Alexandra Boulat

Prayer at the Women's Theological School of Mashad.

Women's day at Mazar-e-Sharif Hazrat Ali Shrine.

At Tehran bus station, Afghan refugees and immigrants writing their names on a tent set up for people returning to Afghanistan.

Athena, a 20 year old transsexual in Iran.

Pakistani women pray during an anti-American demonstration in Quetta.

Pakistani heroin addicts under a bridge in Quetta.

Documentary refers to the process of documentation. It is supposed to be the truth, “factually accurate and contain no fictional elements” (Random House 2011). Factual accuracy is only one part of documentation. There must be some pertinent information to be documented, otherwise, there is no point in documenting it at all. Thus, documentary photography refers to documenting something historically or socially important in such a way as to be truthful, accurate, and as objective as possible (Wikipedia). The photos are usually candid and contain people. They can depict important historical events, such as protests and rallies. However, documentary photography can be used to document social phenomenon such as poverty, sexuality, religion, or the lives of women and other people who live on the fringe of society.

Alexandra Boulat used photography to document conflict. In the latter part of her life, Boulat focused on the conflicts and people of the Middle East. Women figure prominently in her work. Her women are strong and independent. She has an entire collection dedicated to the women of Gaza on the front lines. These are photos of the families of women who became suicide bombers in Gaza, women who stood in defiance of Israeli tanks, and other women affected by the violence in Gaza. The women who defied Israeli tanks to free Palestinian fighters stand in a room with patches missing in the wall, their faces are strong, with their gazes staring directly out of the photo. Two of the women who marched in defiance were killed when the Israeli army opened fire as they entered the town. Boulat is also able to successfully capture the community within Middle Eastern women. Women sit together, laughing with one another in more than one photo.

However, many of the women in Boulat’s photographs from the Middle East appear strong and independent, she also portrays how isolated women in the Middle East are from men. There is a photo of women in prayer at the Women’s Theological School of Mashad, all wearing full niqab or burkas as a man leads prayer. I, however, am quite wary of this photo. I find it incredibly unusual from my studies of Islam that a man would be leading prayer for a group of women, even more so at a school for women. Most often, the most knowledgeable or pious woman in the group would be chosen to lead prayer. The whole point in doing this is so that women can be comfortable around one another, and are able to remove their niqab, burka or hijab.

While women may constitute a large portion of the “fringe” population in the Middle East, Boulat does not neglect other fringe populations in what are largely conservative societies. Boulat photographed transsexuals in Iran, an incredibly religious and conservative theocracy. Her portrait of Athena, a transgendered woman, is honest. She sits in the centre, staring out at you. Her expression is strong and confident, yet, you cannot help but read some sadness into her expression. It’s honest and profound. Boulat also has many photos of Afghan refugees who fled to Iran and Pakistan during the Taliban regime. One image that is particularly striking is two Afghan women writing on the walls of a tent while they wait for a bus to return to Afghanistan. On the wall is written “I hate you Iran.”

Alexandra Boulat worked by embedding herself with the people she was photographing, allowing her subjects to get comfortable with her and get photos that she may otherwise not have gotten. As a woman, she was allowed access to Middle Eastern Muslim women that a male photographer would not have gotten. As a woman, Boulat would be allowed to enter the women-only areas of the mosque, as well as enter the homes of women. However, she would also be denied access to other parts of Middle Eastern society, because she was a woman. This may also be why her photos from the Middle East focus so strongly on women, because she would be denied access to men.

Boulat is able to capture the essence of her subjects. Her ability to capture emotion is profound as she photographs her subjects in their natural environment. Her portraits are honest. It is difficult to discern how objective anything really is. I feel as though Boulat is not altering her images or the situations in which she is present. However, I’m unsure about why she chooses to shoot what she shoots. As a westerner in another society, she may be showing us what it is we want to see.

Regardless, I really enjoy Boulat’s work. I like how she seems to be uninvolved in the lives of her subjects. She’s a fly on the wall, and this is my favourite type of photography. I got into photography with the intention of getting involved in photojournalism. I love being able to capture people in their natural environments, without them noticing me. I love being a fly on the wall. That’s when you get people to really reveal who they are in a photograph, when they don’t know they’re being photographed. This is my favourite way to work, and the way I hope to be able to work in the future.

If I were going to do my own documentary project, I would be interested in documenting people with anxiety disorders, as well as all the different ways people cope with the stress of every day life. I find all of the little things that people do to cope with things incredibly interesting, from daily rituals to self-destructive behaviour like alcoholism, drug addiction and obsessive compulsive behaviours.

VII Agency

Alexandra Boulat, Biography

Alexandra Boulat, Obituary


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