Yumna Al-Arashi’s images are often hauntingly beautiful, but they are never just that. The London-based photographer uses her camera as a tool for exploring the world and sharing new perspectives with others through imagery. Her recent photo series “Northern Yemen” was shot in her family’s home country and showcases women in billowing hijabs against breathtaking landscapes. The quiet, Goddess-like strength of the women is profound and shakes the stereotype of Muslim women as oppressed. In another series series called “Face,” Al-Arashi traveled to Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria to capture images of the last generation of Muslim women with traditional facial tattoos.
Al-Arashi brings her thoughtful, storytelling eye to fashion photography, too. Her evocative images reveal a diverse spectrum of femininity and always feel authentic—in fact, not retouching the women in her photos is something she won’t compromise on. She brought her considerate approach to our latest lingerie lookbook, which she shot in Northern Italy over an unseasonable stretch of rainy fall days. “There wasn’t much light, but in a way the stormy weather embodied something very feminine in a nurturing, earthy way and that really comes across in the photographs,” she tells us. Below, we chat with the rising photographer about her path to photography and why sharing images is so important to her.
The Window: What was it like growing up a first generation Yemeni in the United States? How did it shape your perspective as an artist?
Yumna Al-Arashi: I am actually the only person in my entire family born in the States. I was born in Washington, D.C., and my father is from Yemen and my mother is from Egypt. 9/11 was very intense for us, as it was for many immigrant families in America, especially those in D.C. or New York. That really had a huge impact on my relationship with my identity and understanding where I’m from in terms of my family’s past. I really wanted to claim my identity in the face of the media trying to tell me the ‘truth’ about it. I didn’t want to accept what I saw in the media. That is a huge reason why so much of my work explores being first generation American and being Arab-American. A lot of those ideas are really prominent in my work.
Why did you decide to explore these ideas through the lens of a camera?
It was sort of by accident that I got into photography. Back in the day, my dad had some credit card and the company sent him a digital camera as part of some awards program. He gave it to me, and I ended up falling in love with it. I also grew up as a child of the digital age with vlogging and MySpace, which were all very much a part of my youth. I found that imagery was very much a way for me to communicate who I was.
Also, I was traveling all the time back to the Middle East, and my friends were always asking me what it was like there and whether or not I was oppressed while I was there. I thought it was easiest if I showed them images of these wonderful places so they could see for themselves. That taught me my love of documenting with photography and how crucial it is to expose people to different types of imagery. It’s important to people to see the beauty of a place that they previously associated with violence they saw in the media. That’s the power of the camera.
Your work also explores femininity. What is the message you hope to share with your audience?
I am a woman, so it’s natural for me to photograph women and portray them. And again, it’s a way to teach people, too. Being able to express my proud womanhood is something I am honored to be able to do. It shows people that we are not victims all the time. I am not the only woman out there who is proud and strong in her femininity. I am not the only woman who is sensual and possesses a range of emotions. That’s my goal with exploring women and the body.
Has your work been controversial in the Middle East?
People assume conservative people in the Middle East must be so offended by my work, but that’s not true. If anything, I’ve gotten more criticism by conservative American men! I think they [people in the Middle East] are more so silently (and sometimes loudly) applauding because see that same strength in their mothers, their sisters. Often times, the culture doesn’t allow us to say it out loud, which is fine—it’s a different world that they live in and not one in which sexuality is paraded on every street, and that’s okay.
How do you bring your artistic and political perspectives into commercial projects, like fashion photography?
It’s about standing my ground, which makes me a nightmare for my agent! I just really stand my ground about what I will and won’t do. And that can mean sacrifice, but it’s so important to maintain my sense of self and pride. For instance, I don’t retouch the women in my images. I refuse to. Everything I’ve done up to this point has been well-received because I didn’t conform. I feel so incredibly honored that Barneys New York didn’t want me to conform and that a brand on that level values what is real and natural. It’s amazing to be a female image maker and not feel as though I’m trying to make women feel that beauty is just one thing.
The Barneys lingerie lookbook is stunning—how did it come together?
When I work with women, I want them to be as comfortable as humanly possible, especially in lingerie. I want to take my time and make sure that woman aren’t just arriving and getting in their underwear right away and stepping in front of the camera. The beautiful model in the shoot was very new to modeling, and she said one of the reasons she felt so comfortable was because of my approach to shooting.
We shot in the Northern part of Italy near Lake Como. It rained almost every day, so we didn’t have much light, but we matched it to the mood. It was very dramatic and feminine—sexy without being raunchy. The location really complemented the gorgeous pieces. She was amazing and even jumped in the freezing lake water, but don’t worry—I jumped in right after to make sure it was fair.