Interview with Yemeni Documentary Photographer Thana Farooq
As an aspiring documentary photographer I am constantly researching the work of Arab documentary photographers around the world. Finding works that uncover the many layers of the region while challenging common narratives is rare. The difficulties of navigating the region, whether socially or politically, and the creative impulse required to find ways around the taboos and obstacles of everyday life, makes coming across a new documentary work always exciting.
Thana Faroq is a Yemeni documentary photographer and storyteller, based in the Netherlands. In 2016, she was awarded Break the Silence scholarship to pursue M.A. in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at the University of Westminster in London. I was first introduced to Thana’s work after seeing it at the Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival in London, and was immediately hypnotised by the intimate documentation of displacement and movement in her on-going project “Passport”. Below is our interview with the acclaimed photographer who shares more about the process behind her work:
Hi Thana! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a Yemeni documentary photographer and storyteller currently I live in the Netherlands. In 2016 I was awarded Break the Silence scholarship to pursue M.A. in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at the University of Westminster in London. My work aims to achieve a personal reportage that negotiates themes of memory, boundaries, and violence. I focus on collaborative storytelling projects to tell personal anecdotes of displacement and migration. Previously, I worked with various international NGOs in Yemen to tell stories of displacement women and children, portraying the suffering and highlighting on the forgotten crisis there
How did you begin your journey into photography? Why is photography your medium of choice?
Storytelling has been my tool to put my feelings into words and photographs. Every I thing I do in my art is a reflection of my experiences and background. Being from Yemen is the reason perhaps for me to hold the camera in the 1st place. I aimed to visualize the invisible in my country and narrate the untold stories. Photography too allows me to share personal glimpses into the nightmarish conflict in Yemen. In one of my projects for instance, In Memory of Shattered windows, I explore the tension between the calm of my present living in Europe and the violence of my memories. Each page of the book juxtaposes images of windows in London where I lived with excerpts from my diary describing the bombardment.
What is life like for a full-time photographer and artist?
In the past, I had to do office jobs to make a living beside doing photography so It’s great to finally focus on one thing that I’m passionate about and embrace myself fully into it. It's still challenging journey with a lot of uncertainties but I somehow became comfortable with these uncertainties.
In your acclaimed project, “Passport”, you explore themes of displacement, movement and identity. How did you begin exploring the project? What has been the most challenging and the most rewarding aspect of this project?
The project explores the experiences of people hindered by their passports. It is about the people who are banned from entering countries; asylum seekers and stateless individuals who cross oceans and land masses to obtain a passport that will guarantee them a higher value in life. It is about me, and everyone who were not born within the “lucky” borders. It’s a huge topic, I am rather a researcher in this project trying to connect the dots and make sense around the walls and borders that connect/disconnect us as human beings.
In “Passport” you chose to focus on the plight of different communities, as opposed to sharing the “Yemeni” experience alone. Can you share more about why that is?
I believe that suffering is a universal. My project targeted other nationalities because it doesn’t matter if you are a Syrian Yemeni or Somali I want to highlight on how this piece of document that is supposed to be our source of pride has become more of burden instead. It won’t possible to illustrated this without sharing different experiences from different backgrounds.
How do you manage your relationship with your subjects? How has documenting so many people affected by displacement influence you (or your work/world view)?
I feel connected with my participants a lot, coming from Yemen and experiencing the war in my country, made me aware of our collective challenges, our past and trauma. My participants understand that we share similar experiences and that we collectively attempt to provide an insider point of view when it comes to our stories.
How has “Passport” been received by different audiences? What has been the reaction to your work and how do you feel about it?
Recently I was awarded Open society foundation fellowship grant and exhibition where I had participated in Moving Walls ehibition in NY. The feedback was amazing and supportive. There was connection and understanding. It was as if I was literally willing to cross boundaries with this project.
What is your advice for aspiring photographers in the region? Any words of wisdom for young MENA artists?
To have talent it’s a great thing but the talent is just a bonus to me, It’s always about the hard work and the time you invest in creating something unique that makes you proud of yourself. There no other way. Also focus on projects that matter to you, personal project that tells who you are and shape your identity.
Are there any new projects on the way? What are your plans for the future?
Besides working on the book ‘ The Passport’ I’m working stories of stories of refugee women in Europe. In Yemen I reported on their stories dealing and fighting for hope during wartime, it interests me to explore the aftermath, what happens to one’s identity after moving to a new place? In this project, I focus on topics of integration, displacement and the aftermath.