An Emerging Mystery: A View of Saudi Arabia through a Photographer’s Lens

Purchase PDF
Sebastian Farmborough
An Emerging Mystery

I was born and raised in Alkhobar, Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia. Growing up in Saudi, I honestly had everything a girl like me could ask for in this world: a loving family, a good education, free health care, and a safe and secure environment. According to the standards of the world happiness report, I was happy, and I truly did feel extremely blessed and content.

While wars and conflicts were being waged across the globe in places like Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, and Lebanon, while people starved in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and Burundi, and while girls were being trafficked in places like Thailand, Cambodia, and India, I was safely tucked in a bubble that made my world seem like a paradise compared to any other place. How could anyone not want to live in Saudi Arabia?

Eventually, the right time came for me to explore and experience the world outside of my safe haven, and I decided to go to the United States to pursue higher education. However, what I saw of how the majority of the West perceived Saudi Arabia appalled me. Women are oppressed in Saudi, one would say. Yet here I stand, an independent college student with my full tuition paid by my government. Women are confined to their houses and are not allowed to leave without a male guardian, another would claim. Yet I spent my teenage years hanging out at the mall with my friends and dining in restaurants across Khobar Corniche beach. Saudi is full of terrorists and safety problems, some would argue. Yet I have never felt safer and more respected as a woman than in my hometown. The perception of Saudi was terrible, and the knowledge was lacking.

I found myself constantly having to defend my country, my leaders, our values, our culture, and our religion, as the gap between our two cultures continued to grow.

Per_Alahmed_Figure1.jpg

Sebastian Farmborough
An Emerging Mystery

When Sebastian Farmborough first accepted a job in Saudi Arabia to teach English to executives at a petrochemical company, he expected to stay there for a year, save some money, fly under the radar, and then return to Spain where he was residing at the time. Little did he know that not only would he spend the next three years living in Saudi Arabia, but that he would come to enjoy his time there exploring the beautiful reality of the Saudi Kingdom and its people.

Farmborough was born and raised in England, but lived and worked in several countries such as the US, Spain, and Chile before finding himself drawn to the Arab world and its way of life.

Farmborough was very skeptical before moving to Saudi. His perception of the country, similar to that of the majority of Westerners, was negative. He was expecting to be alone in a closed and conservative environment, facing security and safety issues, and a lack of hospitality in general. What Farmborough saw upon his arrival struck him. Everything he had seen and learned from the media about Saudi Arabia was the complete opposite. The people were welcoming and extremely hospitable, and the culture was different yet inviting and appealing.

At that moment, Sebastian decided it was time to pick up on an old hobby that he hadn’t attended to since his high school days: photography. When Sebastian told his family and friends about what he was seeing and experiencing in Saudi, and how the world’s view is anything but accurate, they did not believe him. He started taking evidential photos to send back home to prove to them what he saw, and with that his artistic project was born. Farmborough wanted to use his photos to send a message to the Western world about real Saudi citizens and their lives.

Per_Alahmed_Figure3.jpg

Sebastian Farmborough
A Desert Rose

Sebastian was not only touched by the extreme generosity and hospitality that he received from Saudis, but by the different culture he witnessed as well. Strong family ties, ardent lifetime friendships, and extreme faith gave him the determination to pursue this project and to change the image that the West has of the Kingdom. His project aims to humanize Saudis, and to portray them in a light that shows their noble characteristics, such as their generosity, their respect for elders, their social relationships, and their cultural and religious values.

Although his project does not particularly focus on women in the Kingdom, Farmborough has dedicated a part of his project to portray the true lives of Saudi women, focusing on their strength, their independence, and their lifestyles in general. This part was inspired due to the many stories he previously heard and read in the West that portray Saudi women as dark and mysterious “objects” who are oppressed and denied their basic rights. This is yet another image that Farmborough aims to change as he saw and met women in the country who were living their lives normally, yet differently than both the women in Western cultures and the misconceptions.

Now living in Dubai, Sebastian continues to pursue his artistic project by working with photographers in the advertising industry. He is hoping to soon get permission from the Saudi government to re-enter the country and be able to complete his photography project. In the meantime, various Arabic media sources, news channels, and talk shows continuously interview him about his work in an attempt to promote his project and get the Kingdom and its citizens excited and cooperative to help him build a bridge between Saudi Arabia and the West.

Per_Alahmed_Figure4.jpg

Sebastian Farmborough
An Emerging Mystery

It has been almost four years now since I left Saudi Arabia to pursue my Bachelor’s degree in Boston, Massachusetts, and during those years, I have traveled across the world trying to find new adventures in every place I landed. In Istanbul, Turkey, I happened to come across Sebastian’s work. Browsing through his photos, I knew that I was not alone in battling the harsh views the West had of my country. I also felt proud; proud of my people who welcomed Sebastian into their homes and allowed him to experience and see for himself what life is truly like in the Kingdom, and thus his project was inspired. I was also proud of Sebastian and his work. It takes a great deal of courage, compassion, and understanding to dedicate one’s work to stand up for a culture, a country, and a religion that is different from his own. His project gives me hope that if we worked collaboratively as Arabs and Westerners, we could indeed change not just the Western perception of the Arab world, but the Arab perception of the West as well.

Sebastian Farmborough’s project, with his lead photo “An Emerging Mystery,” is an ideal way to start bridging the cultural gaps between Saudi Arabia and the West. These photographs will have the strength to speak not only for me, but for many citizens in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There is great importance in bringing these two different worlds together through his images.

“Essentially, we are the same, with the same basic needs and aspirations. If only we could communicate better and try to understand and accept our differences. Neither of our cultures is perfect, but perhaps by combining values from both we might be a lot closer to attaining that.”

The world needs to see what Sebastian saw through his lens.