Saturday June 15th, 2024
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Zuhair Al-Traifi & the Chronicles of Saudi Street Life

After focusing on raw, unvarnished portraits, Zuhair Al-Traifi’s eye shifted to capturing the chaos of street life.

Hassan Tarek

Zuhair Al-Traifi & the Chronicles of Saudi Street Life

I first became aware of Zuhair Al-Traifi’s photography earlier this year, when upon coming across his website I discovered a side to Saudi Arabia that seldom makes it to the mainstream. His work highlights the often unnoticed, ephemeral details of daily life, capturing fleeting moments that might otherwise go unobserved. Eager to learn more, I reached out for an interview, and he promptly replied.

Zuhair Al-Traifi began his journey in photography in 2010, capturing portraits with a keen eye for detail. His main aim has always been to capture the essence of his subject— raw and unvarnished. His lens, initially focused on the individual, soon shifted to the broader, more chaotic tableau of the streets in 2013. It was in these streets that Al-Traifi found his true calling, an art form he believes is "sadly overlooked." This sentiment, simple yet profound, found its way through much of our conversation, underscoring a fundamental belief in the untapped potential of street photography. “It is a medium that captures the essence of daily life and places," Al-Traifi tells me.

Upon viewing the transition from his portraiture to street photography, one might say that Al-Traifi has lost his subject. No longer do you see the craggy face of an old man sitting lonesomely at a sidewalk café, staring with profound sadness into the lens, the furrows of his brow exaggerated by his frown. Nor do you see the young girl smiling gaily at the camera with juvenile radiance, delighted to be the centre of attention. But in going beyond the portrait and out in the open, Al-Traifi indeed does find a subject, one that is hidden in plain sight: the street itself.

Each street teems with its own character. Al-Traifi captures everything; from desolate roads to lively corniches to vibrant festivals. With every collection of pictures, he documents the experience in written form and shares it on his website. Al-Traifi is as prolific a writer as he is a photographer.

Street photography for Al-Traifi goes beyond being an artistic endeavour; instead, he sees it more as a personal mission. “What I ultimately hope to create is an important archive for the coming generations,” Al-Traifi says.

His favourite projects involve photographing children playing soccer, their bare feet pounding against harsh terrain, be that asphalt or weedy fields. Some of these children, he observes, play while dressed in the traditional Saudi thobe, using their shoes to mark the boundaries of their games. This is precisely the frame Al-Traifi yearns to find - street material that can be captured in the form of a bona fide snapshot.

For many a street photographer, there exists an imperative to be constantly on the move, covering uncharted domain and capturing what had long gone unnoticed. Al-Traifi understands this impulse, but there is still deep down in his heart and at the back of his mind the desire to go back to his previous subjects and reconnect. His work creates by its very nature an emotional attachment with his subjects that is hard to extinguish, no matter how far he travels. It is an acknowledgment that photography, in its essence, is a chronicle of change, a visual diary of moments that slip through the cracks of human memory. He envisions meeting the same people, capturing their stories anew, and witnessing the evolution of their lives.

Yet Zuhair Al-Traifi’s ambitions extend beyond his native Saudi Arabia. He sees himself taking a hiatus from his photography to travel and see the world, to compare street life in Saudi Arabia with that of other countries, particularly in Africa. He believes it would not only enrich his understanding of the human condition—a goal he has set from the start—but also broaden the scope of his artistic vision.


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