The global award in photography and sustainability

Jacqueline Hassink

Arab Domains

Arab Domains is a follow-up to Female Power Stations: Queen Bees (1996-2000), a project in which I portrayed fifteen women who were senior executives of 1997 Global Fortune 500 corporations in the United States, Europe and Japan. These executives contributed to the project by permitting me to photograph their office boardroom tables and home dining room tables.

In 2001 Female Power Stations: Queen Bees was presented to Mrs. Al Kaylani, chairwoman of the London-based Arab International Women’s Forum (AIWF). Later that year I proposed a similar project focusing on Arab women business leaders, and Mrs. Al Kaylani agreed to collaborate with me on Arab Domains.

In each Arab country Mrs. Al Kaylani and I searched for the most successful and powerful female business leaders. All participating women are of Arab nationality, and at least one woman from each Arab country is included in the project. The AIWF and I approached about fifty Arab Women Business Leaders to participate in the project. Finally thirty-six women from eighteen Arab countries (Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen) participated in Arab Domains.

In preparation of the trip I send out a questionnaire to the women as well as a letter how to prepare for my visit. I requested to photograph their boardroom table at the headquarters and their dining table at home. The meeting table had to be empty and the dining table had to be set up in a way that she was expecting important guest to come to visit (table cloth, flowers, beautiful plates, etc., but no food).

‘Domains of Influence’ Interview with Charlotte Cotton

Jacqueline Hassink’s photographs have a seemingly effortless simplicity to them. Her choice of vantage points carefully positions the viewer as an observer onto each scene. Hassink’s unembellished but exacting approach reveals her subjects on both surface and structural levels.

Jacqueline Hassink is well known within the photography arena for having created bodies of work, brilliantly designed as books and exhibition prints that centre on the theme of economic power. The Table of Power (1993–5), Banks (1995–6), Female Power Stations: Queen Bees (1996–2000) and Mindscapes (1998–2003) are all visual, graphic and sociological mappings of the axes of global economic structures. For Hassink, the literal site of the table is key; a device for mapping the hierarchical structures and ‘unseen’ characters behind the world of international business. In this book, Domains of Influence,which draws from her Arab Domains series, Hassink continues to investigate this loaded symbol of power.

Hassink trained as a sculptor, developing work that played with concepts of perspective and space. She began early to explore the form and symbolism of tables; making and photographing them and merging their positions and structures in order to analyse social organization. Gradually she distilled the process, becoming a ‘photographer’ by default; yet she is also a clear and creative communicator of the issues and structures with which her work is concerned.

Hassink’s work navigates the terrain of art photography both through creativity and pragmatism. The simplicity of her photographs belies the ambitious processes and logistic complexity involved in gaining access to the sites of her chosen subjects. Her projects involve an enormous amount of preparation, in negotiations, travel arrangements and schedules that are all too easily toppled by glitches along the way. In each body of work, Hassink uses the same camera and film stock and only uses natural light, which speaks of a need for order and standardization but also of the importance of a clear system of production. This method can be seen as a device for overcoming the practical hurdles of realizing these global projects. Yet it may equally be read as a tight conceptual framework. Whilst the best contemporary art photographs may seem effortless – graceful moments frozen on photographic film – they are equally contingent on rigorous and pragmatic processes.

This complex pre-shoot process is in contrast to the intense moment, invariably no longer than an hour, during which Hassink gains access to the seats of power. Hassink captures the fleeting psychological impressions of each new space and creatively transforms them into ‘maps’ of the structures and personalities that have shaped them.

CC: The first thing that strikes me about Arab Domains is its continuity with other works you created in the 1990s – both in terms of the subject, businesswomen from the Arab world, and in its exploration of the table as a symbol of personal and professional power. How does Arab Domains relate to your earlier work?

JH: Arab Domains is a follow-up to Female Power Stations: Queen Bees, a

project I worked on from 1996 to 2000, in which I portrayed 15 women who were senior executives working in companies cited in Fortune magazine’s annual listing of the top 500 largest corporations in the world. These executives allowed me to photograph their office boardroom tables and home dining room tables.

CC: In retrospect, do you see Queen Bees as a pilot for Arab Domains?

JH: I don’t think that Queen Bees was a pilot project – I think it is one part of my ongoing investigation into the identity of economic power. In the projects The Table of Power, Banks, Female Power Stations: Queen Bees and Mindscapes I mapped the global economy by focusing on top CEOs and large corporations such as banks and multinationals. I learned especially about female identity and power from both The Table of Power and Queen Bees and they led me to explore what was, for me, an unknown area – Arab businesswomen. I wanted to discover whether there was a split or a sharing of values between the equally important spheres of family and business for these women, through the site of the tables where the decisions about their families, businesses and lives were formally played out. The concept was very simple: what does the Arab boardroom look like and what parallel would the dining table create?

CC: Even with your experience, I imagine that a project such as this must involve a great deal of new research. More than this, as a Westerner with a camera, wanting to gain access to and photograph women’s private homes, you were entering very sensitive territory. Can you tell me how you found out about the businesswomen whose spaces you portrayed and also how you approached them?

JH: In 2001, I was introduced to Mrs Al Kaylani, Founder and Chairwoman of the important London-based network the Arab International Women’s Forum (AIWF). Following our meeting we discussed the possibility of a project focusing on Arab women business leaders and the AIWF agreed to collaborate. The AIWF kindly introduced me to most of the Arab businesswomen who were invited to participate in the project. In each Arab country Mrs Al Kaylani and I searched for the most successful and powerful female business leaders. All the women who participated are of Arab nationality: the 36 participants come from 18 Arab countries (Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen). The main written sources for the research included the magazine Forbes Arabia, which published information on the most high-profile businesswomen in the Arab world, some of whom participated in Arab Domains. Identifying female Arab business leaders was definitely more difficult than finding their counterparts in the United States, Europe or Japan since most large and well-known Arab companies are private or state owned.

CC: Was this project consciously about raising awareness of contemporary Arabic businesswomen?

JH: In the West, we receive a negative and stereotypical image of Arab women. I was definitely driven to create a project that could show a different and unknown aspect of Arab women’s lives. I was searching for more complexity and variation and I hope it will be a catalyst for more positive images of the Arab world than have appeared in the media over the last few years.

CC: Why was this your cause?

JH: I have wanted recently to create work that has a function in contemporary society. I have noticed over the years that my work is not only appreciated in the art world but also in other areas of society. For example, architectural, sociological, and economic readings have all been welcome contributions to the way I think about the work. It is a great thrill to create art that focuses on extraordinary Arab women who are not presented at all in the West. Most people that I talk to in the Western world have little idea that there are Arab businesswomen who run companies with revenues of US$ 300 million dollar and 9,000 employees. They are not aware, for example, of the extraordinary Saudi Arabian woman, the only Saudi woman with a Ph.D. in monetary economics, who is the first woman to head a bank in the Gulf region. The Arab world is of great importance in the world we live in and I think that we need to build a bridge to try to understand each other better.

CC: Do you think you benefited from or were hindered in making this investigation by being an outsider?

JH: Arab Domains is far more difficult and complex than most of my projects because, as an outsider, it has been very difficult to obtain entry into the Arab world. I knew I wanted to take on that challenge but you can’t do this without being prepared to research really carefully, and to understand the complexity of the culture and, in particular, the position of women. The Arab world includes many countries with different cultures; the only things they have in common are faith and language. It has been a challenge to understand the position of powerful Arab businesswomen – they are navigating against general cultural expectations of women. The project focuses on the corporate world because it is one of the most challenging environments for women to succeed in and especially to do so while maintaining the respect and support of their families.

CC: From the way that this book is compiled, I think you get a very clear sense of the specificity of these individual women’s environments and also a sense of their context in the business world. Cumulatively, the photographs and the answers to the questionnaires build a very stable feeling; that you are not just dealing with a handful of exceptions but the beginning of a highly significant shift in the role Arab women play in business. But can you say more about whether you felt these women represented a growing future for Arab women or did it feel much more that these were exceptional women and circumstances?

JH: There are definitely positive movements in women’s public positioning in the Arab world but it will take time and it will be done in a way that fits the Arab world and not the Western mentality. In general, most of the Arab women whose tables I photographed come from a middle-class or upper-class family where the fathers were politicians (ministers), doctors or businessmen. Supported by their parents, most of the businesswomen were highly educated and most educated abroad. Some of the women inherited their CEO positions in their fathers’ businesses. Others started their own businesses independently. Another group are based in Europe. In general, for Arab women to succeed in business the support of their families, governments and organizations is crucial.

CC: Did you have contact with the businesswomen before you met them?

JH: In preparation for the trip, I sent a questionnaire to the women as well as a letter. I asked to photograph their boardroom table at the headquarters and their dining table at home. The boardroom table had to be bare and the dining table had to be set up as if important guests were expected (tablecloth, flowers, beautiful china, etc., but no food). The women displayed their best tableware and some of them commissioned a florist to create a centrepiece. The questionnaire was set up to get a better understanding of their private life, their business life and the identity of the tables that I photographed. The answers are used in the captions that accompany the photographs in the book. Some of the questions asked for factual information such as confirmation of their nationality, business position and company revenue. Other questions were much more open and their answers give a sense of the individual women and how they perceive their place in Arabic and business culture. One of the questions was: ‘Is there any advice that you can give to a younger generation of Arab businesswomen as to how they can succeed in business.’ Their answers are highly pertinent as this is the first generation of businesswomen in the Arab world, actively planting the seeds of acceptance for future Arab businesswomen.

CC: Practically, how did you set up your journeys?

JH: I wanted to visit strict Muslim countries such as Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen, where women are more accepted when travelling with a man. I therefore travelled on most of the trips with a friend of my deceased mother, Mr Cor van der Hout, a retired businessman and a former member of the Dutch Marine Corps. In more liberal Muslim countries I travelled alone.

The project was spread out over nine trips. I usually worked one day on each sitting, starting in the headquarters with an interview with the participant whose spaces I was going to photograph. We talked about the questionnaire, their youth, their education and their career path. Then I photographed the boardroom. In the afternoon we visited their house where the dining table was already set up. After the photo shoot some of the women invited us to join them for lunch, which was served at their beautifully decorated dining tables.

CC: Did you get a sense that these women had been asked to visualize their position in business before? Did you feel that these were things that they had been asked before?

JH: I had a feeling that they had never been asked to be interviewed from this angle, although some of the women have been portrayed in a traditional way for both glossy magazines and the business press. These businesswomen welcomed me and allowed me to portray their dual roles as businesswomen and home-makers through this unusual approach to portraiture.

CC: You’ve just described your photographs as ‘portraits’. Tell me why.

JH: I create a portrait of a person by photographing their private and public domains, focusing on tables where they gather with either their family members or their executives at work. Both groups of people play an important role in the women’s lives and in most cases the women head the table. The shapes of the tables, the materials, the decorations and the interiors of the rooms reflect their identity and give us information on who they are. This kind of portraiture reveals a great deal about the businesswomen and how people create their work and life environments to reflect their cultures and also their personalities. The positions that people take at the boardroom table and at the dining table lend additional insight into their personalities.

CC: The very methodical sense of this project is borne out in the final images – there’s a sense of you working systematically, gaining access, choosing the correct vantage point onto each dining and boardroom table. But perhaps this belies what you seem to be suggesting here – that there is a degree of emotional engagement with the women. Do you think it feeds into the project in a visual way? Or is it rather that this is what you go through to reach your images?

JH: I know I take my impression of their character with me into their environments and use it to create the identity of the spaces. At the same time, I am also thinking about how their personalities relate to elements in the space. This whole process is very precise and it takes a lot of energy – both physical and psychological. I always try to photograph in a very respectful way and you might consider it as emotionally engaged photography.

CC: You describe your working process in a very methodical way. A method can also be a concept – and within art practice, the notion of a methodology being a form of conceptual practice is very well established. It forms the basis for much high-profile contemporary art photography. Do you make a connection between your photography and contemporary art practice?

JH: Yes I do, I consider myself an artist and not a photographer. I came ‘late’ to photography – I was 27 years old when I first picked up a camera to express an artistic idea, which became The Table of Power. Using photography felt like a very logical progression for me as an artist and the kind of work that I wanted to make. I could combine ideas and objects that I had been working with in my sculpture in a much more successful way. Also, I could physically put together disparate geographical sites in photographs as exhibition prints and books in a way that was increasingly important to the artistic investigations I wanted to make. There was a very positive critical reaction to The Table of Power – to both the exhibition and the book – and this encouraged me to continue working with photography and expand the concepts I was interested in around business and power. I think my way of working with photography – because it started with an essentially pragmatic decision to use a camera – was circuitously related to important strands of contemporary art photography since the 1990s. I am fascinated by the ‘unseen’ networks that govern our economic world and this, as a concept for art making, also tallies with photography’s current expression as art. I wasn’t formally educated in art photography, nor, at first, was I very conscious of how my work could be related to high-profile photographers or artists using photography. I think that has also helped me because it allows my method of working to be really true to the investigation rather than be purely about making pictures that are convincing solely as a gallery experience.

CC: Do you think that there is sometimes confusion between the obvious beauty of some of the interiors that you photographed for this project and the idea of photographic beauty?

JH:  That’s the battle, sometimes. I think it’s tempting to look at photographs on just the level of their compositional and formal qualities and not give due consideration of the content of the photographs. My photographs have meaningful subjects. I didn’t select them because of how they look photographically.  I do have an aesthetic point of view but I don’t decide what to photograph based on how I can translate it into an image.

CC: Are you ever disappointed with how a space looks when you see it for the first time?

JH:  Yes, of course.  Some of the dining and boardrooms are immediately visually interesting to me whereas others can lack an immediate specificity or character.  But there is always something in a room that can inspire me. More than this, there is a framework for this project that means that every subject contained within it is important.  It means that none of the boardrooms or dining rooms is ever going to fail because of how it looks. These are the rules of the work!  If I deviate from this, I don’t think it maintains its fascination for me or the viewer.  On the other hand, there are particular places where I now see that I have a deeper connection to – there’s something in the colours and dimensions that I respond to strongly and keep on going back to.  I think it’s the richness of some of the rooms and their celebration of life that is outstanding for me. But this project needs discipline and precision, which means that every room, every woman this represents demands the same level of concentration and crafting of the picture.

CC: What have you gained from the experience of working on this book?

JH: It has been an amazing journey to be welcomed into the lives of these 36 extraordinary businesswomen and to visit all the Arab countries. The hospitality and kindness that I have encountered will always be in my memory. Through the long journey of nine individual trips, I have gradually captured and understood the lives of Arab businesswomen and the difficulties they have to face in order to succeed. Each of the participating women has her own individual path to success. Arab women are proud of their families and in conversations they mix their private and public life in a very natural way whereas Western businesswomen are not encouraged to talk about their private lives in the working environment. The other experiences are photographic ones; I now truly know that I can create bodies of work that are global and highly ambitious on practical and technical levels. Of course, I think the more photographs I take, the more I learn about photography! But perhaps I have learned that the most resounding truth about photography for me is that it’s my way to access experience and understanding that I could not reach by any other means.

Jacqueline Hassink