Yemeni Photographer Turns Her Lens On The West Earlier this year, Amira Al-Sharif came to New York City to document the lives of young American women. The 28-year-old was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Yemen and was the first person from her family to graduate from university. And while Western journalists often document Arab women, Al-Sharif wanted to flip the script.
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Yemeni Photographer Turns Her Lens On The West

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Yemeni Photographer Turns Her Lens On The West

Yemeni Photographer Turns Her Lens On The West

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


I'm Melissa Block.

And it's time for another story in our series of The Hidden World of Girls, produced with the Kitchen Sisters.

When we hear about Yemen, we hear about a country paralyzed by conflict, a den for al-Qaida terrorists, where peaceful protest has slipped from the headlines as violent struggle erupts. But today, we bring you a different image of Yemen and, in turn, of America.

Shereen Marisol Meraji has the story of a Yemeni photojournalist who's documenting the lives of young Americans.

Ms. AMIRA AL-SHARIF (Photojournalist): Hi, my name is Amira Sharif. I was born in Saudi Arabia and grew up in Yemen.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI: I came across Amira al-Sharif's videos months ago while surfing the Web for some story inspiration.

Ms. AL-SHARIF: I had to fight all my life for my education.

MERAJI: Her video was featured on a web site called Kickstarter, where pretty much anyone can make a plea to get their quirky, personal projects funded.

Ms. AL-SHARIF: I'm looking for your support during my year in America. My project will be documenting the lives of American women my age, and to compare and contrast them with the lives of the Yemeni young women.

MERAJI: Amira al-Sharif was turning her camera lens on the us, and that's why I wanted to meet her. I liked the idea of a Middle Eastern journalist flipping the script. It seems like it's always the other way around - Western journalists documenting Arab women.

Ms. AL-SHARIF: I would love to say that this opportunity will change my life forever. (Arabic language spoken) Bye-bye.

Ms. STEPHANIE SINCLAIR (Photojournalist): She's already been pushing the boundaries that were around her, and that was one of the reasons why we thought that she was such a great candidate to bring to the States.

MERAJI: Stephanie Sinclair is an American photojournalist who's been documenting child marriage issues for the last eight years. Amira was her interpreter in Yemen.

Ms. SINCLAIR: She has like that thing that you can't give people. Like, you can't ever teach people how to get along with people, how to make them trust you. And she has that innately.

MERAJI: Stephanie was inspired by Amira's guts and raw talent. So she found a way to bring her to the International Center of Photography in New York City. And that's where I met Amira nine months ago.

(Soundbite of traffic)

MERAJI: Okay, so here's First Avenue.


MERAJI: Which way do you think we go?

Ms. AL-SHARIF: The way always north.


We're in the East Village making our way to Tompkins Square Park so Amira can take pictures for one of her first assignments.

Unidentified Female: Go over to Avenue A and go down to City Street.

Ms. AL-SHARIF: Thank you.

MERAJI: She's wearing sneakers, a flowing long-sleeve shirt over jeans, and a pretty silk scarf over her hair. This is not her usual outdoor attire in Yemen, which is a figure-concealing black abaya and a face veil called a niqab that has just a narrow opening for the eyes.

Ms. AL-SHARIF: People think the girl who wear niqab or wear hijab, she couldn't do whatever she wants. And if it is like this, why I am here if I can't do anything? And really there are a lot of women in Yemen, nobody know about them. Nobody knows how much they are strong, how much they have fighting spirit.

MERAJI: Amira has only been in the U.S. for a few weeks at this point, but she is bold. The first time she took photos in New York was on the 9/11 anniversary, and she was wearing her hijab.

(Soundbite of music)

MERAJI: Here at Tompkins Square Park, there's a free punk rock show going on and Amira has found her subject in the crowd. He's a 38-year-old park regular named Matt Logan. The guy is the visual stereotype of hard-living, complete with face tattoos - and we're not talking about the artsy kind.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. AL-SHARIF: Who are the people who stay in Tompkins Park?

Mr. MATT LOGAN: A lot of different people from a lot of different walks of life. Kind of like a community of outcasts, you know?

Ms. AL-SHARIF: So, the people in the park, they are your family?

Mr. LOGAN: Kind of. I mean I still have a family. You know, I speak to my family. I'm not, you know...

Ms. AL-SHARIF: Where is your family?

Mr. LOGAN: My family is in Kentucky.

MERAJI: We spent most of that first day with Matt. Amira asked him about living away from home, getting arrested.

Ms. AL-SHARIF: What do you feel when you smoke marijuana?

Mr. LOGAN: What do I feel when I smoked marijuana? I feel very relaxed and in tune and in touch with nature and everything surrounding me, and the universe. I feel like I'm in sync with the universe.

Ms. AL-SHARIF: I mean what do you...

MERAJI: Amira seemed pretty fascinated with Matt, and maybe it's because his life is nothing like hers. She may have a fighting spirit, but that fight can never be a full-on rebellion like Matt's.

It comes down to family honor. She never wants to embarrass her family, to shame them. And I feel that the first time we met. She was very careful not to say anything that might be construed as criticism of her homeland or her culture.

Ms. AL-SHARIF: Okay, I'll show you this picture. You shall see it. Maybe you will agree.

MERAJI: It's four months after that first encounter. Amira is showing me some of her work at the International Center of Photography, where she spends a lot of time these days. She's struggling with her American Women photo project. Her subjects disappear - they'll stop calling, they'll stop texting her back.

Ms. AL-SHARIF: I think it's the difference. Yemen it's more like families and groups - you cannot disappear. I'm going to call your aunt and mother, and father and the brother. And I'm going to contact you sisters. You should have to like us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MERAJI: Amira has had the most luck with her subject, Anna. She's a 24-year-old Brooklynite whose hobbies include fire-dancing. Although Anna's not a member of a tribe in that Yemeni sense, she surrounds herself with a group of free-spirited musicians and artists. And she's allowed Amira full access to her world.

Ms. AL-SHARIF: Actually, she invited me to go with her for the Thanksgiving in Massachusetts.

MERAJI: So what was that like, Thanksgiving in America?

Ms. AL-SHARIF: It's like every day in Yemen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AL-SHARIF: Yeah, every day in Yemen it's Thanksgiving.

MERAJI: She showed me her favorite photo from that trip. It's a shot of Anna, her nieces and her grandparents, all hanging out on a double bed talking. Amira liked it so much she emailed it to her family and friends in Yemen.

Ms. AL-SHARIF: So they were like, ah, American people life like this?

MERAJI: What do you mean? What were they surprised about?

Ms. AL-SHARIF: They know that American women, they are more individual. American women lived alone, so it was like something nice because it's more like Yemen.

MERAJI: Amira is drawn to the Trade Center subjects that remind her of home. And that's really where she wants to make it as a photojournalist - a Yemeni documenting Yemen.

Ms. AL-SHARIF: I realize that people here they don't know where is Yemen. I really would love American people to know Yemen; to understand more about women issues in Yemen. And, you know, Shereen, I'm being here as a body, but my spirit there.

MERAJI: Amira is looking forward to catching up with her spirit in Yemen when her program at the ICP is finished this summer. She's hoping her country makes the transition from dictatorship to democracy, and that she's there to capture it.

Ms. AL-SHARIF: This is Yemen history. The people want to live free. I mean, I really need to be there.

MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

BLOCK: And you can see photos taken by Amira Sharif in the U.S. and in Yemen at

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