By the mid-1980s, the Palestinian photographer Lily Bandak was at the top of her game. She'd been the personal snapper to Anwar Sadat when he was the president of Egypt, had unprecedented access to the Palestine Liberation Organisation leader, Yasser Arafat, and her photographs had entered the private collection of the White House during the Carter administration.
But in 1984, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a neurological disease that weakens and can in time destroy the ability of nerve cells in the brain to communicate with the rest of the body. Within a couple of years, Bandak was wheelchair-bound and, progressively over the past 10 years, has lost the use of her hands.
Despite this, Bandak, who is based in the US, has continued a career in photography, mounting a camera on her wheelchair and directing shots with the help of an assistant.
A retrospective of her work will be inaugurated tomorrow at Zayed University's new campus in Abu Dhabi, before continuing at Salwa Zeidan Gallery, and features photographs from before she was diagnosed with MS alongside the intimate portraiture she continues today - including images of Queen Noor and the late King Hussein of Jordan from the late 1990s.
"For the first two years after I got sick, all I did was sit at home and feel sorry for myself," says Bandak, who was living in Delaware. At the time, Joe Biden, the current US vice president, was a senator for the state, and she says: "One of the head staff in his office also had MS. I went to the senator's office, told them I needed help and they were wonderful - they put an elevator in my house so I could get to my darkroom downstairs, and found me a special wheelchair that rises so that I can photograph things from high up. From that, I started to take some encouragement."
Although her return to photography was slow, Bandak attributes a lot of her reintegration into daily life to assistive technology, the umbrella term for technological solutions to disabilities.
It is something that, through the fact of her continuing career, she is keen to promote throughout the Arab world. "People with disabilities in the Arab world are segregated," she says. "It doesn't matter where you go in the region, you just don't see kids with disability integrated into society."
Part of the problem, Bandak continues, is a lack of awareness about the benefits available from assistive technology. In 2009, she started Assistive Technology Makes Independence Accessible (ATMIA), a foundation that seeks to raise awareness about the technology available to people living with disabilities in the Middle East. This is done by linking universities in the US with centres working with disabled people in the region.
Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan invited Bandak to exhibit in the UAE, and she says he has taken a personal interest in the cause that she is promoting. By bringing her work to the UAE, she hopes to show the benefits she has had from assistive technology. Proceeds from the sale of images in this exhibition go directly into ATMIA.
Beyond the story of her illness, Bandak's images speak of a talent able to will its way into proximity to some of the key figures in the region of the past 35 years.
Most telling are her portraits of Arafat, from a time when he was holed up in Beirut during the war in Lebanon. "I met Arafat during a press conference," says Bandak. "We started talking and when he found out I was Palestinian, he invited me to live with his sister for a while in Lebanon." Even after that period, they remained friends, she says. "When I got sick, he flew me out to China and Romania for treatment."
Bandak believes that there are more than 10 million people in the Arab world living with disability. She hopes that the continuity in the timeline of images for this exhibition can show that, although her work has undeniably become harder for her since the onset of MS, she is still meeting and photographing influential people.
Journey to Empowerment, a solo exhibition of photographs by Lily Bandak, will be inaugurated at Zayed University's new Airport Road Campus (Abu Dhabi) tomorrow at noon. After that, the exhibition continues until March 31 at Salwa Zeidan Gallery, Al Khaleej Al Arabi Street, Abu Dhabi
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