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Interview

My Mother Lulwa's House: Mashael Al Hejazi

Mashael Al Hejazi was interviewed by Maryam Hassan Al-Thani in conjunction with the Tasweer 2021 exhibition My Mother Lulwa's House.

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Maryam Hassan Al-Thani:

When did you start that journey where you realized you are a photographer?

Mashael Al Hejazi:

I have been pursuing photography for many years, and I recently found my membership card from the Light Photography Group in 2007. I started to really focus on photography and create projects six years ago. I was in Souq Waqif one morning and met a group of professional photographers coincidentally; they were using old film camera which surprised me and I asked them 'Do people still use these cameras?' and they answered that they actually do and they buy them from specific auctions and develop the films. This is where I thought to myself, ‘OK, it would be nice if I went back to photography' and I chose film cameras and developing films. I would do photo walks in old neighbourhoods which led me into going into these old houses in the neighbourhood that are now housings for migrant workers. It was difficult for me as a woman to get into these houses alone so I had to go with a group. The area is the same style of neighbourhoods that I lived in throughout my childhood. The Msheireb area has changed completely; in the aspects of the people living there, the old houses, architecture, and buildings themselves becoming worn out. Thus, the Tawtheeq [Document] project was born. Tawtheeq is the big project I am working on that has various small projects under it. Simply, Tawtheeq is the documentation of old Qatari neighbourhoods and focusing on specific districts as well. In the beginning, I was focused on the district of Msheireb because that is where I spent my childhood and I feel a connection to it as I have many beautiful memories there, and I know the area very well. After that, I started expanding to other districts because we are experiencing a great deal of change and development in these historic neighbourhoods that these alleys and corners are starting to disappear if not already demolished. The idea for me was to document these areas using an approach that remains a legacy for the next generations. I would love to keep a fingerprint for the next generations which will not get to experience, or even have the chance to see or understand the intimate and familial neighbourhoods structures that Qatari’s once lived in, whether documenting it through the doors, the windows, or the neighbourhood itself.

Maryam Al-Thani:

What gave you the curiosity about photographing these neighbourhoods?

Mashael Al Hejazi:

The thing that moved me most was that I had stopped taking pictures for a long time due to me always being busy with university and then with my job. I studied and worked in finance, so it took all my attention and I stopped all my other hobbies for me to focus on my studying. So, when I wanted to come back six years ago, I believed that I wanted to come back to photography as an escape, away from my studies and work in finance, something like a breather. When I saw that photography group, what made me want to be with them was their use of the old film cameras. I had not seen them before and most of these camera’s production was discontinued. They had to buy it from global auctions. The idea of using a film camera needs a lot of focus and attention because each film has 36 or 12 frames. So, each frame you had to pay attention to the amount of light, the space and subject that really requires you to live in the moment and that’s the one thing that I loved. When I became part of the group, I was able to go to those neighbourhoods with them and most of the group were professionals in photography and the head was Mr. Khalifa Al Obaidly. He welcomed me the most and would give me quick lessons about the film camera because I was not really used to it. I am with my digital camera, and in 15 minutes he explained to me everything I need to know about analogue film and gave me one of his cameras. I took my first images in that camera and when I saw the developed images I was really impressed and knew right then that I wanted to continue down this path.

Maryam Al-Thani:

When you talk about the neighbourhoods and the subjects that you document, what is the idea that you start with – is the detail from the doors and it becomes a layer for your work? How do you study the subject of the neighbourhood?

Mashael Al Hejazi:

The factor that really moves me is my own memory of the place because I lived my childhood in these neighbourhoods. I let my memories direct my attention to the door and the details of it or the window because no matter how much it changed and the house starts to decay due to natural factors, the door remained strong. I was most attracted to focus on the doors because I felt that behind every door was a story and memory and covered secrets. To me, the door speaks a lot. The second thing that I documented was the people who are currently living in these neighbourhoods and how they spend their everyday lives with the neighbourhood. As I said I work with the Tawtheeq project so I looked at documenting the old neighbourhood and the current situation with the movement that is happening within it.

Maryam Al-Thani:

How was your experience and journey at the Fire Station residency programme and how did that carry on towards the Al Najada installation and your larger Tawtheeq project? What are the points of departure that you decided on in the project itself?

Mashael Al Hejazi:

Tawtheeq is the big project that I am working on and within it is the ‘doors project’ which is what I submitted for my art residency at Fire Station from which I documented doors and my memories in Msheireb specifically. When Tasweer Photo Festival approached me, I wanted to start down the path of the same spirit of the house and of the documentation of people in a house thus reflecting the idea of the Al Najada project. I noticed that the house was in the area that I had been documenting for around six years even before the house was restored. The idea of this house being empty all those years without its family really pushed me into presenting my project in a way where I can revive the house with a Qatari family from our day and age. The techniques that I use really depend on the type of project that I am working on. For example, ‘the door project’ I presented to Msheireb, I saw that it talked about a certain period of time and the best way for me to convey the project was to use the cyanotype photographic printing process because the blue color is assisting me in this project. However, this was not the same case for My Mother Lulwa’s House, which is also under the Tawtheeq projects, but I wanted to approach it using a different method to give it life. I saw that taking digital and portrait photographs of real people was the best way to do this project. Using portraiture, I kept it simple and away from formality when taking pictures of the 'family' especially kids. I worked with people who I already have a relation to – my family or friends – and I would talk to them to make them forget about the camera and the studio environment, to help capture the essence of reviving the house whether the person is talking or the children are playing. I loved that the portrait would have a simplicity to it. I chose the use of a digital camera and produced a portrait to convey the message of the essence of my concept for the house, which is to revive the house again.

Maryam Al-Thani:

Is it difficult to find people in Doha who would want to participate and get their portraits taken and be published? Were there specific things that you wanted to do but couldn’t?

Mashael Al Hejazi:

In the beginning it was difficult for me to find people because I wanted one Qatari family so that the resemblance and relation would show on film, to an extent. It was difficult to persuade them. Of course, the easiest thing was to hire professional models and take their pictures, but I wanted to step away from that and work with real families who are not models and have nothing to do with being photographed, and it took some time to persuade them. Also, when I started the project, it was in midst of the pandemic so it was difficult as they were scared to leave the house with their children and elders to join me in the studio, and I almost went back to the idea of hiring models. But I persisted, and thankfully with some persuasion and flexibility, I was able to convince my chosen subjects. I would let them pick the time and go to the studio ahead of time and set up so that whenever they arrived, everything was ready and they wouldn’t have to wait or get bored. Thankfully, they were cooperative with me and when relatives and friends began to know about the project they would nominate each other, ‘Why don’t you take photos of my kids?'. I was struggling to find people in August 2020 and by November 2020 I reached a point where I had to turn people away because of the amount that reached out to me and apologize by saying, ‘Thank you however I am done with the project, but I can still offer to take your personal pictures whilst I have my Fire Station studio setup’. Thankfully the project started out with difficulties but it got easier.

Maryam Al-Thani:

It is warming to see the trust that the subjects have in you, which is very difficult here.

Mashael Al Hejazi:

Especially the character representation of ‘My Mother Lulwa’, who the house is named after, is well known amongst the Qatari women society they have their privacy and they shy away from the camera and would never have their picture exhibited in a festival. The topic was very difficult but thankfully I managed to convince her.

I didn’t want my work to reflect sadness, I wanted to reflect an important factor in every Qatari’s life who lived through those times, but through an artistic and simple way as a remark to the next generation.

– Mashael Al Hejazi

Maryam Al-Thani:

I wanted to ask during the pandemic, did it change the way you approached the project as a photographer? Especially that you let your memories direct you on documenting, did that time change your perspective or your method in presenting this project?

Mashael Al Hejazi:

Definitely. It affected me both as a person and a photographer especially in the beginning when I found out I was selected to participate in the festival where I had so many big ideas about types of photography and the printing. The sky was my limit but even the printing that I wanted was not available here [in Qatar] so I had to travel outside the country to monitor the printing. However, the pandemic hit and the country went through a lot of restriction and so did other countries go into lockdown and travelling was not an option anymore. I started to feel desperate and overwhelmed as I cannot reach my goals and standards. When I showcase my work digitally, I would like to present it at the highest quality. At the same time, I used still part of the Fire Station: Artist in Residence, even though the challenges were very tough in terms of finding materials; chemical use, paper and colors – all these resources were disappearing. So, I had to either withdraw from these projects or continue without feeling entirely comfortable with my work. However, it has become a challenge to work with the limited sources that were provided. Even with that, I was able to pursue my artistic journey. I liked the challenging aspect of working during a pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic was really stressful as everyone’s mental health was being tested, so I tried to turn the negativity into something I can work with and focus on finishing the project, and when I did that with the Artist in Residence project – which I am now extremely proud of to this day and would not change a thing. The same thing goes to the My Mother Lulwa’s House project. I had two options – to either withdraw or to go ahead with the limited resources. I did not want to withdraw from this venture as it is something important to me, and I have been working on it for years. To be able to bring an authentic heritage site back to life and showcase my work in it. My focus was to work with what I have but at the best quality I could offer and at the same time to maintain its simplicity. I had to go over my plans and thoughts for the projects and started to work locally, especially with the pandemic it was hard to work normally with social distancing. We had to put more effort in that as the working days were longer, but it was a good challenge. Thank God I was able to accomplish a significant amount of the project in the midst of Corona. By the end of 2020, I was able to have more flexibility with my work the restrictions were less. By that time, I had stabilised my practice with our local resources – I wanted to make my project 100% local – I wanted its simplicity to stand out.

Maryam Al-Thani:

As a photographer, did you find it hard to do fine arts printers in Doha instead of travelling abroad to do it?

Mashael Al Hejazi:

When someone is passionate about something, they’ll find different ways to achieve their goals. The analog photography, with technical cameras whether it’s the camera itself or films – it is not something often used in our day and age but it’s still there. And as I said, in the digital world I wanted to find a unique path to make my work distinctive. So, I wanted to go with the analog photography, films and printing in the old way, it’s rare here in Doha. International resources would’ve been a big help but I still managed. It would’ve been easier to import even though it’s chemical, but it’s still here in Doha. The good thing about film printing, is when as soon as you learn the steps of photo development, you can manage to do it by yourself, so they don’t need external help – I managed to learn that and found a place where they can do that for me in Doha.

Maryam Al-Thani:

I want to ask about the places you go back to, in the areas that you document, do you feel a responsibility as an artist to reanimate your childhood, and bring it to life? I’d like to investigate if you think the place is what changed or is your approach as a photographer different?

Mashael Al Hejazi:

The place like the Msheireb district to be specific, the area in which I lived in as part of my childhood. When I came back to visit around six years ago after a long time, when I came back, I was looking for my grandfather’s house but they’ve renewed the area and demolished old structures. I felt like I was caught by the sadness of my past and how it all changed, so I wanted to focus on what was currently going on and turn it into a happy memory. The doors stood out to me so I decided to focus on them and give it the spotlight. So I decided to go back with technical cameras as if I’m saying that I’m going back to my childhood through my art. I wanted to go the classic photography, the location and memories definitely helped. I went with the cyanotype photography, as if I’m going to the beginnings of this project. I picked cyanotype printing technique because of the blue undertones. The colour blue is a big help in this project, it reflects the cool feeling that I felt when I first came back after the people I knew left. I didn’t want my work to reflect sadness, I wanted to reflect an important factor in every Qatari’s life who lived through those times, but through an artistic and simple way as a remark to the next generation. It’s an invite to bring our culture and heritage back to life. Whichever technique or printing technique that would help to deliver the message, like the cyanotype for example, or even the digital printing process just like the one I used for My Mother Lulwa’s House. I always encourage photographers and artists to focus on their projects in detail from beginning to end – from the details in the tools and techniques to the end goal of the project. It will help their ideas to grow and inspire other projects. I am currently focusing on old neighbourhoods and to bring it in a new light and to maintain this heritage site.

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