)

After completing his program, he worked in the brand team of the Al-Musafer travel agency in the Kingdom for seven months, before an opportunity with the content team at the Saudi Tourism Authority presented itself.

“I still work for them and we oversee the Visit Saudi tourism board website,” he said. “We work with international agencies from New York and London in terms of development and content creation. I’m only six months in and I’m just ecstatic.

“It’s beautiful, because we see the country opening up and people changing their behavior and their misconceptions. We, as a society, have so much to offer.”

In the meantime, Alhumaid is continuing to build his photography portfolio and someday hopes to feature his work in local and international exhibitions. Luckily for him, a great wave of creative potential is cresting in Saudi Arabia, bringing with it whole new industries in art, music and film.

“Some people started their own production houses, studying abroad and coming back to the country,” Alhumaid said. “Saudi Arabia is booming now more than ever — tourists have started visiting and that’s how you learn from each other, by being exposed.

“It doesn’t help anyone to be divided. And that’s how we move forward, as the bad apples start changing their behavior.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek

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W20 ‘sherpa’ Salma Al-Rashid champions gender equality and female empowerment

Updated 20 October 2020

W20 ‘sherpa’ Salma Al-Rashid champions gender equality and female empowerment

  • Prominent Saudi social worker relishes the opportunity to bring together diverse voices from across the globe for a common goal
  • The first ever virtual Women 20 Summit will bring together experts and leaders from a variety of disciplines over Oct. 20-21

RIYADH: Salma Al-Rashid has represented Saudi Arabia at the Women 20 (W20) — the official G20 engagement group on women — since 2018, first in Argentina then last year in Japan. Now, as Riyadh prepares to host the 2020 summit in November, Al-Rashid is delighted to have been named this year’s “sherpa” tasked with undertaking preparatory work for the conference.

Since Oct. 2019, Al-Rashid has been the chief advocacy officer of the Alnahda Philanthropic Society for Women, a Saudi charity that champions female empowerment and participation. At the helm of the W20 Riyadh edition, Alnahda will help facilitate discussions among a network of delegates representing non-governmental women’s organizations, female entrepreneurs and think tanks from across the G20 member states.

The aim is to ensure gender considerations are placed firmly on the table and are included in the G20 Leaders’ Declaration as policies and commitments that foster gender equality and women’s economic empowerment.

“I take the task of head of delegation and sherpa very seriously,” Al-Rashid told Arab News in the run-up to the summit. “I have the responsibility to bring forward the voice of Saudi Arabian women in all their shapes, forms and experiences. I serve as the mechanism to project the voices of women of Saudi Arabia in this global forum.”

Salma Al-Rashid has represented Saudi Arabia at the Women 20 (W20) first in Argentina then last year in Japan. (Supplied)

Recalling her long association with Alnahda, Al-Rashid said she had always been passionate about social and development issues. “Throughout my career, I have firmly believed that by building a global and an inclusive culture, where all voices are heard, regardless of age, sex, race, religious beliefs and political affiliation, we can make the world more just and equitable for all,” she said.

Alnahda, which means “the awakening,” was founded in 1962 to help empower Saudi women economically and socially through targeted development projects.

As a sherpa, Al-Rashid is responsible for the operational management of this year’s W20, its advocacy and communications, and for providing overall support to the W20’s Saudi chair, Dr. Thoraya Obaid. She relishes the opportunity to bring together diverse voices from around the globe for a common goal.



“The W20 this year allowed us to create a bridge between global and local conversations that is meaningful, and at times challenging, with the different perspectives of various sectors of the community on what matters most to women and how we can ensure women’s economic empowerment,” Al-Rashid said.

“The W20 has provided us with an opportunity to contribute to the local advancement of Saudi women.”

Al-Rashid started out with Alnahda as a volunteer. She went on to found a volunteer service program and later shifted to managing academic guidance and career-development programs to give young girls from underprivileged backgrounds a leg up on the competition as well as access further education.

“After that, I co-managed a nationwide campaign to enhance civic education among Saudi men and women during the municipal elections of 2015, when women were allowed to run and vote. So that was an exciting point in my career,” she said.

“The W20 has provided us with an opportunity to contribute to the local advancement of Saudi women,” says Al-Rashid. (Supplied)

Al-Rashid’s interest in the development and social issues started at an early age thanks to her mother, who has been an Alnahda member for over 25 years.

“I've had the privilege and experience of listening to the realities and experiences of Saudi women,” she said. “So, I would sit with my mom and just listen to conversations with social workers, beneficiaries, and the leaders and employees of Alnahda.

“I grew up listening to the various experiences, struggles, challenges and obstacles that women face, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds. I think that’s most probably what sparked my passion.”

With such an impressive background in women’s advocacy work, Al-Rashid seemed like the obvious candidate for the sherpa role, appointed to it in December last year. She is excited to see all the months of planning and discussion come together for the upcoming summit.

“Jointly with our delegates across the G20, we formulate concrete, actionable policy recommendations to further advance gender equality within the G20 negotiations,” she said.

Al-Rashid: We did not ignore this pandemic that hit women the hardest. (Spplied)

“One thing we did this year as W20 Saudi Arabia was an in-house analysis, before January. We wanted to understand how effective the W20 has been in the past five years and how efforts have been reflected at the G20 level, through additionally consulting with international organizations and experts who we call our knowledge partners,” she said.

Based on this analysis, the delegates have settled on this year’s framework. “W20 delegates have agreed that we have three main areas of focus: Women’s financial inclusion, labor inclusion and digital inclusion. And every year a presidency introduces a fourth focus area. We wanted to continue the legacy of past presidencies, and build on their work.”

This year’s presidency proposal was to promote inclusive decision-making, a position jointly agreed by the summit’s 20 delegates. “We need to ensure that women are represented at every level of the decision-making process,” Al-Rashid said.

“If we look across the G20, we have only one female leader among the G20 leaders. We don’t see many women in leadership positions, but W20 goes beyond that. It’s not just women on boards and as CEOs. We recognize that the decision-making process is very complex and there are different stages. We need to ensure that at every stage there is representation of women and that representation is diverse.”

An ongoing challenge the W20 delegation wants to see the G20 address is the lack of women being hired to leadership positions.

“We only recently celebrated the appointment of the first woman CEO at Citigroup. And we know that Wall Street suffers from not having enough women. So, it is a challenge across the globe,” Al-Rashid said.

This is a challenge that Saudi Arabia has risen to meet in recent years, with a raft of new reforms designed to bolster women’s participation and empowerment.

Al-Rashid: We see a lot of reforms and advancement to push for women’s participation in the economic development of Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)

“We’re living in an extremely exciting time in Saudi Arabia,” Al-Rashid said. “We see a lot of reforms and advancement to push for women’s participation in the economic development of Saudi Arabia. One of the goals of Vision 2030 is to accelerate women’s representation in the labor market and in leadership positions.

“We’ve celebrated the appointment of the first Saudi ambassador to the US, Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar, and we’ve celebrated a number of appointments of women in both the private and public sector.

“Are we there yet? Are we even close to where we hope to see ourselves? Not yet. It’s a very long journey, but we are on the right track.”

As a result of the global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the G20 Summit and all engagement groups are being held remotely. Al-Rashid says the virus and its consequences have laid bare the economic vulnerabilities of women and the vital role of the W20.

“Despite the difficulties and challenges that we were faced with this year, we are privileged and honored to be able to respond to the question of what we can and have done this year,” she said.

“We did not stay quiet. We did not ignore this pandemic that hit women the hardest. We look at it as an opportunity to build back better.”

Al-Rashid sees an opportunity for world leaders to take concrete action in further advancing women’s economic participation. She puts it this way: “Only through empowering women, and through addressing the impact of COVID-19 on women, will we be able to further advance and sustainably recover from this pandemic.”

Twitter: @LujainBenGassem