I run a unique and original photo booth company. Most of our work comes from the US, but it’s not uncommon to get emails about jobs in far off places like China or the UK, so receiving an email about a twelve-day job in Saudi Arabia was only slightly out of the ordinary. The surprising part was the time frame; we were given only two weeks notice paired with a request for bank account information so they could wire us the deposit immediately.
I responded cautiously, since this seemed too good to be true and asked for more details and to set up a call. A call came immediately. It was from the event producer who wanted our booth for a twelve-day party in Saudi Arabia, sponsored by one of the world’s largest oil company to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
My partner, Ryan Warnberg and I have been running our light painting photobooth, where we draw with light via long exposure photography, for a couple years now. It’s taken us all over the world, but never to anywhere this distant from the United States, both geographically and culturally. We were equal parts excited, confused, and nervous. A contract was sent out and a deposit wired. Everything cleared. We were going to Saudi Arabia in two weeks!
That’s when the reality of putting together one of biggest jobs ever set in. We had to file rush visas, rent equipment, book flights, and train another photographer since Ryan would be unable to go due to family obligations. This meant finding someone to drop everything for twelve days and fly out to Saudi Arabia with just over a week’s notice. Luckily, an amazing photographer and dear friend Brian Offidani came through.
Visas were filed and expedited with the help of our massive oil company sponsor. Travel plans were booked by our contact at the events company, who advised me to read up on Saudi culture so that I would know how to behave appropriately there, as a woman.
At seven days out, every minute felt like the last. Ryan and I spent all our time training Brian, prepping gear, ironing out the shoot details, and waiting for our work visas. We waited and waited. The event producer was getting impatient. I was getting worried. Then, at five days to go, we were still missing the one thing we needed to access this foreign country—our visas.
Finally, approval came, but just for Brian. My application was unable to be processed. Our contact explained that it would be unusual for a woman, unmarried and under the age of thirty-five, to work in Saudi Arabia, especially a Westerner. Even with our powerful oil backers it was a cultural difference that would be difficult to overcome. Calls were made, but it was futile. I would not be working in Saudi Arabia, because I was female.
My application was unable to be processed. The producer explained that it would be unusual for a woman, unmarried and under the age of thirty-five, to work in Saudi Arabia.
I cried. Out of anger, out of sheer disappointment. This was one of our biggest jobs ever. This was the opportunity to see all my hard work pay off and it was swiped right out from under me for the simple fact that I was not man. As an American, it was hard to grasp. I am the type of woman who would stand up and fight against anyone who made me feel less or told me I was unable to do something because I was female. However, this was something I could not logically argue. There was nothing I could do. I had no choice but to keep it together, hunker down, and figure out what man could go in my place. It was infuriating.
Luckily, Brian had a friend who could replace me, also named Brian. Brian Hahn. At this point, I sacrificed all sleep and hustled to train him and line up all of his paperwork.
With two days to go,our valiant stand-in Brian Hahn’s visa went through. Now all they had to do was execute a twelve-day photo booth in the middle of the desert. Thousands of miles away. Without me. Piece of cake.
I went with them to the airport, and as I watched them walk back towards their gate, I felt helpless. There I was, sending two guys to a country with a set of beliefs I’d only read about on Wikipedia. A place so culturally different it is hard to even grasp. It was out of my hands. Off they went, to represent the company I’d work so hard to create.
Despite some major culture shock, logistical issues, and run-ins with the Saudi Military that I can not really elaborate on (ask the Brians), the event was a success. These two incredible photographers, on our behalf, created and captured a truly beautiful and compelling set of portraits showing the faces of a culture in celebration, with light painting as a backdrop. They were photos that I had to experience from afar. As my company experienced one of the richest, most challenging jobs in its short life, I had to watch from the sidelines.
Still, I could not help but be proud, and forever in debt to the two Brians for their amazing work. I made a sacrifice for the company I built, and my reward came in the form of these bizarre yet beautiful photographs. The images captured by the Brians transcended in their beauty the stress and cultural barriers that almost prevented them from happening.
At the request of my client, we’re not displaying any of the photographs that have women in them.
Download LightBomber, available in the AppStore, to create lightpaintings of your own.