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Photojournalist Amira Al-Sharif’s Journal 2010-2011 in the Land of dreams
By Amira Al-Sharif
Last year I got a Full Scholarship as a full-time student to study “Documentary photography and photojournalism” at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City, USA. I highly appreciated that I fulfilled my dream to get a photography education at a prestigious school such as ICP which has a lot of professional photographers all around the world.
Anna Jacobson, 24 years old, dances with fire in a masquerade, Manhattan, USA, 2010.
Being a Yemeni girl in the United States of America and wearing a scarf made me worried that people will not accept me as a photographer. But as time pass by, I realized that being with a scarf, a lot of people showed respect and there is something about the spirit of Americans, which would support your study and invest on you no matter what is your color, religion, and where you are from.
It’s admirable how Americans are open minded and open their doors to you and let you go in their daily life routines and share their experiences and secrets. It is a great appreciation to photography and photographers.
NYC is impressively divided and organized so there is no way you could get lost. It is interesting how people are so related to internet and how every thing is organized and you can get anything via internet. Also how easy it is with a bank Card to pay all their bills by internet instead of going to the company such as the mobile phones, electricity, water, internet, mailbox, landline phone every month. Buying, selling, advertising, hiring, renting, getting jobs, book your ticket can also be done without being obliged to go to these places every month or every week, as is the case in Yemen.
It is amazing how many maps I got once I arrived in NY. To have a map of your own city and to know where you are exactly on the map, is somehow comforting and in a way you strongly wish that your city of origin becomes similar to the one you are in. It is admirable how many friends offered me to stay with them since it was easier for me to be near the place I am photographing.
Life there is very busy! It keeps you focused all the time while even running but at the same time it is productive and rewarding. It is an organizational system based on time, so it would be similar if one or several people worked in the system. American people or at least the people in my school are productive and everyday there are series of production and education. It is very advanced.
It’s interesting how NYC has multiple nationalities and you can be of any nationality, tradition and culture by just being in one of their restaurants or in one of their neighborhoods. Furthermore, it is amazing how many faces from different countries you can see in the subway every day as well as how many religions people are free to practice and to be free talking about their perspectives of life.
There are amazing people who kept telling me all the time: “welcome to your second home” and explaining constantly everything to you about the country and the people and transportation. American people in their conversations use beautiful words called good energy. We felt good energy in Yemen but we never expressed it, and for me it was something nice to learn it the first time I was in America; to say words that we felt spiritually.
The ICP school is a prestigious school that is well equipped and has a lot of facilities which allowed us to borrow any kind of cameras we wanted and to use the dark rooms and the digital lab, and the studio. Moreover, there are experts in every department to reply to students’ questions in using the school facilities.
It’s impressive that you can get a book within a minute by checking the location in the computer; the books are really well classified.
The ICP educational system gives you great amount of freedom to be creative as well as encourage and facilitate your assignments.
ICP is a yearly marathon of theoretical and practical classes. Our workshops are during the weekend as well as our daily and weekly assignments in the field that end with a students’ exhibition, multimedia, videos. The most important day in every student’s year is the Career Day, when students meet different editors from different newspapers, magazines, and photography universities.
Our professors are photographers in the field who share their field experiences with us. At school, professors seem to be tough but their evaluations are really helpful in which they gave the students evaluation every semester about aptitude, strengths, concerns, and feedback in our works. It is stunning how these evaluations build you as a photography student as well as a person.
. Two Americans grieving their dead relative during World Trade Center Attack, "September 11, 2001", Manhattan, ,USA, 2010. Photo by Amira Al-Sharif
They also inform us a lot about books and stories exhibitions in New York to get inspiration. Every one of us are international students from all over the world who speak multiple languages and have different traditions and cultures that we shared among us. There was a lot of eagerness in my classes and everyone I met to know about Yemen and my people, as well as to see photos of Yemen. They had an impressive set of mind to understand the hidden part of the Arab world. People showed great respect for my country, my people and everything that I brought from my culture and traditions.
I was deeply influenced by observing my professors’ works and was inspired at their ability to make subjects around them feel comfortable. It is admirable how our classes are about sharing with our professors. The professor spends enough time with every student and will advise each one in the class on what is lacking on their assignment and his/her photography. Our classes are interesting as our professors brought other professional photographers to come and share their work and experience; which we were deeply influenced. I loved it when they brought the entire world for us.
Sometimes, in my editing classes my professors found it difficult to make me talk about my photos. This was due to my earlier education in school or university in Yemen. We are used to just receive information without sharing with our professors, but in America classes are just big debates and students declaring their opinions freely. It feels nice to express yourself, share your experience in the field and defend your photos.
It took me few months to realize that I was not in a dream and ICP was real. The first impression about America was falling in love with ICP. Different classes; photojournalism seminars, big ideas, visual Journalism’s, new rules, picture making on the street, technical seminar in B&W, digital photography and journalist, history of photojournalism, lighting for the documentary photographer, multimedia, voice in portrait lighting, effective editing, women photojournalist, how to survive & succeed as a photojournalist, large format, writing for photojournalism, and visual thinking for Magazine were all interesting to me.
Being at all these classes, my love for photography has increased. I now know how wonderful is this world with photography and how the elements of photography work together as design, composition, technique, frame, light, focus, depth of field, distance and color.
In school we had an assignment to write in our U. Book about our first semester experience. Somehow, I felt strange to share my personal experience with other students since I am a Yemeni girl who shares her secrets only with her sisters or close friends. So naturally, it took me a while to start writing and finally decided to open and share my experience of my first semester at school, so people can learn from my experience. It feels nice open and share.
All the students are international; it is fun to be one of all these nationalities. Since everyone is different, everyone has a different way of reading the photos. It is enjoyable to hear every student bring something from his/her own tradition and culture.
Having little knowledge about America and American from television and news, my final project for ICP gave me a chance to know more. My project was called "Unveiling Misconceptions: Documenting the Lives of American Women”. It is about American women in their 20s. This project is about my journey meeting American women and following them, talking with them about their daily lives.
It is about how American women feel about being American in an “open” country as America. For me, it was more about my own people and culture and traditions as well as changing the way I thought American women would be.
This project is a map of a foreign landscape I have come to explore; it is more about being a woman in two different countries – the very conservative Yemen and an “open” country like America.
I began by going out to meet women and to photograph them so that I could start an exchange of information and ideas. I wanted to find out what American women are like and maybe, in the process, American women could find out what an Arab woman is like. I wanted to experience what it is like to be around American women. I met women on the streets, through friends, via the internet, at churches, in mosques and in parks. I would introduce myself and ask to follow them.
I photographed numerous women as I looked for
one that I could connect with. I spent time with a firefighter, a single
mother, a blood wrestler, a fire dancer and a salesperson, and an American
Americans standing for the memorial day in the World Trade Center, Manhattan, USA, 2010. Photo by Amira Al-Sharif"September 11, 2001", Manhattan, ,USA, 2010.
It was surprising for me every time I met an American woman as a stranger who meets these girls on the street but they would open and share private things with me. For her, I am a stranger and for me she is a stranger too, but it was a nice feeling between two strangers that would open to each other and would share their lives and cultures; strangers who would trust you and open their doors for you.
The women I got most close to was Anna Jacobson, 25 years old, a filmmaker and her hobby was to dance with fire. She is not typical American woman.
Before I started my journey to America, I had preconceived ideas of American women. She is the first one who met my expectations for an American woman. I wanted these women to be not only American, but one-of-a-kind as well. Anna is brave and unafraid of fire; she is a great character and is very charismatic. She is open-minded, strong, and fun to be around. She was very generous and invited me to visit her family and to spend Thanksgiving with them (thanksgiving is a traditional holiday), and it feels like our Fridays lunch in Yemen.
She explained things to me about American women and American culture. I got to see her socializing with her friends as well as her family. Her family was happy to be in her presence and extended that happiness to me. I was able to get to know her during our travels together and spending time at her home. With time, we evolved from photographer and subject into friends.
Anna was eager to learn about Yemen and its people. We spent many nights talking about our life and our respective countries. The more time I spent with Anna, the more I realized how much we have in common as women, no matter how much our culture and traditions differ. All of us work, and fight to get a better life. We may look different, but our souls and spirits are the same.
Being in big time my country is passing, and I found a lot of people are eager to know more about Yemen and the people of Yemen and I found myself facing the great responsibility to speak out about my people and my country.
It has been amazing how American react with the Jasmine revolution in Yemen and keeps following the news, professors and students always asked me about how it is wonderful to watch the Jasmine revolution in Yemen and the Middle East. They talked proudly about my people in Yemen as well as get inspiration.
People in America loved that Yemeni women have been instrumental in the revolution that has taken place in the country as well as in the Middle East.
In an assignment at school called scavenger hunt, we were instructed to bring one photograph about America. My first impression of America was “September 11th” since I know how this sad day changed the history of relationship between Muslims and Americans. As a Muslim I was afraid about the time I was going to be in America. The fear was that Americans will not accept me as a photographer because of my religion, so being there in September 11 at the World Trade Center was an important day in my life as a person and a photographer. Furthermore, it was also the first day I photographed in America as I was still afraid of shooting in America since I arrived there. I thought that if Americans accepted me to photograph them in their intimate moments, remembering their people, I will survive all the year, and thank God it was a successful day and people allowed me to approach them and to photograph them. They were nice to me and I just learned a lesson for all my photography career that I shouldn’t let any berries to take place inside me wherever part of this world. I realized that there are no barriers, and the barriers are inside my mind, and if there are any barriers it is in our minds and souls not in what we wear.
I learned at ICP to give people freedom to talk and express themselves. I shouldn’t have a voice in the field, because there are powerful people, my job here is to shed light and expose the problems; to allow it to open the door. My reality is not like other subjects reality. It doesn’t matter if they don’t have the same belief as me. More understanding and listening give us more intimate moments.
A lesson I learnt is that you don’t photograph
because you have a camera you photograph because you have eyes and have
something to say. I learned that photography shouldn’t be only sad stories it
can be also happy stories. What matters is that that stories call people to
action, the only way to change the world is to change people. As a photographer you need to represent the
story truthfully as much as possible, because you are not there to judge. You
are representing what you really see.
Professor Alison helps students edit their final project at ICP, Manhattan, USA, 2011. Photo by Amira Al-Sharif
For me, it was magical to be in America and to realize how much I have changed since being there, sharing and opening to others because this is the only way you can get developed and make change because you need to change yourself before you change others. Hearing from other Yemeni students there in America how things changed after September 11, I thought I will be having a hard time as a Yemeni photographer in America. Being in America was helpful in breaking up some barriers within myself.
Thanks to all those who brought light to my life and my photography education in America. Thanks to all my professors, to all my American families and all my friends at ICP; to Professor Alison Morley, Philip Block, Suzanne Nicholas, Sarah Wolf, Alice Hackman , Julie Winokur, Ed Kashi, Michael Kamber, Bryan Hoben, Neal Jackson, Sandra Jackson, Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber, Deb Geisler, Jarrett, Shingo, Romina, Millinee, Nicole, kickstarter people, Greg Miller, Pamela Chen, Ron Haviv, Per Gylfe, Tom White, Nelson Bakerman, Sabine Meyer, and Maggie Steber.
A very special thanks to National Geographic Magazine Photographer, Stephanie Sinclair who believes in my photography and brings all this wonderful experience to my life. I already started sharing with my fellow photographers at “Yemen Eyes Association” what I had learn at ICP.