Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat- “A picture is worth a thousand words,” according to many in the media however, for photographers in Saudi Arabia, the case is somewhat different. According to Isa al Dubaisi, a photographer for Shams newspaper, pictures are simply used to fill up pages and if photographs cannot be obtained from international news agencies then the search would begin for a photographer to save the paper at the last minute. This is often the case even in local newspapers, which is why many photographers prefer to work for global news agencies.
“International news agencies value pictures, therefore, they value photographers. This highlights our role in significant historical events and during terrorism-related occurrences in Saudi Arabia. An editor would look at these pictures and save them in the newspaper’s archives or publish them whilst at the same time, he would accept a photo from a news agency that may have been taken by the same photographer who works for that press organization,” al Dubaisi explained.
It is not only due to the media and artistic values of pictures that photographers prefer to work for news agencies even by using a different alias. Money is also a contributing factor as payment is significantly better at these agencies. A part-time photographer is paid 1,200 to 2,000 Saudi Riyals (SR) per month and a full-time photographer is paid no more than 6,000 SR.
It is not only news agencies that attract photographers. Public relations (PR) companies are also successful at drawing in editors and photographers. To cover a PR event would bring in the equivalent of one month’s salary, not to mention photos taken of businessmen being honoured by state officials such as princes and cabinet ministers. “A businessman would pay an astronomical figure of up to 5,000 SR for his photo to be taken as he is honoured by an official,” al Dubaisi commented.
Editors accuse photographers of not improving their technical skills and capabilities. “We are sidelined. An editor will write about the suffering of all people but not about his photographers. There are no training or development courses. A photographer has to depend on himself to improve his capabilities,” al Dubaisi explained.
Amer al Halabi, a photographer who works for al Hayat newspaper, shares a similar experience to his fellow photographers. He relied on the internet to educate himself [on photography] and took part in international exhibitions and workshops in Jordan and Cairo. “Unfortunately, a photographer is viewed by many as a machine just like his camera. It is rare that editors respect their photographers,” Amer added.
Another problem is that some organizations do not provide their photographers with up to date technology, either to cut costs or because those in charge are not aware of the importance of upgrading equipment regularly. On the other hand, in spite of the various occupational dangers that photographers face, for example, whilst covering conflicts, photographers have requested but failed to receive any consideration in return, according to Khaled Rasheed, a photographer for Al Bilad newspaper.
The problems that photographers in Saudi Arabia encounter are not limited to their cameras or employers. Many photographers have difficulties in involving people in their work, especially women who refuse to have their pictures taken. Frequently, magazines request a dynamic picture to portray a certain story or issue, such as domestic violence for example. In this case, another photographer and an editor would have to pose as the abusive husband and the oppressed wife.
In cooperation with his colleagues, Rasheed set up an online club for photographers in Jeddah. It provides assistance, offers training and information to develop knowledge of the technology of photography, and briefs visitors to the website on the use of the latest cameras.
The editor-in-chief of Al Madina newspaper, Dr. Fahd Aqran, agrees that some newspapers are incorrect to neglect the role and importance of photography. Newspapers usually blame a photographer’s outdated equipment without looking at their own faults in not improving and respecting the role of a photographer.
For his part, Dr. Abdullah al Hajlan, spokesman for the Saudi Journalists Association, stresses that the “association was set up to serve all those who are in the media field, including photographers. This is the system of the association”.