Dhahran in an interesting city. It has no ancient monuments and age-old traditions that instill collective pride in its natives. More importantly it has no real natives. No one lived here till 1938, when oil was discovered in its vicinity and oil seekers set up camp. In Dhahran is Aramco’s (Arabian American Oil Company) – now Saudi Aramco – headquarters and its largest gated, residential community occupied entirely by employees and their families.
Ayesha Malik’s family is among those that call Dhahran home. Like many around her, her identity is layered by simultaneously belonging to several places at once; to Dhahran but also to her home countries America and Pakistan, where her family has their roots.
It was only in her 20s, after moving to New York to study photography at Parsons School of Design that she became aware of her unique upbringing. The peculiarity of Dhahran, with its imported palm trees, manicured gardens, dusty oil fields and dual language road signs became more apparent to her.
As it often is, stepping away heightens our awareness of what left behind. “Before Parsons, I was making photographs in Dhahran for personal memory,” she recalls. “Towards the end of my time at Parsons, I started to question why I was drawn to certain things and what it said about me, about the world, I grew more concerned about the why.”
She returned with a camera, this time viewing Dhahran from both the outside and the inside simultaneously. Both her brief distance from her hometown and the fact that her father was retiring from Aramco, created an urgency in her documenting this world. She began noticing things she had missed.
“I realised after being born in and living in Dhahran for so long, about 23 years, I had never noticed all the wells, and high-pressure oil lines and signs on camp. I must have been looking more closely through a lens. We really were living above the oil fields. We were just too busy living our lives, being settled, to even notice.”
Her photographs from the series have now been brought together in a book titled Aramco: Above the Oil Fields. The title, she says, is deliberately vague. You go in expecting the surplus and extravagance often associated with the oil industry. But what you find is a certain softness that can only come from being on the inside, of being one with a community.
Her personal experiences are woven into the series. Though autobiographical her presence is more subtle than self-indulgent, allowing the story of Dhahran to remain in focus. “I never intended for my vision to leave viewers of the book stranded in my personal narrative. I tried to leave space, suggestions, for a viewer to indulge in their own interpretation.”