The Middle East has been given a bad press in the era of ISIL and Al Qaeda. Islamophobia has won vocal, toupeed champions in western capitals, while ignorance of the Middle East, and its great cultural, social, and human variety, is widespread even among the West’s media companies.
For Riham Mahafzah, the founder of Silk Road Images, a stock photography company, there is one particular facet of western ignorance of the Middle East that is particularly galling: the visual clichés recycled by media companies when attempting to illustrate the region.
When media companies buy images from major photography licensing agencies – distributors like Getty Images or Corbis – they find their options for covering the Middle East are limited.
“When you search on major photography distributors for pictures of Muslim women, you find women covered in black from head to toes. You don’t see women like me, businesswomen, and I am a Muslim woman,” Ms Mahafzah says.
Instead, you see “stereotypical perceptions” of the Middle East. Worse, some photos of Muslims “you see tagged with ‘terrorist’ as a keyword”.
“I want to change this perception. I want to avoid stereotypical scenes. I am trying to find real people, so that when you see an ad for businesspeople or a family, the people in it look like us.”
So Silk Road Images has put together a library of 35,000 photographs of the Middle East and East Asia. “When you build a library of photography from the region, you can see how people here see their world through their own lenses. That way we can tell the story and the street photography through our own eyes. We can tell the story of the East.
“Here I am trying to make a difference.”
The idea for a stock image company came when, as a senior art director at AdPro Communications in 2008, Ms Mahafzah found herself working on an ad campaign for a new telecommunications firm in Iraq, for which she needed a picture of an Arab man holding an oud.
“I was working over the weekend on a pitch, and spent the day looking on Google Images, on Getty Images, on Corbis for a picture … in a way that fits an ad.”
But Ms Mahafzah and her team couldn’t find it, nor, it being a weekend, could they dispatch photographers to dress a man up and shoot him.
“I was thinking about building a library of Islamic photography … but at the time I didn’t have the business skills, didn’t have the finance skills.”
But in October 2011, Ms Mahafzah quit the firm. Hesitant between launching a start-up, taking a master’s in filmmaking in London, or moving to the TV industry in Turkey, she decided to pitch the idea for a specialised stock photography firm called “Gallery AlSharq” – the Gallery of the East – to Oasis 500, a Jordanian tech accelerator, which offered three months of incubation – intensive training in the building blocks of business.
Ms Mahafzah was accepted. “In that boot camp, I learnt how to build a business plan, how to plan for the pitch. Then I started looking at [tech incubation] locally and regionally. I wanted to go bigger.”
This was followed by awards at other competitions for start-ups.
Ms Mahafzah came first at the Mena 100 Business Plan Competition, supported by the OECD, which held an event in Bahrain in 2012.
With the US$25,000 in seed funding this brought in, Ms Mahafzah was able to buy laptops for her team.
Next came the MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Start-up Competition in Doha 2013, in which Gallery AlSharq came in third place. Later that year, the company was picked as one of Red Herring Asia’s top 100 start-ups. Red Herring describes itself as “an instrument for discovering and advocating the most promising private ventures from around the world”.
Then, in July 2014, came the acceptance into the 500Startups programme, an early-stage accelerator in Silicon Valley.
“They’re amazing – the acceleration experience is amazing, and it’s incredible how much I learnt.”
500Startups pointed Ms Mahafzah towards Turkey, which she quickly realised was a promising market for specialised photography. Ms Mahafzah took part in Startup Istanbul, where her company – now named Silk Road Images, took third place. “I was the only woman there”, she says.
But more important than the award, she said, “I met clients, agencies, and realised what is needed in terms of content – and that it is the same need that we have in the Middle East. So I spent most of 2014 in Turkey, producing content and sorting content from street photographers. I showed the results to international players, and they said encouraging things and assured me I was on the right track.” During the trip Ms Mahafzah broadened her focus from the Middle East, and into Turkey and East Asia – the countries that once spanned the Silk Road – which were equally underserved by stock photography companies.
Ms Mahafzah frequently found herself one of a handful of women – or the only woman – at many of these tech competitions. But she says that didn’t faze her.
“If a woman is strong and believes in what she’s doing, there’s no challenge. Just the same challenges that face any start-up.
“But I feel happy when I’m doing it among men, as a woman, and winning – because it’s a big, fair competition,” she says.
Now Silk Road Images has received a large investment from TwoFour54 and 500Startups and is based in Abu Dhabi.
Ms Mahafzah mentions Shutterstock and iStockphoto, which emerged as the internet allowed lower-cost companies to rival the distribution dominance of Getty and Corbis.
iStock was acquired by Getty for $50 million in 2006, while Shutterstock listed in 2012. But neither example is filling Ms Mahafzah’s head with dollar signs just yet.
“If I dream of exit, I won’t get there,” she says. “So let’s work hard and see what happens in the future.”
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