A large crowd has gathered around a seemingly simple image by the Emirati photographer Osama Al Zubaidi. From a distance, huge shafts of sunlight create a patchwork of intriguing shapes on the iconic sand dunes of the UAE. But look closer – and there are plenty of people at the Royal Geographical Society in London peering at this award-winning photograph – and another story begins to reveal itself. Walking along the tops of these seemingly endless dunes are two figures, some distance apart. Who they are and where they can possibly be going is the fascinating subtext to Al Zubaidi’s work.
The photograph is the centrepiece in a celebration of the Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum International Photography Award (HIPA), now in its third year. Osama Al Zubaidi’s image – which HIPA’s assistant secretary general Sahar Mohammed Al Zarei says met all the criteria of the theme for the 2012-13 competition, Beauty of Light – won the grand prize. And it certainly is a grand prize: HIPA is the richest photography award in the world.
With Al Zubaidi US$120,000 (Dh440,760) better off, his career in photography is probably set up for good. But HIPA is about much more than money – or even just the UAE. Set up to demonstrate the commitment of Dubai to encouraging art, culture and innovation, the award is open to photographers from across the globe.
“Everything starts with a passion and Sheikh Hamdan is a photographer himself,” says one of HIPA’s trustees, the Iranian-born landscape and nature photographer Henry Dallal. “In three years we have grown a lot – the whole idea is to promote and encourage photography all over the world and also bring it into Dubai. We’d love to get to a stage where Dubai was as well-known for its photography as its horse racing, for example.”
In fact, Dallal says that some of the previous winners from countries such as China or Bangladesh had never been on a plane before they were invited to the awards ceremony, which takes place during Art Dubai every March. Looking around the exhibition of shortlisted and winning photographs, there are entrants from Vietnam, Indonesia, Iraq and Lebanon. The UK and Germany are also represented – so although there are specific Emirati categories, it’s certainly not a closed shop.
Nevertheless, the other noticeable aspect of the current exhibition in London is how traditional the photography is, on the whole. If this is a competition which aims to promote Dubai, then it’s still a Dubai of sand dunes, camels and wizened men of the desert.
“Well, we’ve had winning pictures in the past which have reflected the modern city that is Dubai,” argues Dallal, referring to Amri Arfianto’s winning entry in 2011-12. And it would be a surprise if the 2013-14 theme, Creating the Future, which is open for entries until December 31, didn’t provoke a similar set of images this year.
“Dubai is bidding to hold Expo 2020, where one of the main ideas is creating the future,” explains Al Zarei. “So we wanted to reflect this subject in the competition this year. How that is interpreted is completely up to the photographer – for example, a student studying at college could be seen as creating the future. That’s the beauty of it.”
And, for Al Zarei, the real hope is that the entries don’t exist solely as a means to win a highly prized international competition, but actually say something about our world. “Just one picture can capture a moment and make you understand it forever,” says Al Zerei. “One of our main goals is to make people aware of the power they can have when they use their camera.”
• Entries are now open for the 2013-14 season at www.hipa.ae. The exhibition tours to the Kuala Lumpur Photography Festival from October 11 to 13