When you first meet Manal, she breaks every stereotype there is about Saudi Arabian women – first by her appearance and second by her character. Passionate about sports, Manal is sporty in every way – evident not only in her photography but also in her character and style. The outgoing, outspoken and conversational 47-year-old dresses in dark-colored roomy jackets on top of loose t-shirts and baggy jeans. Around her make-up free face,
she lightly wraps her signature white scarf, and on her feet, she puts on sports shoes, enabling her to run and capture the perfect picture.
Manal, a wife and mother of five (29 being the eldest and 16, the youngest), moved from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to Qatar in 2011 to follow her career in photography. Today she’s a senior photographer at the Arabic newspaper, Al Watan, where she has been working since she first moved to Qatar. When Manal moved here, she not only left her family behind behind but also her photography studio. Manal Al Dabbagh Studio was Manal’s first professional venture into the field of photography from 2006-2008 – however at this time she was a wedding photographer.
Before delving into the field of photography, Manal was in the field of sales and marketing for about 10 years, working in banks, and advertising and marketing companies in Saudi Arabia. Dropping her sales and marketing path, Manal gave in to her passion for photography and travelled to the UAE, Egypt and the Philippines to take part in photography courses in portrait and nature photography. By 2008, Manal became a professional sports photographer.
I have loved sports since I was a child. My father (may he rest in peace) instilled his love for sports in my siblings and I. Since we were kids, my father used to sit us down and make us watch football with him. We adopted the excitement, focus and love for sports from him. And when I used to watch football games, I used to say ‘Ah, I wish was in the stadium. I really want to be there’ especially when I see the happiness after a win and the audience cheering at a score.’
Manal has subsequently covered a number of football matches such as Bahrain in the World Cup, the finals of the Asian Cup in Kuwait and in Qatar, Arab Games 2011 in Qatar, Khaliji 20 in Yemen and Khaliji 21 in Bahrain. Manal’s big break was covering the 2010 FIFA World Cup
in South Africa, becoming the first Arab female sports photographer to cover such an event. Making it to the World Cup, gave Manal the opportunity to enter Saudi’s stadiums.
When I first entered Saudi’s stadiums, I can’t say I wasn’t afraid. I was excited and afraid at the same time. I was afraid they wouldn’t accept me. After all, I was in Saudi Arabia.’
To shoot at Saudi’s stadiums, Manal needed approval from officials, which she received specifically because she had covered the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. ‘Show us what a Saudi Arabian woman can do!’ an official told Manal. She was blown away by the positive attitude everyone had in her first presence at a sports stadium. Even the photographers from other news agencies in Saudi Arabia were supportive of Manal, teaching her their photography skills and techniques. By being there, Manal made history by being the first woman to enter Saudi’s stadiums.
Around the third or fourth half, the audience were cheering my name like they would cheer the names of the football players.’
The next day, a headline in one of Saudi Arabia’s newspapers read ‘Manal Steals Yasir Al Qahtani’s Show’. Yasir Al Qahtani is a popular Saudi Arabian striker, who currently plays for Al-Hilal FC in Saudi Professional League.
In 2010, Manal received an award for ‘Best Sports Photographer’ from HH Faisal bin Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the governor of Asir Province and member of House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, and awarded to her by Al Qahtani.
A collector of old cameras, Manal has a collection of 1,600 old cameras but she’s not stopping there. ‘I want to collect 2,000 cameras,’ she says.
Many regional Arabic newspapers and magazines including Marie Claire, Rotana, Sayidatyand Khaliji have interviewed Manal for entering a traditionally man’s forte as the first Arab female sports photographer.
The field of sports photography is dominated by men. Stadiums are always full of men so for a woman, who’s an Arab especially Saudi Arabian, to enter the fields carrying heavy cameras with focus and talent, astonishes everyone. People say they’re proud of me, ‘our hand is on yours and you’re an ambassador for the country [Saudi Arabia].’
The media and her followers named Manal the ‘Ambassador of Saudi Arabia’, the ‘Lens of Saudi Arabia and the ‘Photographer of Arab Light’.
I found the people of Saudi Arabia as cooperative. I found them to be happy and proud of my media coverage. They were responsive and that’s when and how I got my inspiration and courage to do what I do. If the people of Saudi Arabia accept me especially as a woman then that’s enough!’
For more information on Manal Al Dabbagh and her photography, visit her Facebook page (which has nearly 3,000)!