Imagine. It’s midnight. Your hair and makeup were finished hours ago. You’ve been zipped into your dress, heavy with embellishments, since 8 p.m. Your friends and mother and aunts have poked their heads into the room you occupy to check on you, but they’ve been busy greeting guests for the past few hours and making sure all the lights and flowers in the ballroom are perfect. It’s your wedding day—and you’re alone.
But if you’re lucky, you have photographer Tasneem Alsultan with you.
“We might not have [anything] else to do but chat,” Alsultan says of these nights. “We just start saying, ‘Oh my god, this is your big day! Do you realize that this is just the beginning of your lifetime?’ Some of them, they're young, and they don't. Because that's not something that we talk about. We get so busy with the wedding day, and the grandness of it, that we forget what comes after.”
For Alsultan, “we” means Saudis. Weddings in Saudi Arabia are, culturally, a big deal. There is no religious ceremony. Instead, the celebration is a combination of a fashion show and a bachelorette party. Typically, the guests arrive at 10 p.m. The men enter one ballroom to hang out with the groom, and the women enter another to wait for the bride. In Saudi Arabia, weddings in public venues are always segregated.
At midnight—never before, lest she seem too excited for her own wedding—the bride appears and spends four or five minutes walking down the aisle so everyone can ooh and aah over her. Sometimes, a screen may telecast a live band playing from the room next door. Sometimes, the groom will enter to exchange rings and pose for a few group photographs. Sometimes, he’ll leave and the women will stay up feasting and dancing (without alcohol, of course) until five in the morning. Sometimes, all anyone does is sit in a room that cost $53,000 to rent and decorate.
“They tend to be very boring for an outsider,” Alsultan says, laughing. Fortunately, she’s no outsider. As a Saudi woman herself, Alsultan has changed the game of wedding photography in a very traditional and reserved nation. In the past, wedding photography was merely a few posed shots in front of a backdrop, all over-processed in Photoshop after the festivities.
“There was nothing documentary about it,” she explains. “So initially, my brides would say, ‘Oh, she has a very Western style.’ I kind of didn't like that, because I kept saying it's my style, it's not ‘Western’ style.” Alsultan, who has a master’s degree in social linguistics, was working as an English-language professor at a university when she took up photography as a hobby about six years ago. Since then, she’s captured more than 120 weddings all over the world.
“It was just mundane moments that no one notices, that are so irrelevant in our culture,” she says of the early days. “Here I was, using whatever light I have, and capturing the glimpse of each other, and smiles, and maybe the touches of the hands. Things that nobody told me were important. It's just that it felt like, I need to capture something. I can't spend seven or eight hours shooting group shots and posed images. So that's how it started.”
And in Saudi Arabia, those little moments are hard to come by. Showing emotion is seen as a sign of weakness in Saudi culture. “We don't show our happiness because that can be misconstrued as too overwhelmed and too excited,” she explains. “So then how are you supposed to photograph an event that is supposed to be so special?”
She finds a way, though, and it usually comes through the bond she creates with the bride during those long hours in the waiting room. While they talk, Alsultan almost always asks, "What’s your story?" She’s found that while most marriages have the appearance of an arranged match, many times they’ve come after the couple met and dated in secret. During the group photo session, she’ll ask the groom for his version. “Sometimes I really click with the couple, and we become really good friends later on. They'll take pictures of themselves and send them to me during their honeymoon, and be like, ‘We miss you!’ And only because I met them for six hours during that day. But ... it's such a special day, and it's very heavy with emotion, and everyone else is busy.”
And it’s not just time that creates the bond—it’s the fact that Alsultan is one of them. Saudi weddings are private and intimate, and couples know they can trust Alsultan to understand their culture and practices, that she’ll celebrate with them and not mock or question them.
No matter where she travels—from a ballroom in Saudi Arabia to a field in France to a pig farm in the United States—Alsultan sees a common story in most of the weddings she documents. “We have the same happy moments; we have the same tears,” she says. “I enjoy the weddings that are truly because of respect and attraction. And once those two happen, then it's an amazing wedding, regardless of what the culture and the society is.”