When war broke out in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, in September 2014, Thana Faroq was accustomed to walking freely through the city. Until then, Faroq, in her mid twenties, had been working as a street photographer. When the bombs began to drop six months later, she resolved to show the world there was still life on Sana’a’s streets.
Over the next two years, she braved military checkpoints and airstrikes as she continued her work. In September 2016, Faroq moved to London to pursue a master’s in photography. Her latest project explores the tension between the calm of her present and the violence of her memories. In her photo book, In Memory of Shattered Windows, each page juxtaposes images of windows in London with excerpts from Faroq’s diary describing the bombardment. “It’s my way of dealing with war while I’m in London,” she says.
Born and raised in Yemen, Faroq moved to Canada at the age of seventeen to finish high school, and discovered street photography as a college student in Worcester at Clark University. Upon her return to Yemen in 2013, Faroq debuted as a photographer in a country where a woman with a camera was a rarity. Walking the streets of Sana’a, she engaged passersby in conversation before asking to take their photos, which became the visual-storytelling project Everyday Yemen.
In the wake of conflict, that project took on new urgency. In September 2014, Houthi forces overtook Sana’a. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition mounted a campaign of airstrikes to retake the capital and much of the country’s north from the Houthis. Rather than retrain her lens on smoke and charred buildings, Faroq continued to capture the details of daily life. A woman in a black niqab buys bread at an outdoor market. A boy flies a rainbow kite in a public square. A crowd gathers at the souk in old Sana’a to shop for Ramadan. An old man grins for his photo, telling her after, “I look damn handsome in it.” In her 2015–2016 photo series, Women Like Us, commissioned by the British Council, her work displays a new intimacy. She visits women of all walks of life in their homes and in displaced-persons camps. Faroq does not shy away from stories of suffering; rather, she allows her subjects to frame the narratives that accompany their photos. Their agency is paramount.
Today, the war continues, and Yemen hovers on the brink of famine. The Saudi coalition has imposed a devastating aerial and naval blockade and bombed civilian areas with such abandon that President Obama suspended the sale of precision-guided munitions in December, a move the current State Department has resolved to undo. The Houthi forces have been implicated in torture, extrajudicial killings, use of land mines, and recruitment of child soldiers. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for an independent investigation into human rights violations by all sides. The current US administration’s response has been to attempt to ban Yemeni immigrants and refugees, seek cuts in humanitarian aid, and consider escalating its support for the Saudi coalition.
Faroq, whose work has been published by the BBC, Al Jazeera, and Huffington Post, and commissioned by Oxfam, CARE, and the UN, knows the world cannot afford to turn away from Yemen. Her global audience has included exhibits in Yemen, the United States, France, Scotland, Canada, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Her genius lies in her ability to draw the viewer in. In the midst of war, Faroq reminds us, there are still moments of peace, connection, and wonder. Faroq is not painting a deceptively rosy portrait of a country at war so much as she is making life there visible and calling for its protection. Her photography is an implicit argument that not only do Yemeni lives matter, but the particulars of those lives do, too.
Faroq spoke to me via Skype from London, where she is pursuing a master’s in documentary photography and photojournalism at the University of Westminster.
—Joanna Naples-Mitchell for Guernica
Guernica: What captures your attention? What kind of details do you look for when you’re trying to set up a shot?
Thana Faroq: Being a female street photographer in Yemen is tricky. People are not used to a woman taking her camera around. When I started to do street photography, I did not care what photos I took. I cared about the action of me being in the streets. As soon as I got comfortable with that, I tried to compose photographs that tell good stories.
During the conflict in Yemen, I wanted to show people what everyday life in Yemen looked like. Not to try and show that they were not affected by the war. Not to say that everything was fine. But because, at the end of the day, these photos show that we will carry on because we need to carry on. It was about people in action, stories of coping, people who are going to work, students going to school. It was about the flow of life—that the streets are not empty. Maybe it was because I was in denial, and I was in shock. I could be read as misleading people. But I am not. I’m doing this because I want to put a statement out there. We are portrayed as people who only think of killing each other, and that’s not the case at all. I want to present people as genuine, kind, and spontaneous.
Guernica: How do you balance the feeling of relative peace in London with your ongoing connection to Yemen?
Thana Faroq: I am not a war photographer. I capture life. I don’t capture death. I am not there to die for something that I had no fault in. I’m in London now. It’s so calm. The fact that I can sleep, and there are no airstrikes or bombings to wake me up, is amazing. I’m really enjoying the moments of peace here. At the same time, there’s a responsibility to go back that I need to fulfill. It’s difficult for me to say I enjoy being here because I feel guilty.
That feeling actually translated into the project I’m working on. Back home in Yemen, we were scared of windows. We never sat next to them because if something happened they might shatter, and we might get hurt, so we avoided them. We sat in the living room or the basement, or we taped them. When I came to London, I thought: such beautiful windows! I want to do something with them. I told my professor I want to document the war in Yemen through me being in London. When you read the text, it’s my diary from Yemen. You read things like, “I woke up today with my sisters. We ran to the living room.” And then you see the image. It’s the stillness of windows. This book, In Memory of Shattered Windows, is my visual diary in London. My memory is driven by the damage, the destruction, but the photos say something else: my experience living in stillness.
Guernica: Do you feel that being a woman gave you a specific relationship or access to your subjects when photographing Women Like Us?
Thana Faroq: I feel so lucky actually because I’m a woman. Of course, I am a Yemeni—I speak the language. I speak their dialect. I am one of them. If a foreign woman came to take photographs, they would question her. But whenever I go to these women, I can say, “I’m part of you. I am also struggling with living under conflict. I cry, I feel depressed, so I am just like you. But it happens that I own a camera.”
They always have this fear that, because I’m a journalist, I’ll misuse their photos to further my own ambitions. No, I say, I’m not a journalist—I’m doing this because I want to share your story, which is my story at the same time. There’s nothing wrong with being a journalist. But, so that I can gain their trust, I say that I am not one. I don’t just take the photos and leave. For me it’s about the connection with the community. I forget that I have the camera. I become part of their family. I give them the freedom to choose how they want to be photographed. They allow me into their worlds.
In the future, I want to have the exhibition of these women’s photos in Yemen as well, and I want to invite these women to the exhibition and tell them, “This is your story. I am not the hero here. You are.”
Guernica: You tend not to photograph war or conflict. Most of the pieces in your portfolio are visually appealing. How do you navigate the tension between capturing the beauty of everyday life and the reality of individual suffering?
Thana Faroq: People might say that I’m basically beautifying the suffering. The reason I’m photographing this way is, I want to invite people in. I don’t want them to look at my photographs and feel that they are hard to look at. I want to educate people about Yemen. I want to produce photographs that people look at without being harmed. I don’t want to scare people away. I want them to ask questions. A war photographer documenting crying mothers and slaughtered children does very important work, and I salute every photographer who does that. But that’s not part of my methodology.
The women I photograph might feel depressed or angry or sad. But when it comes to photography, they want to show themselves at their best. Some of them will ask, “Can you show me my photo please?” They want to look good for the camera. I want to photograph them in a way that dignifies them because they deserve that.
Guernica: When you first started taking photographs during the war, how did carrying the camera change your relationship with people?
Thana Faroq: When the conflict began in September 2014, I was still using my camera, but very cautiously. Sana’a was filled with check points, and I certainly feared that I would be stopped and prevented from taking photos in the street. The point where I stopped taking my camera outside was when the bombing began in March 2015, because that’s when I thought that my life could be taken from me at any minute.
When the airstrikes first began, I was in shock. I was frightened. I cried. I’ve read about war in books and watched movies about it, but to live in war was really different and ugly. I was locked in my house. I could not leave because I didn’t want anything to happen to me. I didn’t even touch my camera. I was on Twitter almost all the time. But I reached the point when I felt, if my life is threatened anyway, and something could happen to me while I’m still in my room protected by my family, then I really need to go out to the streets again and do something meaningful by photographing everyday life in Yemen, telling the world that we’re human beings. We have our daily routines. We’re like anybody else. So do you think we deserve the war? That is what I wanted to do. Not to show that we are foreign.
I’m really influenced by British photographer Paul Graham. He has reserved this golden rule of reportage for war. He doesn’t photograph the front line. He doesn’t photograph the stereotyped scenes of conflict. He documents through producing landscapes.
Guernica: You’ve said that art did not choose you and you were not born to be a photographer. It was more of a choice to use the camera.
Thana Faroq: In Yemen, I went to public school. There were not art classes. At that time we did not have Facebook. We did not have Twitter. So I did not know anything about art. I did not think about photography. Photo galleries are so limited in Sana’a, where I used to live. I want to avoid this cliché that I was born with this talent. No, it didn’t come to me naturally. At the age of seventeen, I went to high school in Canada, and I chose to do art. I was curious: How could I talk without words? I wasn’t born to be creative. I learned how to be creative. I started as a painter. I started drawing. And then when I went to college in Worcester, I chose to do film photography.
When I went back home in 2013, I felt I did not belong anywhere. In the west, I felt very conservative. Back home, I felt people would judge me for being too open. I wanted to be in the streets because I wanted to connect with people. It was about building a relationship with them through being introduced to their daily lives. That is how I got so comfortable doing it even when the war erupted.
I question myself a lot. Am I making a difference, or am I just producing another photo, when there are already so many and anyone can take one on a cell phone? So, what is the difference between me and somebody else? For me, it’s not just about the portraits. It’s the stories, the conversation, the tea they served. I photographed those women in camps when they had lost everything. But while I was in their tents, they were hosting me. It’s amazing how they created a home out of nothing.
Guernica: What has the response been in Yemen to your photography?
Thana Faroq: When it comes to politics, everybody is opinionated. We follow different points of view. When it comes to Everyday Yemen, I liked how everyone, in spite of their differences, was really engaged and sharing the photos. I’m gathering them all under the umbrella of Yemen. Unity is how we will survive. I wanted, as much as I could, to minimize the division that is rising now.
My subjects would ask me, “Where was that street? Can you write the name?” And they would go to that street again, especially if it was a photograph of a restaurant or people having tea. I loved getting comments like, “Oh, I spotted you on that street. You were the girl who was there with the camera.” People were really connected to it, and that’s exactly what I wanted: to bring people close to each other.
Guernica: In the past, you’ve talked about the relationship between photography and conversation.
Thana Faroq: In my teaching, I always encourage my students to leave their cameras aside. I want them to forget that they are photographers. You are there to talk to people and learn something from them. Then people will be comfortable with you, and you will get the photograph that you need. It really shows in the photos if people like you or hate you or feel awkward.
Guernica: You have spoken previously about photography as a way of defying war. Does that make photography an act of protest for you?
Thana Faroq: Whenever somebody calls me an activist, I get so angry because I’m not. But I’ve read a lot about photographers who are doing photography to advocate for something. That’s what I do.
I am not doing conceptual photography. I am doing photography for the people. I don’t want people to find answers in my photos. I want people to ask questions.
Guernica: What would you like to photograph in the future?
Thana Faroq: I still want to photograph women. I still want to produce documentary projects in Yemen. When I introduce myself, I don’t introduce myself as a Yemeni photographer—I introduce myself as a photographer. I really want to photograph in war zones, in Africa and the Middle East, places where I feel like I could add something. I want to create relationships between people in my country and elsewhere. I want to photograph indoors more. Simple ideas can start in your room, in your neighborhood, in your house. You don’t need to go to a conflict zone to do a powerful project.
Guernica: The United States has played a role in Yemen that has not been very good, to say the least, over the last several years. Are there specific things that you would like Americans to think about in relation to Yemen?
Thana Faroq: Four years ago, I was a student in the US. Everyone treated me so nicely and equally. People were interested in knowing me, my culture, my ideas. I loved how I was not an outsider in America. I understand that the world is changing now, with the rise of extremists. But you can’t judge one people based on certain events or behaviors. Just because I’m a Muslim, because I’m a Yemeni, doesn’t make me a terrorist. I love the US. When I was there, it was my home. At Thanksgiving, I had American families who hosted me. When the war happened in Yemen, every single friend from the US was messaging me. I loved how people are ready to help.
Now, given the attempted travel bans, I feel disconnected from a place that I called home in the past, and that makes me feel so sad. Even my friends from the US were really upset about it. They were apologizing. And I was like, that is why America is great, because there are people like you who still care. That’s my message for Americans.