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Reconceptualising Yemen with photography: an interview with FRAME Yemen

The Saudi-led operation against Houthi rebels has put Yemen in the spotlight for almost six months, for all the wrong reasons. Instability, unfortunately, is nothing new to Arabia Felix, but since March, airstrikes, landmines, blockades and militias have been at the forefront of the tragedy unfolding in the country. It’s unrealistic, futile and counterproductive to ignore the humanitarian catastrophe that is today’s Yemen, but for too long the country has been misunderstood.

It’s impossible to deny the prominent role social media has played in shaping the politics of the Middle East over the past few years, but it is equally as important not to ignore the voices shedding light on the beauty and talent that comes out of the region. FRAME Yemen does exactly that. It not only opens the eyes of those who attribute just conflict to Yemen, but also uses photographs to speak to Yemenis and others who know and love Yemen to say that, despite all that is happening, there is a lot of hope. The FRAME project aims to show the world that Yemen is more than its problems and its people are beyond being victims of the political fate to which they’re subjected. I spoke to Nina Aqlan, co-founder of this project, who told me that it is under the FRAME.life umbrella, founded by Ali Sayed-Ali and Maroun Sfeir in Beirut in 2013. FRAME.life is a social media platform and on-the-ground photo action tool that mobilises communities to document timely issues and perspectives through the powerful language of photography.

Nina and co-founder Bushra Al-Fusail found inspiration to take on the project after the bombing of a Republican Guard military base in the Faj Attan district of western Sana’a on 20 April. The explosion, which is amongst the worst seen in the city, killed 46 people and injured more than 300 others.

“Four days later, we set out with a group of young people and others passing-by joined us,” Nina recalled. “Together we began to create a mural using shattered glass from the explosion and made it into the Yemeni flag on a wall. It was to send a message of hope to all Yemenis and a reminder that we are one nation; that we are all suffering together.” The image not only garnered much attention, it was also the beginning of the project to unlock serenity in the midst of chaos.

FRAME Yemen’s first collective photo action project took place on 20-22 August; participants were asked to submit pictures that represent Yemen, within three themes: Yemeni identity, the current circumstances and portraits of people. “We were thrilled that in spite of the situation in Yemen people engaged positively with the event. A total of 16 young, brave and talented photographers took part by sharing their perspective and interpretation of each of the themes,” Nina told me. It is also important to remember, that on a practical basis, there were obstacles to overcome. “Given the situation, safety was made a priority, and with the power cuts, it was not easy to access the internet. The event was administered online and all the photos had to be submitted online too.”

The submissions were diverse and each photographer adopted a unique take to show the beauty of Yemen. The beautiful green landscapes of Ibb and the mud houses and deserts of Sana’a all showed that, although it is affected by the war, its heritage remains and hope glows. The portraits of people are equally as heart-warming. The album featured children, in traditional Yemeni attire, with gleaming smiles that reached to their eyes. More importantly, there are some realistic scenes of war. An old woman lying on the side of the road with her grandsons in Taiz, where most of the people are displaced and suffer from a shortage of food and water, especially captured my attention. This is not just one of the only photos which captured the unfortunate reality that besieges Yemen. The fact that it was taken in Taiz is also symbolic, as with telecommunications being regularly cut off, the people there are suffering in silence as a result of airstrikes, a Houthi siege and a blockade. It is one of the bloodiest parts of Yemen, and one of the most locked out.

The prize-winners were decided by the jury which included notable Yemeni photographer Bushra Al-Mutawakel and artist Nasser Al-Aswadi. First prize went to Ahmed Al-Olofi whose theme was “Circumstances”; he captured children collecting water to take home from the side of a road. The jury selected this photograph not only because of its great composition and contrast of colours, but also the message within it; that children find happiness even in the saddest of times; and that how those children were taking part in helping their families, even in seemingly small ways, is still significant. In second place came Abdu Al-Naseer, also within the “Circumstances” theme. His picture of the woman lying on the roadside with her grandsons watching over her is a strong interpretation of the current sad circumstances in Taiz. Finally, in third place, was Sahar Al-Mekhlafy; she photographed a woman dressed in traditional Sana’a clothing, looking out over the old city of Sana’a. That picture in particular, is “an iconic scene that identifies one of the many popular facets of Yemen and yet is especially symbolic as the war currently threatens Yemeni heritage.”

On the representation of women through this project, Nina explained that the fact that the social context in Yemen under-represents and undermines the role that Yemeni women play in society is something that is recognised by FRAME Yemen. “As such, we encourage the participation of women and we aim to address the many issues pertaining to women in Yemen. We believe that the Yemeni woman shares an equal and important role in society.” This does not mean that the project aims to represent women exclusively, though. “By engaging all members of the community to reflect on issues, such as those related to women in Yemen — their role, their rights, their importance in society — we can begin to reflect on and question why these issues exist and acknowledge where as a community we need to alter our own mind-set.”

Overall, FRAME Yemen gives Yemenis a voice and power over the perceptions of their own country. “The view on Yemen from the outside is not always the reality,” insists Nina. “Our aim is to create a platform through which the outside world can access Yemen.” For her, the root of the problem is simply the lack of varied information about Yemen available to the outside world. “There’s insufficient content produced on Yemen, and, wherever there is, it’s mostly either touristic, political, security related, outdated or whatever. The further away from Yemen, the larger the misconceptions get. This is also why FRAME Yemen aims to engage as many people from the Yemeni community to take part, so that the content they will create will serve to provide alternative and diverse perspectives and images of what Yemen is really like now.”

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