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Photographing Raqs: Exploring a new artistic challenge

 Zoya Amir Gauhar / Zoya Amir Photography
Zoya Amir Gauhar / Zoya Amir Photography

Two weeks ago, I got a frantic text from my beloved friend — her belly dancing group was in need of a photographer who could take some impromptu shots of their dress rehearsal the evening before opening night. 

Of course, I had seen Raqs perform the year before as a supportive friend in the audience. I was familiar with the members’ dynamic stage presence and lighting components, the fast and percussive movements that dictate their performances — but only as an audience member. 

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The prospect of taking photos for them was intriguing as an amatuer photographer, but I knew it was going to be a challenge. 

Generally speaking, my style as a photographer focuses on natural sunlight, still life, and portraiture. From moving curtains to allow natural sunlight in to incorporating old photo prints from my childhood, I have come to shoot in a very distinctive style that was certainly quite different from the dynamic performance photography that would be needed to appropriately capture the fierceness of my subject matter.


Selected photos from my VIS213 final series, “Assalamualaikum means Peace Be Upon You” Zoya Amir Photography / Zoya Amir Gauhar


I knew going into the dress rehearsal that I would have to create a very specific approach in taking the photos, one different from what I was used to.

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I was up for the challenge, knowing that I would be able to improve as an artist through the experience. 

Beyond just the mechanical elements of photography, such as shutter speed, ISO, and aperture, I had to look at how I, the photographer, chose to present the art I was capturing. 

In photography, we often discuss the dynamic of the eye of the photographer on subject matter. Historically, we often see marginalized communities being captured by photographers coming from places of power, and female subjects being captured by the male eye. 

The dynamic of my taking photos for the Raqs was quite different from the norm. Being that Raqs emphasizes that belly dancing was originally performed in the Middle East “by women and for women,” it was interesting to introduce the dynamic of a female, Muslim photographer capturing the group’s performance. 

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The photos that resulted were different from what may have been produced from a different eye. General themes of fierceness and grace prevail throughout the photos. 

In particular, I wanted the viewer to feel the same sense of intimacy I felt, being the only outsider viewing the performance prior to opening night.  

The following shots are some selected images from the final photo series, each emulating a particular trait I wished to capture as I embarked on photographing their performance.


Expression. I took over 2000 shots the night of the dress rehearsal. Photographing fast movement in low lighting conditions can be a tricky business, but when it came down to narrowing down the shots that would make the final cut, emotion played a key role in my decision. Here, the viewer sees an intimate, determined expression, balanced out by dynamic lighting.


Grace: A solo performance in any setting is an intimate moment between the performer and the audience. Having the opportunity to capture the solo performances as the sole member of the audience during the dress rehearsal allowed for the intimacy of this moment to be reflected in the photos. An interesting dynamic — the soloist was being captured by the sole eye in the audience.


EMERALD. Alongside my own preferences, it was important to create work that was reflective of the show. The 2020 Raqs show was entitled “Emerald,” with jewel-stone-themed numbers dominating the performances. The use of the dynamic lighting that was a part of the show was instrumental in creating work reflective of the theme.


Fierce. I was quite lucky to have such confident subjects. I wanted the final shots of the show to reflect the strength and fierceness I felt from the performers while watching them, both as an audience member and as a photographer. Part of this came from expression and from using my vantage point from below the stage to my advantage.


Movement: A big component of the Raqs show is their use of drapery, scarves, and other props, giving me the ability to have a lot of fun with shutter speed while shooting their performance. Fast shutter speeds have the ability to freeze fast movements when timed well, and I tried to use this skill to give a sense of movement and rhythm to a subset of the photos.


Joy. This shot is one of my top favorites from the series, quite possibly because it somehow emulates the sunlight I am so used to shooting with. Alongside wanting the photos to reflect fierceness, I wanted the photos to additionally highlight the pure joy of performance.

In the end, I was happy with how the photos turned out. I had challenged myself and tried something new stylistically. 

Throughout the process, I had the ability to learn more about my own capabilities as a photographer. Shooting performance photography was extremely active; I had to be on my feet at all times, ready to change the settings on my camera in the moment to best capture the shot at hand.

Moreover, I was able to experience the show in two completely different ways. During the dress rehearsal, I had a behind-the-scenes view and experienced the show intimately in a way that allowed for the best shots. 

Opening night, I was once again watching through my lens, this time videotaping the show, experiencing it all with the full stops, filled with a crowd teeming with excitement. 

As a whole, being this year’s photographer for Raqs was an extremely rewarding experience. I was given the opportunity to practice my craft and experience a wonderful show with a distinct energy. 

And of course, the second time around, I certainly danced along to the show while standing behind my tripod — it wouldn’t be a Raqs show without it!

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