A photographer's first visit to the Kingdom leaves a lasting impression

A photographer's first visit to the Kingdom leaves a lasting impression

While no stranger to the Middle East, photographer Tinko Czetwertynski's debut visit to Saudi was eye-opening in every way
17 November 23
Tinko Czetwertynski First Impressions of Saudi

Raised and rooted in Brazil, I’ve been lucky enough to explore the world through my work as a photographer.

When it comes to the Middle East in particular, I’ve been a frequent visitor to places such as Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, and even lived in Beirut. However, my recent trip to Saudi marked my first time in the Kingdom, and I loved it. It was an incredible experience – unlike anything I had imagined.

My work in Kuwait usually focuses on capturing family portraits, whereas in the UAE, I’m often on assignment for magazines and brands. However, my debut visit to Saudi was very different. I’d wanted to visit for a long time, but previous attempts didn’t work out due to scheduling conflicts.

This time, however, everything fell into place perfectly. It felt all the more fascinating as the country is going through a fantastic period, and I could feel the positive energy all around. Everything in Saudi feels natural and deeply rooted in rich heritage and tradition. During my time there, I had the opportunity to explore a museum in Jeddah that showcased Saudi and Islamic cultures – an experience that opened my eyes to a different way of understanding both.

A Glimpse into Heritage

I was surprised by the beauty of the city, especially during the National Day celebrations. The streets were filled with Saudi families, rejoicing in the day’s spirit. It was a wonderful glimpse into the local culture. Jeddah’s Old Town was particularly captivating, with its intricate patterns and wall murals. The fascination doubled when a friend who works with the Ministry of Culture took me on a tour of Bait Al Balad, a museum in Al Balad. Built in the 20th century, it is one of the oldest houses in the city, and was eventually restored and transformed into the museum. I also spent a lot of time exploring Jeddah and Riyadh by car, absorbing every frame of both cities.

An Immersive Journey

As a professional who spends a good amount of time editing and selecting images on the computer, I had heard that kohl could enhance the eyes. So, while in Riyadh, I set out to find this traditional eyeliner. I ventured into Souk Al Zal, an old part of the city, and was fascinated by the presence of earth-made houses amid the capital’s modernity. I walked through painted doors, old mosques, charming alleys, and finally, my hunt for kohl took me to a small shop tucked away in a corner of the souk. It was a meaningful experience that added to my understanding of Saudi culture.

Changing Perceptions

On this trip, I had the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations with Saudi women (thanks to mutual contacts and acquaintances). I was deeply impressed by their elegance and grace, and to learn how they are today a driving force in art, culture, fashion, and many other domains. Meeting women of the Kingdom was also an enlightening lesson for me. You see, in Brazil, the niqab is an uncommon sight, so I unfortunately had my own preconceived notions about it. However, being in Saudi and seeing it worn with such confidence and individuality made me realise that it’s just one facet of a person’s identity.

A Unique Lens

The Kingdom is a rich and colourful tapestry in every way – let’s just say my camera never left my hand during my visit. I’ve always been drawn to vibrant colours in my work (there’s a paradoxical harmony between my love for vividness and my desire to capture the natural essence of my subjects.) As a child, I was fortunate enough to live in India with my family, which influenced my imagination with its lively hues and experiences – from the hillsides of Dharamshala to the palaces of maharajas, and those incredible national parks. These formative experiences greatly shaped my artistic vision, and I strive to infuse a sense of wonder into my photography – a quality that features in the photos of my first trip to the Kingdom.

Lasting Impressions

The cultural aspect is quite strong and Saudi feels like a traditionally sound country – in comparison to other cities in the region with hardly any locals in sight. I also really like its music and listen to a lot of Mohammed Abdo. Additionally, I’m in awe of all the anecdotes and stories about the land. One of the many stories that fascinated me was the origin of the kiswa covering the Kaaba. I was told that a family in Egypt used to make it and send a caravan to transport it. The fabric itself was carried to its final destination with a lot of celebration. All these stories seem straight out of a Hollywood movie.

One of the most striking aspects of my visit was how different the country is from the image it has abroad. Not only as an Arab nation but as a land that is so diverse. This short trip definitely shattered misconception after misconception, and fostered a deep appreciation for the authenticity that defines Saudi. To add to that, the privilege of meeting warm people, capturing their portraits, and exploring the unique beauty of the country was something special. I gained a deeper appreciation for the diversity and depth of its customs. It was also great to witness the booming cultural scene with its many exhibitions, biennales, and festivals.

People seem to be very upbeat about the future, which makes me want to come back. My initial experiences were unmatched, and I look forward to returning in January to continue my exploration and photographic journey, discovering more of AlUla, the coastal beaches, and the Red Sea. Until then, I’ve brought back some kohl, Saudi coffee, frankincense, and attar to satiate my senses.

Words of photographer Tinko Czetwertynski, as interviewed by Anjala Farahath.