Saudi Arabia: Abduljalil Al-Nasser – Building New Bridges Through Pictures

There are many who wonder about a rising generation in Saudi Arabia – the young Saudi men who are now reaching maturity.  How do they think?  How have they been raised?  How do they make decisions?  American Bedu is pleased to interview Abduljalil, a young Saudi man who is equally curious about the expatriate residents within his country.

Abduljalil, how old are you and what part of the Kingdom are you from?

I’m 27 years old, I come from Dammam, a city in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.

How would you describe your life as a young boy?  Do you come from a large family?

I’m a child of the 80’s, so my life was pretty much like all the children born in the 80’s and lived in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia . We watched the same cartoon shows, we were exposed to the same social circumstances. Japanese animation in Arabic dub was quite popular. When I talk with new and old friends about our childhood days, it amazes me how much we have in common.

Yes, I do come from a relatively large family.

How has your upbringing impacted or facilitated your interactions with expatriates in Saudi Arabia?

Expatriates have always been living in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia; the warmth and friendliness of the locals here make a lot of the expatriates feel welcomed. I remember we used to have a lot of students from other Arab countries going to the same schools we went to, I didn’t interact with expatriates from other cultures when I was a young boy, the language was a barrier back then.

At what age did you start interacting with expatriates?

When I was in high school, I joined a summer program learn English. The teacher was American; it was my first time to have a non Arab teacher. Communicating with him was a problem at first, but I managed. I still remember the experience vividly.

When and how did you become interested in photography?

I have always been interested in visual arts. Visuals just click with me for some reason. I have been interested in photography and other visual arts for a long time, but I decided to pursue it in 2005. I bought a DSLR camera and I had no idea how to use it, I started teaching myself by readings and experimentation. I’m completely self-taught.

What kind of photo equipment do you prefer to use?  Do you prefer color photos or black and white?

Digital is the obvious choice! We are witnessing a revaluation (revolution?) in digital photography at the moment, the ability to take a photograph and review it right away in that little LCD screen in the back of the camera have made the learning process so much faster and easier. Cameras keep getting cheaper and better, therefore more affordable.

I love both color and black and white photography. Black and white photography has a classic and dramatic feel to it; I chose it because it serves my project better.

How did you get the idea to create the Expatriates Photo Gallery? 

I wanted to start a photography series, a series that had an idea and revolved around the human subject. However, I didn’t know what to do. One day, I was chatting with a work colleague who was about to retire. He was American. I asked him “how long have you been living in Saudi Arabia”. He said “30 years”! The number kind of shocked me, as I was 25 or 26 at the time. I thought, this man has been living in my country longer than I have!

It was kind of an “aha moment”, I asked him if it’s ok if I can take a portrait of him. He didn’t mind, and the project kicked off.

How did you select the expatriates profiled in your gallery?

To create a story out of the portraits I was about to photograph, I wanted to create a common bond between my subjects. So I set three conditions on which I will select the expatriates. First, they have to be expatriates of course! Second, they must have been living in Saudi Arabia for at least 10 years. Last, they must be retiring or planning to retire within a year from the shoot day. I wanted them all to be in the same place when I release the photographs to the public, I thought the experience would be interesting for them and the exhibition visitors as well.

What was the response and reactions of expatriates when you said you wanted to profile them and take their photos?

Some welcomed it warmly. Others found it strange and refused to be a part of it. Sometimes, people are sensitive over getting their picture taken, especially by a complete stranger. I understood this, so when a group of people agreed to have their portraits taken by me, I knew that I had a responsibility to portray them in a good way. They were really patient with me, because I took so many photographs of them in many poses and I got them to wait for months until the exhibition was out. They saw their portraits in on the walls of the exhibition for the first time.

I tried to bring out the character of my subjects in their portraits. At the exhibition, I was glad to know that many of the visitors as well as the families and friends of the expatriates were able to see the character within the portraits.

In the opening night, the wife of an expatriate I photographed cried when saw his portrait. She said that the portrait captured his character. That took me by surprise!

How did you take the photos?  In a studio?

I took all the portraits in a studio setup using lighting strobes. I had to move them around as the expatriates weren’t all living in the same city.

Tell American Bedu readers about some of these expatriates.  What was the average length of time they had been in the Kingdom?  How did you get to know them?

As part of the three conditions on which I based my selection, I wanted expatriates who have been in Saudi Arabia for at least 10 years. The shortest period for any of the subjects was 13 years.  The majority were living in Saudi Arabia for 20 years and more. I was amazed by how much they have seen in Saudi Arabia that I myself didn’t.

I understand many who you profiled in Expatriates Photo Gallery are no longer in Saudi Arabia.  Are you still in touch with them?

Some of them are still here; they are planning to retire during 2011. However, the majority of them are no longer in Saudi Arabia. Some of them left the country only two days after opening the exhibition. I’m in touch with them and I keep them updated with the exhibition news.

How have your photographs impacted on Saudi-expatriate interactions?

I noticed that many Saudis who were visiting the exhibition were having lengthy chats with the expatriates I photographed; they seemed they were enjoying the stories! They did appreciate the lifetime that these people spent in Saudi Arabia. If the exhibition has started a dialog between cultures, I think that’s a good impact.

What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding Saudis have about expatriates in the Kingdom?

I can’t generalize one misunderstanding on everybody, but I think there are people here who think that expatriates want to westernize the society. I don’t believe that. I think expatriates, whether they are from the west, Europe, other Arab states or far east, they all contribute positivity to the society.

In turn, what do you think is the biggest misunderstanding expatriates have about Saudis?

Again, I can’t generalize here. However, often I hear that Saudis are described as xenophobic and don’t mix with people from other culture. This might be true, but it only applies to a minority in this country. The majority here is welcoming and open minded. Also, western expats tend to associate technical expertise with western culture. They assume that if someone has cutting edge knowledge in a particular field, then he must be somehow westernized. It’s not always true. You still see some Saudis who are very knowledgeable in some fields, yet they completely embrace the local traditions. This fact surprise some expats.

How has your exhibit helped bridge gaps of miscommunication or cultural misunderstanding?

I think if you gather minds in once place around art, music, poetry or even just a social night, that by itself helps bridging gaps and clearing any cultural misunderstanding. I believe the discussions alone that took place in the exhibition will help a lot in bridging the gap. Dialog always plays its part in clarifying clichés and stereotypes

As a Saudi national, do you think it is easy to reach out and get to know expatriates?  Why or why not?  Does the area in which one lives or family one belongs to impact on having personal relationships with expatriates?

It’s not a problem for me, maybe because I’m young, speak English and I work with expats. But I think others might find a problem with that, especially in other parts of the country.

What are you doing now?  Do you remain active with expatriates and with photography?

Yes I’m active with photography, but I’m not pursuing the expatriate series at the moment. After the exhibition, I got some emails from expatriates expressing their interest in the idea. I might go back to this photography series and approach it from a different angle.

What are your future plans?

I’m currently working on few projects; they are all in the visual arts medium.

As a young Saudi man, how do you want to influence your country and how it is seen?

I want to show the progressive side of our country. We have a lot of talents here in Saudi Arabia. We have a lot of poets, novelists, painters, calligraphers, musicians, filmmakers and photographers and I would love them to be seen and discovered.

Are there any additional comments you’d like to add?

Thank you for having me in your blog and thanks to American Bedu readers for making the time to read about my exhibition.

Thank YOU Abduljalil for sharing your photos and allowing American Bedu readers to get an opportunity to know the man behind the camera.

Last but certainly not least, here is a video on youtube which depicts Abduljalil being interviewed in Saudi about his exhibition.


In closing, if someone wants to contact Abduljalil directly, they can follow him on  twitter:


10 Responses

  1. What a neat project!

  2. Great interview, he sounds like a wonderful guy!

    But is it just me or is the video completely silent?

  3. No; the video should not be silent! There is dialogue.

  4. I do like the photos, but I have one criticism. I hate the irregular border. It is an affection, a wierd one for someone shooting digital. In great days of film, people used negative carriers with slightly oversized film gates to show the entire negative. That would produce a black border around the negative, usually it wasn’t quite a irregular as the one in these images.

    Art should be honest, lose the silly fake border.

  5. Does he not know expat women? Or, maybe, that could be his next project

  6. Love this interview! Love Photography, although I have a hard time shooting here in Saudi. Jerry, 🙂 the border is great, the shots would be boring without it. I’m not a fan of studio lighting but the border works with those shots especially in black and white. Maybe if he removed the border and used sepia, that would work too. There is so much you can do now with digital Photography. Back when I studied, we did everything in the darkroom ourselves, those were the days!

    Does Abduljalil have a website where we can view more of his photographic works?

    Do you have any information as to where ex-pats can take Photography courses that are given in English here in Riyadh? I would really love to brush up my skills and break out the camera again!:)

  7. His full exhibit also contained photos of expat women too. His FB page is open to the public and has more photos:

    Photo classes are offered frequently through various compounds and other groups in Saudi. Perhaps a good way to find out the latest entity offering classes is through the yahoo group

  8. I think he should have a border (at least on the lighter photos), but border he has chosen pretentious. Those photos are not printed full from from negatives, they are digital photos. One of the shots is obviously cropped so the fake full frame is annoying.

  9. That was a great interview. The photo’s really capture each individuals characteristics. You did a great job!


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