Transcending Opression With Acclaimed Photographer Yumna Al-Arashi

Let's be frank here. Women of color have it harder than most. While there are cases that show this statistically, it doesn't take much more than a candid conversation with any woman of color - who will likely have something to say about a socially unjust experience they've had, probably earlier in the week. It's felt in all facets of their everyday life, from wage gaps and occupational segmentation to educational attainment, right down to general social stigmatization. The good news is that there are people - strong minded people - like Yumna Al-Arashi who are playing their part in changing the landscape and general mindset for the greater good.

To explain who Yumna is and why she's damn well worthy of a MISSBISH feature (and so much more), this young creative force was born in 88, hails from Washington, D.C., and comes from Middle Eastern heritage. With her father working as a diplomat, politics have always been in the picture for Yumna. But photography and art was what led her to where she is now, a recognized artist with plenty of awards and accolades under her belt to show for it: 2017 Recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation “Women’s Stories” Grant, included in Photo Boîte's 2016 "30 Under 30" Women Photographers, and the National Geographic Abu Dhabi “Leading Middle East Photographer” to name but a few.

So it's pretty safe to say that the established talent has something to offer. That something being a visual representation of her outlook on life as a woman of color; a mirroring of her experiences imbued with a completely unique photographic sensibility and aesthetic. To be able to portray such poignant, politically- and socially-charged subject matter so poetically through film, you would expect to see such work hung up high. And that's exactly what she's been doing as of late.

Her latest project, a photo exhibition and short film screening dubbed Shedding Skin, transcends global assumptions of what life is like for Arab women. To the rest of the world, they are devout in their religious practices, and that's about the extent of it. To Yumna, these Arab women are willing to expose their naked bodies in a hammam (a traditional steam room) and communally bathe each other while a 28-year-old American artist candidly films them - a notion that's unfathomable to the traditionally rigid, or to ancestors of yesteryear. It's a stark reminder that we are all one, and while differences in culture and geography exist, at the end of the day, we're all just flesh and bone that need a good scrubbing once in a while.

But sponges aside, Shedding Skin is arguably one of the more romantic displays of breaking stereotypes and blatantly abolishing oppressive mindsets coming from today's generation, and needs to be seen by anyone and everyone. Luckily for me, I was not only able to witness Yumna's work in person, but I managed to also sit down with the artist to talk about her personal growth as an artist who found a voice of many within her, as well as what it means to be a freelance photographer in today's creative climate, and what others aspiring to live that freelance life should - or shouldn't - do.

Firstly, Skin. What is it about the largest organ in our body that's so alluring to you, aesthetically speaking?
A lot of my work talks about how the woman’s body is never her own. Between our own family’s expectations of us, society’s expectations of us, religious expectations… western, as well as eastern expectations of us, we never have our own say in how we operate everyday. So the skin becomes the most obvious way of representing the woman who is just herself. Her in her most natural state, without any clothing, without any expectations or notions attached to her to make her more or less than just who she is.

Through your own personal experiences traveling around the world, have you found this to be a global issue?
Yes, of course. Absolutely. I don’t see any difference between the oppression of living in the west and feeling as though I have to be a sexual object, or living in the east and feeling as though my sexuality should be repressed - I don’t see any difference between those two things. That’s what I mean about stripping us down to just our bare selves. Even when I photograph men, it’s always about immunity and just being in our natural state.

"I represent the American woman, I represent the Arab woman, the muslim woman, the first generation immigrant woman, the brown woman… I represent so many different types of woman that can really understand and connect with me."

When did you first realize that this issue is something that you wanted to fully explore yourself? That moment when you thought, "OK, I want to bring this to light in my own way."
I think it happened quite recently, actually. I realized that I had a responsibility, and I do have a very large voice for speaking about these things. I’ve gone to school for politics and I know how to write and reach a large number of people, so I figured if I’m able to take photos and make art, those are ways that really connect with people. Alongside my voice, that’s something that’s really powerful to a lot of people in an image-based society where a lot of people understand things when they can see them. When you can lead people into the issue by showing them something really beautiful, it makes your message a lot more powerful.

What’s interesting about you knowing how to emphasize your voice, is that everyone has an opinion or a voice on their own issues, but rarely do they have the means, skill or opportunity to gain a platform to share it on. With you being conscious of your own voice and platform, knowing people are listening, what’s that like for you as a person, not as an artist?
I think that I represent a really large group of women - I think that I represent the American woman, I represent the Arab woman, the muslim woman, the first generation immigrant woman, the brown woman… I represent so many different types of women that can really understand and connect with me. Also, men sometimes who have some of the same issues, like first generation problems or imprecations in Western society, or dealing with family, or the sense of home - like, where do we feel home is as first generation immigrants? It makes me feel good when I can have an exhibition or write something online, or do any of the stuff that I do and have people respond to it in a positive manner. That is what makes me keep doing it, and what makes me realize that I’m not just doing it for myself, but I’m expressing myself as a means of relating to a larger group of people who are so important.

And this understanding of your responsibility comes from the response of what you’ve put out through exhibitions and such? From all types of people from all walks of life?
Yeah, at the last [Shedding Skin] show in New York, I had tons of Arab-American women coming up to me who were just so emotional about it, especially after watching the video piece. The photographs are actually just a way to lure you into watching the video, seeing what I’ve said and how I feel about this whole experience that I’m going through right now that many other women are also experiencing. Seeing that reaction is what’s most important to me. I mean, there were women in tears after watching that, and I was like "yup, I did my job here." But also, of course, you’re going to look online and see a bunch of hate comments where you need to be like, "OK, I’m not even gonna bother."

But who needs that when you have real people expressing real emotion to you in real life!
Yup! That’s all that matters. That’s what’s real.

So moving forward to your actual photography work, to me personally, your style is incredibly striking, oftentimes sharp and in high contrast, yet poetic and tender with an almost moody element to them - it’s juxtaposing. How did you come to that style? What are you trying to achieve with it?
I have no idea (laughs). It just happened! I'm usually not conscious about what I’m doing when I’m doing it. I’m instead very conscious of what’s beautiful to me, and that’s always something that I try to stick to. Beauty is something that’s so underrated nowadays. But people are very interested in uncovering what’s real and what’s ugly, and I think you can find a lot of beauty in that. I want to see my work in museums, you know? I want it to be forever, and I want that image of beauty to be something that’s timeless. I think there are ways of portraying realness and reality in the most beautiful way, and that’s all that I’m really concerned about.

Speaking now about your latest exhibition Shedding Skin, you teamed up with ASOS for the show, who has also brought you on as one of the members of its ASOS Supports Talent initiative. How did you first get involved with them? How did that conversation go?
I don’t know how they found me, but they did and I was so excited at first. I was also super nervous because I was like, "are you guys sure you want to do this because there’s going to be no ASOS clothing involved and everyone’s going to be butt naked." And I’m also talking about how f*cked it is to live in this world right now, and they’re like "yeah, do it!" What’s really great about ASOS is that they’ve taken a full stand of support for all of us that’s part of it. In every way possible, in any of the needs I've ever had, or anything that I’ve been uncomfortable with, they’ve always had my back and they always come through. It’s rare for any corporation or gallery to let an artist do what they want to do, and that’s what makes them so beautiful, because they’re using their power as a corporation to uplift artists, especially artists that have something really important to say.

So seeing as a lot of MISSBISH readers are budding or even established creatives themselves, I wanted to ask, as a freelance photographer, what are some of your biggest challenges and what do you still love about the nature of this type of work? Any words of wisdom?
If you are a woman of color, you most likely will not get paid for anything unless you stand up for yourself. You really have to know what your worth is, and you have to be able to understand that people take advantage of freelancers a lot of the time. It doesn’t matter if it’s a woman, or a woman of color, or anything. If you’re a freelancer, most likely you’re going to be taken advantage of, so stand up for yourself. That’s the number one thing. You have to be able to prove yourself and understand why you’re doing it, really ask yourself why it’s something that you want to do rather than pretending that it’s all going to be fun and cool and life will be great. Most likely, you’re going to be working for pretty sh*t pay, and you may be rejected a lot of the time. Sure, New York has that new law where freelancers must be paid for a certain amount of time, and things are starting to change, but I still won’t fully trust being a freelancer as the best career choice. It’s not easy and I'm not going to sugarcoat it in any way, because that wouldn’t be fair!

What’s something that you can do as a freelancer if this situation comes up where you’re getting undermined?
Don’t take any job for free! Ever! Because you’re destroying the market for everybody else. Whenever you take a job for free, that means you’re ruining the market for those like me as well. For example, my value goes lower because of that, and then you’re just destroying it for everyone else around you - it’s just simple economics. So don’t do it! That’s the only thing I’ll say. Everything else is in your hands!

Lastly, what does MISSBISH mean to you?
Unity in showcasing badassery!

Photographer: Christina Choi