As a first generation Yemeni-American photographer from Washington D.C., Yumna Al-Arashi approaches photography both as a study and a process; she boldly unpacks her subjects with an original and unconventional gaze. Her engaging, ethereal, and quietly defiant film project and photo series Shedding Skin – shot in a bathhouse in Lebanon – challenges orthodox norms while upending prevalent stereotypes. In all of her projects, thought-provoking images explore the interplay between topics ranging from feminism to sexuality to human rights. We recently spoke with Yumna – currently based in London – to discuss her photographic point of view, process and biggest hope for the future.
Shedding Skin is really personal. There was a lot of anger inside of me in those moments, because of Trump’s election and the Muslim ban. I felt like the only Western way of seeing and digesting a Middle Eastern woman was to be able to see her in an Orientalized manner. I wanted to play on that notion and create work reminiscent of a lot of Orientalist paintings - which came out of the European work and were oftentimes very romantic and ethereal, which is normally what these [bathhouses] aren’t. They’re often quite raw and intense. But because this project was meant for a Western audience, I wanted to be able to play on those ideas of what would lure someone in to watching something like this.
The voiceover for the film was written in less than an hour as we were editing. It was a mixture of everything I had felt over the last year before making that piece. The events in America. Racism. Loss of homes. After making the visuals of the piece, you really see what it becomes and find the right words to fit it.
Being a first-generation person living in the country [United States] informs my work. While I’m growing up, 9/11 is happening, and it’s just impossible that it wouldn’t have affected anything that I do. Every person I know that grew up in that area, in Washington D.C. around 9/11, has felt some sort of personal impact, whether it’s a trauma or their social interactions have changed or their identity has changed. Questions of identity certainly came to the surface. I think that it was also a trigger for me to understand who I am and where I came from. Before the media was constantly talking about Yemeni people or Middle Eastern terrorists, I really didn’t consider myself to be anything but American. That process of understanding and unfolding who I am and what my past is and who my ancestors are, was almost like a defense mechanism.
There are many different approaches I take to my work, but primarily for projects that I’m interested in pursuing, it’s usually a research-based type of mission and then the art comes later. I read, and do a lot of research and interviews with people so that I’m able to really grasp on to a subject, and fully know it. From there, I decide what kind of medium I want to use, and what the most powerful way of approaching the subject matter creatively would be.
I became really tired of the way I was seeing Yemeni women being portrayed. My Northern Yemen series was basically just me taking photos with my cousins in Yemen. I think people ended up becoming surprised to see a veiled woman who looks powerful or fun or interesting, with none of the negative stereotypes attached. And I think that’s very, very surprising for someone to be able to see that. That wasn’t even largely my intention going in, but when I was putting together the work, I realized through my own perception of these women – who are like my family – that I was really just taking photos of them as much as I would take photos of any of my girlfriends. It was the same exact process that I would take with any of my other subjects, just being honest about who they are, and being playful and real.
I hope that the media doesn’t continue to manipulate us all the time, and that we have the ability to form our own opinions and not just feel pacified by instant gratification forms of communication. My hope is that we can start thinking for ourselves more often going forward.
Interview by Anicee Gaddis
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