Photographer Ayesha Malik was born half a mile from one of the world’s most significant oil reserves in Saudi Arabia. The place she calls home is Dhahran, a gated community that opened in 1938 for employees of the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), now known as the Saudi Arabian Oil Company. Although it exists within one of the most conservative countries in the world, Dhahran has its own distinct culture and set of rules, making it resemble a typical American suburb: there are Boy Scout meetings, youth baseball leagues, and Christmas lights on lawns. Outside the neat borders of Dhahran, women need a male guardian’s permission to travel and aren’t allowed to drive. “It’s the most normal and simple life you can imagine, with a distinct layer of complexity, which is what makes it special and beautiful,” Malik says of her hometown. “I think it breaks down the barriers — it’s not just home in America, it’s home in Saudi Arabia.”
An American citizen of Pakistani descent, Malik decided to revisit Dhahran in 2011, while studying photography at Parsons the New School of Design in New York City. She returned several times in 2016 with her camera, determined to explore Dhahran as a nexus of cultures. Her striking photographs appear in the new book ARAMCO: Above the Oil Fields, out August 15 from Daylight Books. Her images of mothers and children picnicking in the park, or a girl sitting among a tower of stuffed animals, paint a nuanced portrait of life for Aramcons, as Dhahran’s citizens call themselves.
She said she hopes her photos will offer up “the human card,” making readers understand universal themes that bind us all. “Are there problems [in Saudi Arabia]? Yes. But I find that women in Saudi Arabia, especially the ones that I meet, are bold and forward-thinking and have minds of their own, have never let any obstacle get in the way of whatever it is that they need to get done and achieve,” she says. “We all draw these differences between us, but there’s something to be said about this environment where, differences aside, at the heart of it all, it’s just people trying to build lives and take care of their families and have a childhood.” See a selection of Malik’s photos in the slideshow ahead.
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