Behind closed doors in Saudi Arabia. Interview with Olivia Arthur

In 2009, photographer Olivia Arthur ( to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to teach a photography class for women.

Over the course of the two-week workshop, the students befriended Olivia and invited her into their homes. There, behind the high walls of the city’s subdivisions, Olivia saw a side of Saudi Arabia most travelers never experience: the daily lives of women living in an ultra-conservative country with strict rules about what they can and can’t do.

In her recently-released book Jeddah Diary, Olivia shares photos and notes documenting what she saw.  On its pages, women wearing long black abayas and head coverings – the mandated public uniform for women – sip tea at a hostel. They swim in loose bathing suits that only expose their faces, hands and feet. In one photo, a woman peers out a heavily-curtained window. Women cannot travel in Saudi Arabia without permission from a male guardian.

Six years before Jeddah Diary’s release, Olivia traveled to Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Russia to capture the struggles and triumphs of women living in worlds that straddle eastern and western concepts of equality. Her projects took her to Iran and eventually Saudi Arabia.

“It was the hardest place I ever worked,” Olivia said.

Inside the Jeddah home, her friend’s abayas and head coverings came off. But they asked Olivia not to reveal their identities as she documented their lives. A bare arm covers the face of a woman watching TV. The flap of a tent set up indoors obscures all but the legs and arms of a woman inside. A post-production flash covers the face of a woman swimming in a western-style suit.

Over the course of the trips there were conversations about the differences between Saudi and western concepts of equal rights. Most of the women Olivia met wanted to focus on the positive.

“Some women were very defensive about how they’re portrayed in western media. They’re like, ‘look, we have our freedoms, we do what we want.’” Olivia said. “Eventually I stopped pushing it. Who am I to tell you what you should consider as freedom?”

When Olivia started out in photography she left her life in London to work in India for a year. There was less competition there and, equally convenient, lower costs of living. She had the time to strengthen her skills and voice.

Still, if she could go back in time, she would encourage herself to slow down and not worry so much about getting published.

“I think that when you’re a young photographer you want everything,” Olivia said. “I suppose I should have taken took time to think more about the work, not just what I wanted it to achieve.”

This Yodel by Helen Anne Travis



Olivia Arthur

Place you live: 


Tell us about your hometown: 

I live in Hackney. It’s a very young and multicultural part of London. It was traditionally considered rundown and a bit rough. Many creative types have moved here in the past 10 to 15 years.

Best place to shop:

Ridley Road Market. It’s a very lively market

Best park:

Lee Valley. It’s a great green space.

Favorite pub:

The Three Compasses. It’s our local pub. We know the guys there. They’re very friendly and they make great burgers.

Best place for a date:

L’Entrepôt. It’s a French wine bar and restaurant. It’s very nice. And very relaxed.