Saudi-born photographer Wasma Mansour laughs as the conversation turns to that very 21st century cliché I’ve been hesitating to mention. The phrase “unveiling the veil” is an orientalist’s wet dream, a smart piece of shorthand for a generation desperate to discuss the “representation” and “role” of women in the Middle East. It’s a kind of semantic myopia that’s infectious, and the catchy phrase’s repetition – from headlines to book titles – is now bordering on offensive.

“It’s incredible! The first thing people say when you mention Saudi women is the veil-unveil thing,” she says. “At first I thought it was depressing and annoying. Now I find it hilarious… and a bit lazy,” says Mansour.

We’re discussing “Single Saudi Women”, Mansour’s first solo exhibition. Exhibited in June at the Hardy Tree Gallery as part of the London Festival of Photography, it’s the result of her four-year PhD research at the London College of Communication. And just like “unveiling the veil”, the title “Single Saudi Women” will immediately provoke a certain kind of contemporary fascination. Mansour has spent the last few years photographing women who range in age and situation, but are united by two common denominators: being single and being Saudi. She visited each woman’s home multiple times and conducted intimate, often highly-revealing, interviews, positioning herself as both an observer and an intruder in each work. The result is a very personal, multidirectional portrait of the self and how we choose to occupy space when left to our own devices, and was a natural choice of subject for Mansour.

“I always knew I wanted to do something about women,” she says, citing various academic and anthropological influences including her older sister, who is finishing up a PhD on female religious figures in Saudi Arabia at Oxford University. “People always ask if there’s a political motivation. But it’s a selfish one – I’m fascinated by the subject. I think for a PhD you need to be obsessed.” Mansour’s “obsession” with her participants is a delicate tightrope between friend, artist and voyeur. She found most women, who remain anonymous, through mutual contacts and Internet searches. After sending over 100 messages to strangers she found through women’s groups on Facebook to see if they’d be interested in being photographed, her account was shut down for “suspicious activity”.

“There is a stigma of being single. They don’t want to be the poster girls of spinsterhood,” she says. The project itself has been a slow and sensitive process. Beginning with a large format camera, the time-consuming medium became “cumbersome”. “I ended up spending so much time in the participant’s homes. You don’t want to overstep the boundaries. Or overstay your welcome.” Mansour then introduced a secondary camera: a digital SLR on a 15-minute timer. The first results were “just horrible” but eventually produced a more kinetic portrait, in which Mansour and the process became part of the subject. “You tune out – you forget the camera’s there”.

The other switch was in location. Her original plan to shoot Saudi women in their home country presented a problem for the London-based photographer. “I would go to Saudi for two months and I wouldn’t develop any film until I got back to the UK. The box of negatives got exposed when I was coming back from Heathrow. That destroyed me and I freaked out.” Although coincidental, shooting Saudi women living in London added another layer to the questions of identity “Single Saudi Women” raises.

The final exhibition is an edited selection of four years’ worth of photographs, plus a few of Mansour’s numerous polaroid proofs and two pages of her journal, which describe her obsessively photographing the “untamed” garden of one woman’s London home. “She had a massive apple tree. I ended up photographing every bit of it. About three hours later I looked around and there were piles of polaroids around the garden. When I got back to the house, she had written a note on one of them… ‘I’m going to slap you if you keep photographing,’ with a smiley or something. She was having fun.”

Now in the writing up stage of her PhD, “Single Saudi Women” has sprouted a secondary series too. After spotting one woman’s unworn abaya hanging in her wardrobe, Mansour asked to borrow it. “She put it in a Selfridges bag. Then I started asking the other participants. I ended up with all these abayas in these shopping bags!” she explains. Taken out of context, Mansour’s abayas captured in their shopping bags become like conceptual sculptures. “It’s this symbol of identity that’s obsolete here, but becomes activated the minute you’re on the airplane heading back. Which I think is quite interesting – to have this object that transforms on what location you’re in.”