Image: Maha Al-Asaker self-portrait, courtesy of Maha al-Asaker
Maha Al Asaker is a Kuwaiti photographer based in New York City. Her work has been featured in numerous exhibitions in New York City, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. She is a 2014 ICP graduate from the Full Time Program in General Studies, and she has been represented by JHB Gallery since July 2014. This article features Maha’s newest work, ‘undisclosed,’ as well as a brief interview about her start in photography and her various inspirations.
Q: How did you get started, or what drew you to photography? Did you grow up with a camera?
A: I grew up with curiosity and love for art. I experimented with drawing, painting and then collage. From there I moved to photography. After that I became an addict, and couldn’t stop taking pictures.
Q: Do you shoot in film or digital? Which do you prefer, and why?
A: I started with digital photography and I moved to analog. All my personal works are taken with an analog camera.
Q: Which photographers influenced you? Who is your biggest influence or supporter?
A: My favorite photographers are Man Ray, Irving Penn and Fransceca Woodman. My friends and family are my biggest supporters. Whenever I am in doubt or feel pressure from work, they know how to get me back to reality.
Q: Is anyone in your family also a photographer? What do they think of photography as a profession?
A: None of my family members are into art at all; they are more into finance and engineering. But, they are my ultimate support and they always encourage me. Photography to me is my voice, I am not good in explaining myself with words, so I used photography as my way of talking.
Q: What was your career path like? Do you have a dream project?
A: I started in Kuwait, my country of origin, as freelance photographer. I had a studio for portrait and commercial work. I worked for five years and established a good business there. But I wasn’t satisfied with the level of my photography, I felt that I can improve my skills and do better job. So I decided to close my business in Kuwait and move to New York City to study at International Center of Photography. Currently, I work as freelance photographer and teaching assistant at New York Film Academy.
My dream project is to be able to feature Kuwaiti women to the world. Kuwaiti women are all highly educated, into politics, have a career and great mothers. They are modern women with traditional value.
Q: Tell me about the different projects and exhibitions you have been featured in: New York, the UAE, and Kuwait.
A: I have been represented by JHB Gallery since July 2014, and I have participated in the following exhibitions in the last six years:
MAR 5-8, 2015 – “Art on Paper” with JHB Gallery, Manhattan, US.
DEC 2-7, 2014 – “ Miami Project “with JHB Gallery, Miami, US.
OCT 30, 2014 – “ArtWalk Auction” with JHB Gallery, Manhattan, US.
JULY 10-13, 2014 – “ArtMarket – Hampton ” with JHB Gallery, Hampton, US
June 13-14,2014 – COLLABORATION with TAMASHEE, UAE
JAN 21- 23, 2013 – “3rd Affordable Art Show- Young Artists Edition” @ Dar Alfunoon Gallery, Kuwait.
DEC 7-9, 2009 – “Reuse 3.0 Exhibition” @ Avenues Mall, Kuwait.
MAY 14-16, 2009 – “EXPRESSION THROUGH THE LENSE”, Kuwait.
JAN 12-17, 2009 – “ 7th General Exhibition” with Voluntary Work Center – Photography and Documentary Team, Kuwait.
Q: What do you want to say/accomplish with your photographs, and how do you accomplish that?
A: I am trying to understand myself through my images. I am in search to figure out myself and the world around me. I take images of things that interest me, and I stage the others. I then set and figure out what is I am trying to say.
Q: Can you speak a little about your views on feminism, and its relation to your work?
A: My work speaks about the feeling of being a woman, the struggle to fit in, and identity. So, if you see my work, you will know that I am a feminist! But I don’t like to label myself with one or many labels.
I feel in Kuwaiti woman have an equal rights in education, career and participating in politics. Saying this, I believe that society pressures women. There still some social concerns about women behaviors; the way a woman dresses and sexuality are a big taboo. Things are changing but slowly.
Q: How does your work engage cultural & identity issues?
A: I am always asking myself, “Who would I be if I was born in another country? Is the way I think will be different?” With my photography, I am trying to investigate how much culture can shape us. I will not call it oppression, it is more of constraints out of love or care. My work speaks about the restriction and constraints that I feel being a modern woman in a conservative family.
Q: All of the items you used in undisclosed are very interesting; can you tell me why you chose them?
A: The items I used reference the things I want the viewer to think carefully about.
The corset was a symbol of beauty in the old ages, and it also signified how women should look and how they suffered for that too, since they used to wear them everyday! As for the belt, it references males and the gender difference. Wrapping the belt around my face for the photograph represented constraints and struggles. The ribbon was meant to question how little girls and women are taught to always be diligent and polite. The mirror represents the experiences we have in life, and its broken fragments represent the lessons in life that break us. It also represents our reflection.
Q: I could see all of the items chosen seemed to revolve around a certain theme. What motivates you to continue taking pictures, and what advice do you have for young professionals and/or young women starting out in their careers?
A: The joy I feel every time a project is finished! I always get nervous every time I have a new project, and that feeling continues until I have one image that satisfies me! After that, I start my happy dancing and enjoy my time. I will say one thing for young professionals: keep your dreams bigger than you can reach, and believe me you will achieve them.