As the civil war in Yemen intensifies, documentary photographer Thana Faroq discusses her affinity for documenting women, the power of photography and indifference to data
Thana Faroq is a Yemeni photographer and educator based in the Netherlands. Her photography is a response to the changes that have shaped her life in Yemen and the Netherlands. Faroq, a Yemeni native residing in the Hague, pertinently operates through that lens.
“I was really obsessed with it. But it was something I wasn’t planning to pursue”, she starts. It was an obsession which transitioned from a playful pastime to a vehicle to rediscover Yemen. A rediscovery she pursued when she returned in 2013 after finishing her studies in North America.
Namely, to prop up and celebrate her prime inspiration: Yemeni women. “It wasn’t about the images. I picked the camera up as an act of empowerment.” After all, women wielding cameras in Yemen is almost unheard of. “You can count us”, she quips.
Faroq has worked as a documentary photographer in Yemen on a series of projects. Many shine a light on everyday life for displaced women. After the civil war broke out in 2015, Faroq found herself packed in a house filled mostly with women. Two of her aunts more moved in shortly after – “One was from Sana’a… She was near a zone which was threatened with air strikes.” The relationship between the aunts and the crowd of children also inhabited revealed a surface of household intimacy Faroq wanted to scratch. “It was for this reason I wanted to explore women and how they carry the bigger burden, and the notion of resilience.”
Faroq’s projects as a documentary photographer reveals the depth of that fascination. For example, in ‘Women like us’, Faroq presents struggle but counters it with optimism. The series gives these women a moment to share themselves with the outside world. Through capturing them in their familiar surroundings, we receive a unique insight into Yemeni society. Amid showering aerial bombardment, they tend to the components they can control. Women cradle children. They hang up photos of loved ones. They draw their curtains.
Moreover, Faroq started our conversation by referring to photography as a “vulnerable medium” and continues it with a modest admission: “If I print a photograph and put it on the wall and somebody looks at it and feels the urge to ask questions and interact with the photo, that’s more than enough for me.” These two assertions are conspicuous in her work. One image in ‘Women like us’ is devastating in its vulnerability. In it, a woman named Om Nawal offers a bleak view of her situation, displaced by conflict. It reads: “Other women tell me that I should remember the privileges I am blessed with during this rough time. But why should we endure this? There’s a huge burden on my shoulders that no one else could understand, only women like me will.” Faroq’s adept use of colour and light helps to offer a counter point. The rouge knitwear and inward light illuminate Nawal. An enduring metaphor of optimism, perhaps?
Less optimistic is the continuous oppression women in Yemen face. At the tail end of 2019, Yemen ranked last in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index for the thirteenth straight year. The report measures the extent of worldwide gender equality. It was second only to Afghanistan at the end of 2021. The literacy rate for girls over fifteen is 54.1%, compared to 35% of men. 26.1% of women are out of work.
Faroq argues that data doesn’t engage us as readily as it should. “When it comes to mass suffering represented by data, we cannot respond to it emotionally.” Evoking emotion is something Faroq unmistakably strives towards. “Photography individualises these experiences. It distinguishes them. You are forced to look at it again and again and again.”
While that is the case, she confides that photography is not a silver bullet. “The notion of change cannot be brought about by photography. I wouldn’t load it with a lot of responsibility.”
Faroq speaks with a nostalgic fondness when discussing her native Yemen. Here, she articulates what she hopes her photography will inspire:
Before we depart, I ask her if she will return soon. “It is impossible to go now. What if something happens to me?” Faroq, like many photographers, is a storyteller. She comes from a country afflicted by a war which has cost 377,000 lives already. She has a bespoke allegiance to tell the story of the women in her country. “I left with a lot of unfinished stories. I do have the urge to go back.”
Faroq’s images invite audience engagement. And in a country screaming out for support and deliverance, these are stories which need an ending.