Stashed away in cabinets, briefcases, storage spaces and garages, there exists a treasure trove of old photos depicting life from yesteryear in the Emirates.
But now, thanks to the efforts of a university lecturer and her students, some of these historically fascinating snaps are no longer just gathering dust but are on public display.
The Emirates Family Photography 1958-1992 exhibition is a project devised by the Zayed University assistant professor in art history, Michele Bambling. She realised that although old photos of the region taken by explorers, oil companies, the media and royal family photographers were frequently in the public domain, private family pictures were an unstudied resource.
As part of a project for the curatorial practices module she teaches, she asked students to delve into their parents’ and grandparents’ photograph collections for ones they would happily share with -others.
They returned – with the permission of the owners, of course – with some intriguing printed images of what life was like in the UAE in the latter half of the 20th century.
“The earliest photos we were given were official ID photos and ones taken in professional studios,” says Bambling. “But as people began to get their own cameras in the 1960s and 1970s, we got some unique photos of family life at the time.”
As these snapshots are taken by amateurs, they are candid portraits of Emirati life, clicked for private viewing and lasting memories.
Many of the prints capture family functions or people posing with their horses, camels and falcons.
But there are also shots taken of the arrival of new technologies in the home, so we have subjects proudly showing off their new air-conditioner unit, television, telephone or refrigerator.
New cars, or a family on their first excursion in their prized vehicle, are also common subjects.
Once the photos had been collected, the best were compiled in a book. Meanwhile, for the exhibition, the students were asked to respond to the photos they’d unearthed through a series of experimental installations. The show was launched last week at Zayed University where it will be open until mid-April. Bambling said the reaction to it has been phenomenal.
“I don’t think there has been anything like this before – an exhibition about Emirati people looking at themselves. Often [the photos] are of other people looking at them,” she contends.
“A lot of these photos are just of ordinary people having fun taking pictures. They really do portray a universal human experience.
“But they are also important historical records as they document the formation of the UAE and the onset of modernity in the country.”
• Emirates Family Photography 1958-1992 at Zayed University is open to the public on Monday and Wednesday mornings, from 8am until noon. For more information, contact Michele Bambling at firstname.lastname@example.org
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