Sebastian Farmborough: Feeling Saudi Arabia Through Pictures

Feb 3, 2021

Home > Interviews > Sebastian Farmborough: Feeling Saudi Arabia Through Pictures

I first came across Sebastian Farmborough by means of pictures about Saudi Arabia and Saudi people published on LinkedIn. However, it was his article where he spoke to Saudi women about their new-found freedom that triggered me too try to understand how a British non-fiction photographer might be able to lead cultural dialogues and understanding through his pictures. Could this really be done?

Any weather is Pepsi weather


– You have lived in Saudi Arabia from 2003 to 2006, and again from 2016 until today. Why the break, and why the return? 

Well, I was 22 when I first moved to Saudi Arabia and despite finding it culturally fascinating, life here was extremely tough for a young Westerner so I moved to Dubai to make up for what I felt I had been missing out on.

In Dubai, I started working for photographers within the advertising industry in order to learn about the complexities of lighting and how best to manage a shoot. At the same time, I did shoots of my own with the people and places I encountered. However, I soon found myself returning to my experiences in Saudi for inspiration.

The trouble with describing Saudi Arabia to people who have never been, particularly if what you have to say is positive, is that they do not believe you. This frustrated me enormously as the external perception of the country is grossly inaccurate.

I am not really motivated by money, I want to do something meaningful with my photography and my life, something that will live on after I am gone and that is why I decided to return and capture images that will reflect the true nature of Saudis, ones that will neither be disregarded nor denied.

– What is the change you have found between these periods? 

The country has changed dramatically and it continues to do so at an ever-increasing rate. When I first arrived, I experienced such a culture shock. The clothing was so different to what I had been used to and everything was in Arabic, with very few people able to speak English. Today, for the most part, the clothing is the same, although more Saudi men wear Western clothes outside of work and some Saudi women, particularly the younger generation, dress more liberally. Now, quite a significant proportion of the country speak English and most signs have both languages.

Playstation – Saudi style

In the past, there was a sense that you were always being observed and I was routinely stopped by the religious police, some of whom were very aggressive. Thankfully, it is more relaxed now.

In public there was one opinion about everything, but now Saudis are more willing to discuss their own perspectives.

Women are far more visible these days, you used to hardly see them on the streets when I first came here and seldom walking alone, but today that is quite common. Of course, these days they can drive, which would have been dangerous in the past as young men would have chased them around. However, the King Abdullah Scholarship Program saw hundreds of thousands of Saudis educated abroad and the government has been very strict with the transition.

Not all the changes have been positive though. Some Saudis seem to be really buying into Western culture, which I find sad as theirs is far deeper and more interesting. The country has also become quite expensive and the quality of the food was far better when I first lived here. Back then, there were fewer imports and more natural, local produce.

It is still quite challenging to photograph Saudi people. You cannot just take their picture in public. Some will get really upset with you so I prefer to get their permission and arrange to do shoots privately.

– Defending Saudi Arabia is not an easy task. Why?

Actually, I do not think it is that difficult to defend Saudi Arabia. There are a lot of positives here, which the world could be made aware of.

Music and Poetry, all part of Saudi life

The challenge arises in the starting point, the country’s enormously negative reputation abroad has been generated by decades of poor, biased, agenda driven media coverage. Where events have been typically reported without providing the all-important cultural context. E.g. in the past, when women were not allowed to drive, not once did a foreign media outlet explain how dangerous it would have been for them to do so. I would not have wanted my mother or my sisters to drive here, because at that time young Saudi men where not used to seeing women alone and they would have raced after them and rammed them off the road.

In 2009, I recall visiting my grandparents in England and describing to them some of the positive experiences that I had had in the kingdom. Afterwards, the news came on and it happened to be about Saudi Arabia and was deeply negative. They then turned to me in disbelief, doubting my own word over that of the media, but this just illustrates how powerful and misleading it can be.

Another significant factor is that over the years a great many foreigners, especially from Western countries have lived in compounds so they have had little interaction with Saudis in a social capacity, have not learnt Arabic and more so in the past when terrorism was very much an issue, even feared being amongst them. Subsequently, a considerable number of foreigners have returned to their countries without ever really getting to know Saudi Arabia or its people.

Historically speaking, the country and its people have done little to defend themselves, opting instead to let media storms pass. The trouble is that their culture is extremely conservative and most Saudis are unwilling to reveal what they get up to in private. However, with the kingdom’s desire to diversify the economy and in particular promote tourism, a different approach is necessary.

I read an article you posted on Saudi women in which you called for them not to lose themselves to Western lifestyle. It came across macho-style. Was that what you meant?

I do not see it as being macho, but can understand that it could be deemed so by those who are not familiar with the positives of a Saudi/ Muslim way of life. Following the article, quite a number of Saudi women wrote to me saying that they supported what I had written and shared my concerns.

I have lived in the Middle East and the West for many years so I have witnessed both the positives and negatives of each culture. Saudi women, who have lived abroad will be similarly aware. However, my worry is for the Saudi women who have only grown up here. They are effectively running out into a sea of perceived freedom, without really knowing what lies beneath.

Haraj bin Qasim, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

For me, the most negative aspect of this new found liberalism is how common plastic surgery has become. Young Saudi women are now heavily influenced by Hollywood and they are disfiguring themselves in an attempt to look like their favourite film stars. They risk destroying themselves and their own sanity.

Young people think they have a lot more time than they actually do, so it is important for them to realise that their decisions have consequences. Women’s biological clocks are limited so if they delay marriage for too long the family size will suffer.

Freedom is not free, you have to work hard for it. In the West, a lot women have to do degrading jobs in order to make a living. Are they prepared to do the same?

Men are also likely to become less committed towards women with their being no need to marry in order to have a relationship. Many Western women struggle with this when they want to settled down and get married. Do young Saudi women appreciate that this may become a problem for them as well?

Essentially, Saudi women cannot have their cake and eat it. By adopting Western practices they will lose some of the beneficial aspects of their own society.

– What is difference for/with Arabs compared with other cultures? 

Arab and English cultures differ quite markedly and it really has been a challenge to adapt. One of the things I love most about England is that a person’s word really means something. When they say they will do something, they actually do it. Whereas for many Arabs it is just enough to say that they will.

Punctuality is also a great thing about my culture. You frequently have to wait for Arabs so it is advisable to have something to keep you busy in the meantime.

Cheating is also quite widespread within the Arab culture, which I was not used to, so you really need to be on guard.

In public, Arabs can be quite inconsiderate and selfish by pushing in front of you in a queue or whilst driving, not stopping for you to cross the road or by throwing rubbish all over the place.

What I do like about Arab culture though is that it is much friendlier and more family oriented than English culture. Arabs are also a lot more hospitable and generous, which really does make you feel at home.

Latin and Arab cultures are quite similar. Unsurprising really, given that one stems from the other. For both, religion and family are central to their lives and both cultures are very warm, the major difference is that Arabs are much more conservative, particularly their women and attitudes towards them.

In your work, how do you take photographs? How do you portray people and what do you want to portray?

For me, photography is not about what you see, but what you feel.

If it is a planned shoot then I like to create a mood board beforehand. This is a collection of images that convey the general theme of the end photograph. It helps me to focus and is typically comprised of pictures of the model(s), the location, clothing, makeup, hairstyle etc.).

I do not use Photoshop so I like to plan as much as possible before the shoot in efforts to anticipate any potential problems and take measures to prevent them. Then, during the actual shoot, I do my best to relax and to feel the emotion of the scene, I react to any issues instinctively and aim to capture a special moment.

Photography is immensely complicated and shooting outdoors is fraught with difficulties. When I first started shooting and things did not go according to plan, I used to panic, but now I just try to stay calm and go with it. I discovered that sometimes the unplanned can lead to much more natural and striking outcomes.

If I am looking for spontaneous images then I walk around concentrating on the areas with the best lighting and then wait for something to happen. I enjoy both and my objective is to capture the person’s soul, the essence of who they really are, but when you plan a shoot and put so much into it, the stakes are much higher and thus there is a far greater feeling of achievement if you actually manage to encapsulate what you were looking for.

– What are the criteria when taking portraits of someone to make it look real?

Essentially, I try to do the opposite of what I was exposed to within the advertising industry. Normally in advertising, first the concept is decided upon, then the location, followed by the clothes, makeup, hairstyle and lastly the model(s) is(are)chosen. The shoot is then carried out without the photographer and the model(s) really knowing each other.

I found it so impersonal and the outcome generally disappointing so I decided that I would always shoot with the model(s) as my central focus and work backwards from there. First of all, I find the model(s), then I get to know them over a coffee. Later, we look through their wardrobe(s) and choose the clothes that speak the most about them. With the model(s)and clothing in mind, I come up with a concept and then search for a suitable location before eventually doing the shoot.

I like to work with real people, models pose too much and can often be a real pain to deal with. I do not photograph people who have had plastic surgery or have fake eyebrows. I want my photography to be about natural beauty, be that a person or a landscape.

Tahlia Street, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia


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