No Photographer Can Capture What It’s Like “Behind the Veil”

Women who don the veil have always been an interesting subject to the general unveiled public. The unveiled want to know why these women cover and what kind of lives they lead. But this may be the first time someone actually thought to ask the question — how do they see?

Hassan Ammar, a photographer for the Associated Press, took this question to heart in his latest project that involved taking photos from behind the netted material of a niqab. As one would expect, the pictures are fuzzy and slightly darkened because of the material in front of the lens. Looking at these photos lends the viewer a sense of melancholy, almost as if to say, “There’s so much world on the other side of this net.” 

Ammar even states in a piece he wrote for the Washington Post:

“In my hometown of Beirut, I shot pictures of its famous corniche that way, the bright colors of the Mediterranean dimmed through it. The same happened at the Giza pyramids in Egypt, where a sunny blue sky grew dark.”

The photos also provide a great sense of division. Although the woman wearing the niqab is in the room with a child, it is her niqab that makes the child seem far away and disconnected. A life full of barriers and disconnection — that is what Ammar is presenting to viewers.

In all my years, I’ve never understood the desire of men to explain in their own way the experiences of women. Ammar does not wear the niqab. He hasn’t made a major life decision to change his outward appearance for personal or spiritual reasons. Looking through some netting for a day, taking pictures of pyramids, and calling that enlightenment is belittling to the women who experience the veil in its every aspect, every day.

The narratives of women are constantly being hijacked, and not always by men. This series of photographs is no better and no more insightful than the hundreds of “Hijab For a Day” projects. The experience of the veil cannot be captured in videos or photos or long form essays, and it certainly can not be properly conveyed by men. That’s just the fact of the matter.

A man, especially an unveiled one, is not ever going to fully comprehend – though he may genuinely try – what it is like to be under cover of the veil. A man can never photograph what it is to be invisible and fully visible all at once. This is not because men are unintelligent or not artistic. Ammar’s photos are quite beautiful. It’s because such an experience can only be partially conveyed by a person who lives it, and even then the recipient of that message is only going to understand a fraction of the truth.

Does this mean we should stop trying to learn about the experiences of others? No. We should simply become invested enough in that experience that we find better ways to investigate it. I’m sure Ammar knows lots of photographers all over the world. Were none of them women who veil? Could he not have given his camera to a willing subject and simply said, “Show me what you see?” Sometimes art extends beyond the expression of creativity. It becomes the expression of an idea, the expression of an experience. And this puts a huge responsibility in the artist’s hands.

The women Ammar sought to represent are being overshadowed by his narrative of a dulled life.