Parting the Veils Of Misunderstanding

As a photojournalist, I am drawn to the third world, particularly the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. A recurring theme in my imagery from these remote regions is the veiled woman, as these countries are predominantly Muslim.

In every society there are certain set distances - "personal spaces" - that are maintained, from how close you stand to someone to have a conversation, to how far you sit from a stranger on a park bench. We give others the space we desire for ourselves, and think it disrespectful to pass such barriers. My photographic equipment reflects Western sensibilities in this regard: The closest that a 50-mm lens will focus is two feet. To get closer is to step into the intimate zone, the zone of lovers.

What I seek, photographically, is this closeness; the false intimacy of a telephoto lens will not do. My attempts to break through social barriers have had mixed success. Some Muslim women giggle and shyly look away, quickly veiling themselves. Others are timid until their men leave. Then they open up. Their passive rebellion lets me become part of what is happening, not just a spectator.

As I photographed a refugee camp in the Sudan during a famine, the writer I was working with approached me with tears in her eyes. She had been interviewing mothers whose children were dying of starvation. "I cannot take much more of this," she told me. "It's getting to me. How can you photograph?" I realized then that the camera is my veil. It protects me from unpleasant situations; it distances me when I need it to. In trying to get close to people I was putting emotional distance between us.

As Egyptian men gawk at me on the streets of Cairo, I lift my camera to shoot. They view me as an intruder, an object. I am an American woman who does not cover herself. I am trying to understand a world that is affronted by my presence. The deeper I penetrate those worlds, the greater my need for protection. I conceal myself with my camera and continue to photograph.

In a suburb of Sana, the capital of Yemen, I am invited to a luncheon by a middle-class, highly educated Muslim woman and her family. She is the subject of a future magazine story. The gathering is informal. The women are dressed up, made up, and unveiled. I try to photograph and am forbidden. "We do not want our faces to wind up in some publication for all to see," my hostess says. "We are special and consider you special; that is why we invited you to join us and share our lives.

"But please, keep this afternoon as a memory in your head and not for the camera," she concludes. I shed my equipment, and the women come alive. They tell about their lives, show family photos, and question me frankly about America.

They were no longer exotic photo subjects, they were friends. These were women like myself, struggling to make sense of their lives. Our lively sharing continued late into the day.

All our veils had been lifted.

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