John Mather explores the work of two recent photography graduates who describe the challenges and opportunities of working in the UAE.
As photography students, Altamash Urooj and Raji al Sharif spent a lot of time explaining themselves to police. Both men, who graduated last year from the American University in Dubai's (AUD) photography programme, recall incidents when the authorities confronted them as in public places. After all, people wielding large cameras, setting up tall tripods and directing models (sometimes in elaborate costumes) is not a common sight in the Emirates. Fortunately, Urooj says, the police were usually kind and co-operative. Once, as he was shooting women covered in bright-coloured fabrics at the beach, an officer asked what he was doing. But when he showed his student ID, they moved on. Another time the police brought a truck to help get his car unstuck from a desert dune. Al Sharif also ran into the authorities during his time in Dubai, though he echoes Urooj: they tended to be more curious than anything. "We got some problems from the CID and police, who'd say 'blah, blah, blah'. It became something normal."
However, when al Sharif returned to his home in Saudi Arabia, he was arrested while shooting a construction site. Though he had a letter of permission, it was in English. Still, the students say this is all part of being a young photographer in a region that has mixed feelings about the craft. "You get used to facing these obstacles and working around them and using them to your advantages sometimes," says Urooj.
The work of the AUD students is beginning to be recognised. Al Sharif, Urooj and another recent graduate from AUD, Angelica Yassine, submitted photos for consideration in this year's Sony World Photography Student Focus contest, which selects 120 students from 60 universities across the world. Those students are given a trip to Cannes to take part in the awards next month. Their photos will be judged by well-known members of the photography community, including the renowned photographer Mary-Ellen Mark.
Al Sharif says the Emirates' multicultural make-up forced him to be sensitive. "There are a lot of cultures in Dubai. Every time you have to take the photos, you have to think of different cultures." This familiarity within a setting is one reason Susan Welchmann would like to see more photographers come out of the region. Welchmann is a senior photo editor at National Geographic and one of the contest's judges.
She said she enjoys reviewing the student's work because it feels raw. "It's not polished. It's something from a youthful brain. You think there's real potential here with this person. Their craft may not be that formed, but their brain is working." Welchmann, who has worked for National Geographic for more than 30 years, said she would like to see more of this from the Middle East, a region that is not known for its photographers. When she has an assignment in the region, she laments that she often has to use a Western photographer and not someone familiar with the area. She would prefer the photographer have sympathy for and an understanding of the culture. "We like the people who know how we work. But they aren't always the people who integrate well."
She encourages young photographers like Urooj and Sharif to get in contact with her. "I think many feel isolated there in their talent. Maybe their talent fits well with local media. But maybe they want to insert their talent in Western media." However, both Urooj and Raji say it's the opposite: there is a growing interest in Middle Eastern art from the West, while local recognition is harder to earn. "The Middle East has always been on the world's eye," says Urooj. "Dubai has an obsession with importing artwork, which they aren't getting over."
Roberto Lopardo, the head of photography at AUD, says being from the region can be an advantage for his students to gain exposure. "Internationally, students from this region have really good opportunities. The world is opening its eyes to the Middle East." As for branching out to the rest of the world, Lopardo says the students have the advantage of not being trapped in what's trendy. "I've seen a lot of students in the US dealing with issues that are mundane or lame. They are digging deep to find some sort of angst. The students here don't have to dig that deep. There are so many things that they haven't looked at."