Strike a pose
For much of the world, Yemen is a land of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, warring tribesmen, Houthi rebels, Southern secessionists and endless conflict.
It is easily forgotten that it is a land of people with worries and joys as varied as a straying girlfriend, passing a university entrance exam, or constant nagging from your mother to cut your hair.
A two-year-old international, participatory art installation called the Inside Out Project aims to challenge stereotypes and expose the world to people and their untold stories of life, determination, resistance and other human emotions and actions.
Some of these untold stories were captured recently at a local coffee shop in Sana’a. A line of young people giggled uncontrollably as each stepped in front of a photographer, flexing their facial muscles. Some smiled, and some made silly faces.
The Inside Out Project was created after TED Prize winner, French artist, JR, was given $100,000 to use as “one wish to change the world.” It is a way to include the public in an artistic project that focuses on personal identity, JR told media reporters and aims to challenge stereotypes associated with nations or minorities within countries.
Yemen’s version of the Inside Out Project began three months ago.
Yemeni-American activist Rooj Al-Wazeer is one of the organizers behind the project. She has participated in the Inside Out Project before, taking photos of Americans of different backgrounds to demonstrate that Americans are a diverse lot.
Yemen’s campaign is called “We are not terrorists or hopeless, we are human beings with real human stories.”
Al-Wazeer says the campaign’s theme captures a message she wants to send to the world.
“We have the ability to overcome the crisis the country is going through,” she said.
The campaign includes Yemenis from all walks of life, including one of the country’s most marginalized groups, the Muhamasheen.
Another focus of the project entitled, “I am a Yemeni, and I refuse to a target of drone strikes” is capturing images of children and adults who have lost relatives to drones strikes in Marib and Al-Jawf governorates.
“The final chosen photos from all governorates will be sent to JR [for printing] and [sent back] to Yemen to be [displayed] on [Yemeni] streets in November,” Al-Wazeer said.
The campaign requires participants to fill out permission forms, authorizing the exhibition of their photos.
Notable undertakings of the project in other countries includes the replacing posters of Tunisian ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali with Inside Out portraits. In Pakistan, project organizers displayed photos of the country’s minorities in large cities. In Israel, photos of Palestinians were hung publicly and in Palestine, photos of Israelis.
Yemeni campaign organizer Abdulaziz Murfk encouraged Yemenis on Facebook to participate in the campaign. He particularly wants to increase female participation.
“Of the 150 people who have participated in Sana’a, the percentage of females in the project has not exceeded 15,” Murfk said. “This is because [they] fear being [spoken ill of].”
As word spreads, campaign organizers say they are generating more interest.
Eighteen-year-old Mai Nasiri and her two sisters recently volunteered to take part after reading about it online and being encourage by friends to participate.
“I am a girl. I should show the world my photo [because] people believe that Yemeni girls are [always] hidden behind veils,” Nasiri said.
Although Nasiri invited many female friends to participate, she says there was backlash.
“They were afraid people would curse their families,” she said.
But Media Studies student Ahmed Al-Ghanimi had no fear. He gladly posed in front of the camera. “I like the funny poses. The style of the campaign suits my personality,” he said.
The photos should be expressive, he said, because there is a stereotype that Yemenis do not smile. “We are [still] able to smile and live happily,” he said.