Empire state of mind by Delores Johnson

  • All photos Delores Johnson / The National

November 21, 2012

Hamdan Street in UAE has some parallels to New York’s crossroads of the world.

Earlier this year, Delores Johnson, a staff photographer at The National, was driving along Hamdan Bin Mohammed Street (more commonly known to Abu Dhabi residents simply as Hamdan Street) when an idea lodged in her mind and steadfastly refused to shift.

“I looked around and thought this reminds me of Times Square in New York,” she says. Hamdan Street’s neon lights, its lively pedestrian-packed streets and, above all, its incessant movement in the hours after darkness, drew her towards this conclusion.

Over the following weeks, Johnson set out to see if this observation stood up to scrutiny. New York is a city of perpetual motion where great dramas unravel every day, she says, and it is this thought that provides the strongest connection with this single street in Abu Dhabi.

“Hamdan Street has an identity all of its own in Abu Dhabi. It comes alive in the evening, and especially at the weekend. It becomes a movie set where people sit and watch other people’s lives unfold.

“Everything happens there. It has drama in a city where there is no drama,” she says, referencing Abu Dhabi’s statistically low crime rate and the ordered ebb and flow of the city’s pedestrians moving from point to point.

You can see that drama in her set of pictures, complete with their symphony of people and cars, of streaming headlamps and yellow cab lights, and of the dignified hopes and quiet aspirations that pulsate from her images.

Here is a city of lights with Johnson’s lens capturing the ceaseless murmur of street life, just as you might encounter in Times Square, New York.

But there is also something so typically Abu Dhabi at work here too: from the adverts for partitioned rooms pinned to street furniture, to the predominantly male subjects frozen in time in their untucked, smartly pressed shirts and crisp jeans; from the combination of three unconnected words that form the glowing shop front of the “National Future Video” store to the collection of sages perched on a bench outside a clothes shop engaged in an animated, free-ranging and lengthy discussion.

If Times Square provided the jumping-off point for this photo essay on urban exploration, Abu Dhabi gave up its energy and, crucially, fills Johnson, an American expatriate, with a sense of the familiar. “I love being in Abu Dhabi and I feel at home on Hamdan Street. “I like that I can stroll at night. You are surrounded by people but you are always safe. I like that people are so friendly and are happy to talk,” she says.

And what will she take on next? “I love street photography. I never know what is going to inspire me or where it is going to take me until that shutter clicks.”

* Delores was talking to Nick March, editor of The Review.

                   
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