ARTICLE

The Canon EOS R, Saudi Arabia and tales of love: a wedding photographer's journey

"I loved how the Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens gave that nice bokeh. The images were very soft and very sharp at the same time," says photographer Tasneem Alsultan, who photographed three Saudi Arabian women with the lens, including Ashwarg, here, who divorced her husband after discovering his infidelity. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/1.4 and ISO100. © Tasneem Alsultan

Love is universal. But so are marital difficulties, divorce, bereavement and shame. The tension between the many unseen facets of women's emotional lives is something documentary photographer Tasneem Alsultan brings to life in her portraits with the Canon EOS R.

The Canon Ambassador is best known for her striking coverage of gender issues in the Arab world, winning praise for her 2015 groundbreaking series on Saudi Arabian women's love lives – illuminating the everyday stories behind modern women's experiences of marriage, divorce and bereavement. It's a project that's seen her grow from wedding photographer to photojournalist for some of the world's leading titles: The New York Times and Vogue Italia to Vanity Fair.

Saudi Tales of Love was inspired by Tasneem's own experiences of being married at 17 and living separately as a single parent for the last six years of an unhappy 10-year marriage. Shamed by family members for divorcing, it was only later than she realised her experiences were not uncommon, despite seeming far from the expectations of a typical Saudi housewife.

She began to pair her wedding photography with explorations of the concept of love, subverting stereotypes by following the story that unfolds after a wedding day – women who found happiness in arranged marriages, the troubles divorced women can face getting custody of their children and the requirements of Saudi women to have male guardians.

A woman wearing a headscarf and dress standing and gazing away from the camera.
Tasneem tested the Canon EOS R's dynamic range in the extremely bright sunlight of Bahrain when following her subjects for this part of the Saudi Tales of Love series. Hent, pictured here, is happy being single. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/3200 sec, f/1.4 and ISO800. © Tasneem Alsultan
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Published to international acclaim, Saudi Tales of Love has already been exhibited in over seven countries and has given Tasneem a global platform. But when Canon launched its full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R System, Tasneem decided to test the low-light capabilities of the Canon EOS R camera, the Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens and Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM lens by photographing three new chapters for her celebrated project.

She wanted to see if the dynamic range of the EOS R was a match for the extremely bright sunlight and hard shadows in Bahrain, where she had found three Saudi Arabian women, each with their own powerful story about traditional or non-traditional love: one married, one divorced and one single.

"Saudi Tales of Love sees me following Saudi women and seeing their 'reality ever after.' I sit with each one for a day and photograph her in her daily life, and then shoot a collaborative portrait, for which she tells me how she would like to be photographed, so it always relates to her story. Each one has a different narrative to her own relationship to love," Tasneem says.

Mashael is pictured with her husband Mohammed. She's been happily married to him since 2006, but initially she had to be persuaded to meet him. "She said she wasn't looking to be in a relationship," says Tasneem. "He persisted until she gave him a chance and actually met with him. She says that sometimes the unexpected comes with benefits, as she's never regretted being married. He's supported her in ways that she thought marriage wouldn't – for instance, with freedom, education, living abroad and having a career."

A woman in a kitchen, holding a cup of tea, surrounded by colourful kitchenware.
Tasneem has realised through this project that her experiences with being married and divorcing young were not uncommon, despite seeming far from the expectations of a typical Saudi housewife. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM lens at 1/60 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1250. © Tasneem Alsultan

Tasneem's second subject was Ashwarg, photographed in a flowing pink sari in the ruins of an old house. She had been preparing to marry the man she'd met at university when she discovered that he was having a relationship with his friend's wife.

She told Tasneem: "I felt ashamed, so I kept the reason behind our separation to ourselves. I remember waiting for the finalised divorce papers and the judge looked at me disapprovingly and said, 'Had you been a better wife and stuck to looking after your home and husband, you wouldn't be here today.'"

"The third woman, Hent, is single in her late 30s and very happy not having been married," explains Tasneem. "She says when the day comes, if she meets someone who is worthy of her 'happy ever after', then she'll think about it but that won't stop her from pursuing her life and career, and being herself."

A couple sit on a sofa and smile at each other.
Mashael had to be persuaded to meet her now husband Mohammed. "He's supported her in ways that she thought marriage wouldn't – for instance, with freedom, education, living abroad and having a career," says Tasneem. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/1.8 and ISO1250. © Tasneem Alsultan
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Portraits with the Canon EOS R

During her three-day shoot, Tasneem got a good sense of how the Canon EOS R fits into the kitbag of a professional documentary photographer. "It was light, sharp and very easy to use. Because I already use a Canon 5D Mark IV, it didn't feel that different, but it was much lighter," she says.

As part of both her documentary work and wedding coverage, Tasneem finds herself working in unpredictable environments where she often has little control over the lighting, so one of the most important things for her to test with the Canon EOS R was its dynamic range. With the 30.3MP full-frame CMOS sensor, she was able to capture details in both the shadows and highlights.

"The camera was great," she says. "I think as photographers, we don't always have a say in conditions, especially if you're not a studio photographer. The weather here is rarely overcast; it's either extremely bright or low in light, and I need my cameras to perform well in both.

"There was much detail that I could bring out with the EOS R that I wouldn't have been able to get with another camera."

A  woman wearing a pink sari sits on the wall of an abandoned, broken building.
Ashwarg, pictured here, talked to Tasneem about her breakup after her partner's affair: "I felt ashamed, so I kept the reason behind our separation to ourselves." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/4000 sec, f/1.2 and ISO100. © Tasneem Alsultan

Tasneem also took advantage of the Canon EOS R's customisable multi-function bar. "I customised the bar to have it change my ISO. All of my camera settings are on manual because I like to control things, especially when the indoors/outdoors and harsh light to darkness changes so fast. With documentary photography, I rarely have the chance to dictate any setting, so I just have to be quick with my hands and trust that the camera will be able to adjust quickly on the spot."

She normally uses 35mm and 85mm prime lenses in her work, but decided to test not only the Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM lens but also the Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens on this shoot. "I loved how it gave that nice bokeh. The images were very soft and very sharp at the same time," she says. She also plans to put her existing lenses on the EOS body, which are compatible with the new system when using the Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R, with no loss of quality and the same focusing performance.

"One of the difficult things that photographers face is that we're not invisible," she says. "I move around all the time, so the silent mode helps me greatly. It means I can get photos without the person knowing that I've clicked the shutter, which makes me much more sensitive, I think, to their stories. My subjects are not always at public events or weddings but often in more intimate surroundings, so I need to make people feel comfortable."

In a dark room, a woman peers out from behind a curtain.
The Canon EOS R's low-light capabilities made it perfect for capturing the women's lives in different environments. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/320 sec, f/1.6 and ISO800. © Tasneem Alsultan

The Canon EOS R is the first Canon camera to offer an entirely silent shooting mode, enabling photographers to take candid photos without disturbing subjects. This is very relevant for Tasneem's particular brand of observational documentary photography, which often involves photographing people in private or intimate spaces, such as in places of worship or in their bedrooms.

So far, Tasneem has collated 27 stories from Saudi Arabian women, but the project is more than just engaging narratives; the stories are empowering Saudi women by giving them a voice.

"I want to pursue this project because it's so important for us, as Saudi women, to know that we all co-exist and we are all strong. From women who have been widowed to those who are divorced, I feel that all these (sometimes tragic) stories are important to validate the struggles we have and to help us know that we're not alone."

A woman kneeling on a rug, praying.
The Canon EOS R's silent shutter enabled Tasneem to become almost invisible by being able to capture her subjects in private or intimate spaces. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM lens at 1/160 sec, f/2.2 and ISO2000. © Tasneem Alsultan

"From a superficial point of view, we might look the same in our own homes, like we're just confident, strong women going about our daily lives. Then you realise there are so many obstacles that Saudi women face that no other women have to. So, it's tying all those things together that show the universal theme of love, but at the same time, very distinct struggles."

The untold tales

Looking to the year ahead, Tasneem envisions continuing to balance her personal projects with covering social issues in the region. "I am looking to photograph the narratives that haven't been told before," she says.

When Tasneem started Saudi Tales of Love, she imagined a book containing the stories of 30 women. But as she continues to find compelling tales of unexpected love, the idea grows. Moreover, recent developments within Saudi Arabia have opened up the country geographically to her, bringing with it a raft of potentially powerful stories.

A woman walking through an abandoned building with graffiti on the walls.
Tasneem appreciated the Canon EOS R's light weight and familiar EOS controls: "It was light, sharp and very easy to use," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/1.2 and ISO100. © Tasneem Alsultan

"I've been driving since the day they allowed women to drive," says Tasneem. In June 2018, Saudi Arabia's decades-long driving ban for women was lifted – a story that she also photographed for The New York Times. "Now that I'm driving around Saudi I've been going to regions, cities and towns that I've never had the opportunity to go to before – it's been great.

"The whole reason that I'm travelling across country is to include as many stories on Saudi women as possible. Previously I've only touched the surface because I've only been based in big cities, and now I can go around myself and meet new people and share new stories. There are so many funny stories, and so many that are very important to tell."

Skrevet av Lucy Fulford


Tasneem's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Photographer Tasneem Alsultan holds a Canon DSLR camera and lens in front of a pink wall.

Camera

Canon EOS R

A pioneering full-frame mirrorless camera that sets new standards, with a 30.3MP sensor with impressive detail, ISO performance and Dual Pixel CMOS AF. "It was light, sharp and very easy to use," says Tasneem.

Lenses

Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM

The RF lens that sets new standards in photographic performance, delivering supreme sharpness, extra creative control and a low-light performance that's simply remarkable. Tasneem says: "I loved how it gave that nice bokeh. The images were very soft and very sharp at the same time."

Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM

A wide-angle prime lens with a fast f/1.8 maximum aperture and macro capabilities that delivers a natural perspective. This versatile, high-quality 35mm lens is ideal for street, travel and close-up photography.

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