In April 2013, photographer Heather Finnecy decided to leave her known world of California to find the reality behind the hype about the Middle East. Now that her quest has led her through Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Kuwait, the UAE, and Afghanistan, she catches us up on what she’s learned along the way.

What surprised you the most?

The answer shames me a bit: I completely related to the women here. It’s weird to say that because I have so many lifelong friends in the Middle East now. But in the beginning, it did surprise me.

I know not everyone in the region is Muslim, but I had this fear instilled in me that Muslim women wouldn’t talk to me or let me photograph them, and that they hated Americans. Part of why I wanted to come in the first place was because of my country’s involvement here. All we see back home are images from the news: bombings, terrorism, oppression of women.

That’s exactly why I wanted to meet the women here, because I knew there was more to the story. I wanted to create imagery that was different from what we were seeing. The unsensational stuff that allows us to understand one another as human beings, because there are a lot of basic things that we all do.

What are your biggest “lessons learned”?

To just ask. To take a photo, ask a person a question about themselves, engage with the humans around you. Every time you do this, the world feels smaller and you feel more part of humanity, and it makes you proud.

The other is what I call the “smile test.” If I make eye contact with a woman with a hardened face, I feel intimidated. I start thinking, “she hates me because I’m a blonde white girl.” Then I realize I’m playing into the stereotypes by assuming she’s thinking this.

So I smile at her.

Nine times out of ten she smiles back, and in that moment, those stereotypes are shattered. We’ve overcome our societies’ negative biases and decided to stand in solidarity with each other. Connecting with people you think you have nothing in common with–that can cause change.

"I approached this Emirati woman, Muna Harib, at a café. I was just drawn to something in her. Eight months later we are close friends, and I have been involved in the humanitarian aid group Breathing Numbers that she started for Syrian refugees. For me she is an example of following your gut; you never know where small actions will take you." By Heather Finnecy
“I approached this Emirati woman, Muna Harib, at a café. I was just drawn to something in her. Eight months later we are close friends, and I have been involved in the humanitarian aid group Breathing Numbers that she started for Syrian refugees. For me she is an example of following your gut; you never know where small actions will take you.” By Heather Finnecy
"She was working at the Old Souk in Kuwait City. Though she couldn't speak any English, I was able to get her permission to take her photo. That taught me to just ask." By Heather Finnecy
“She was working at the Old Souk in Kuwait City. Though she couldn’t speak any English, I was able to get her permission to take her photo. That taught me to just ask.” By Heather Finnecy
"People told me Muslim women, especially ones wearing niqab, would never let me photograph them. On my first day in the Middle East, this woman came up to me at a souk and motioned for me to take her photo. So I learned to stop listening to what people said was inevitable." By Heather Finnecy
“People told me Muslim women, especially ones wearing niqab, would never let me photograph them. On my first day in the Middle East, this woman came up to me at a souk and motioned for me to take her photo. So I learned to stop listening to what people said was inevitable.” By Heather Finnecy
"When I first got here, I was so surprised at all the scenes that looked like they were plucked right out of America, but the people were different. I loved this scene that felt so American to me, but with this Kuwaiti couple moving through it." By Heather Finnecy
“When I first got here, I was so surprised at all the scenes that looked like they were plucked right out of America, but the people were different. I loved this scene that felt so American to me, but with this Kuwaiti couple moving through it.” By Heather Finnecy
"This was a young college aged woman I met in Lebanon—and another moment I felt transported back to America. Whenever that happened, especially in a place like Beirut which I originally thought would be a war zone, I felt it was important to show." By Heather Finnecy
“This was a young college aged woman I met in Lebanon—and another moment I felt transported back to America. Whenever that happened, especially in a place like Beirut which I originally thought would be a war zone, I felt it was important to show.” By Heather Finnecy
"On my first trip to Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, I thought maybe all these Syrians would hate me because I’m American. This girl and her friends didn't speak much English, but they were so excited I was from America and really wanted me to take their portraits." By Heather Finnecy
“On my first trip to Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, I thought maybe all these Syrians would hate me because I’m American. This girl and her friends didn’t speak much English, but they were so excited I was from America and really wanted me to take their portraits.” By Heather Finnecy

And your core message?

We’re more alike than we are different.

For more info – http://fromwhaticansee.com/

"People in the West tend to think that only Islam exists here. But obviously the Christian Palestinians go way back. This young woman showed me so much in her homeland; this is her in her hometown church in Taybeh." By Heather Finnecy
“People in the West tend to think that only Islam exists here. But obviously the Christian Palestinians go way back. This young woman showed me so much in her homeland; this is her in her hometown church in Taybeh.” By Heather Finnecy
"More total ignorance on my part: my assumption that women who wear hijab don't bother with make-up. The closer I got to the Gulf, the more wow-ed I was by the effort that went into looking good—and the more simple and frumpy I felt in comparison." By Heather Finnecy
“More total ignorance on my part: my assumption that women who wear hijab don’t bother with make-up. The closer I got to the Gulf, the more wow-ed I was by the effort that went into looking good—and the more simple and frumpy I felt in comparison.” By Heather Finnecy
"I met Mira about an hour after I landed in Beirut and she was another woman I just felt so comfortable with: very forward-thinking, driven, and excited about her life, her studies, and her career. She had grown up mainly in Tehran and loves Iran." By Heather Finnecy
“I met Mira about an hour after I landed in Beirut and she was another woman I just felt so comfortable with: very forward-thinking, driven, and excited about her life, her studies, and her career. She had grown up mainly in Tehran and loves Iran.” By Heather Finnecy
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Jennifer MacKenzie

Poet, writer and teacher Jennifer MacKenzie grew up on Bloomcrest Dr. in Bloomfield Hills, MI, which inspired her to wonder about places with patterns other than floral. Following her education at Wesleyan University's College of Letters and the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop, she followed a zig-zag course that included a pilgrimage across the top of Spain and a long sojourn in Syria in pursuit of the language of Muhammad al-Maghout and Moudthaffar al-Nawwab. While in Damascus she completed the books of poems "Distant City" and "My Not-My Soldier" (forthcoming from Fence Books) and edited the magazine Syria Today. Her poems and essays can be found in numerous journals including the Kenyon Review online, Guernica, Quarterly West, and Lungfull. She currently lives in New York.

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