This is the second installment in a five-part series from TIME International’s annual Summer Journey issue, Travels Through Islam: Discovering a world of change and challenge in the footsteps of the 14th century explorer Ibn Battuta.
My assignment was to photograph love and dating among Saudi Arabian youth—one of the most impenetrable subjects to document. In a closed society like Saudi Arabia, most people are extremely concerned about their reputations among peers and among elders, and young people who are viewed as too open are often not viewed as appropriate potential marriage partners. They keep their private lives guarded, and if you happen to be privy to their intimate tales, it is often on a first-name-only basis for print—and rarely are you able to take pictures. Love and dating is one of the oldest stories of all time, but in Saudi Arabia, it is one of the most taboo.
For the first week, I wasn’t able to make any pictures outside of the clichés – Saudis shopping in malls and women in abayas on the street. While Aryn Baker, my colleague, was diving deep into people’s dating lives with words, I couldn’t even take out my camera without provoking immediate recoils and sneers. I was growing more and more frustrated.
I had worked in Saudi pretty extensively in 2004, photographing the royal family, successful women in the Kingdom, and a story on Jehadists who turned liberal after spending time in prison, and had great luck on all occasions. But for this story, every door was closed—until we went to Jeddah.
Though still governed by the same traditions and cultural stigmas as Riyadh, Jeddah is much more open. Even still, most of my favorite images couldn’t be published. We didn’t want to create problems for the people in the photos: from the young man flashing us his phone number as he tried to pick us up on a Thursday night in Riyadh to the men and women jet-skiing, swimming, and playing around together in the sea outside of Jeddah.
Lynsey Addario is a freelance photographer based in Delhi on assignment for TIME in Saudi Arabia.
In part one of the Summer Journey series, Dominic Nahr photographed Ibn Battuta’s path into sub-Saharan Africa. Check back tomorrow for part three of the series.
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