With aspirations to open his own gallery and make a name for himself in artistic photography, Khameis al Hefaiti had more challenges to overcome than just getting the right light or capturing the moment on film.
A year ago, when he began his career as a press photographer, there was only one photography society in the Emirates and one public darkroom. The infrastructure to support him in his chosen career simply did not exist. But Mr al Hefaiti, 28, stuck at it, and his perseverance is paying off. This summer he spent three months interning at the Speos Photographic Institute in Paris after he was sponsored by the Emirates Foundation. He not only gained valuable insights into things such as darkroom development, digital imaging and the history of photography, but also had the opportunity to shadow established photographers.
Since his return, he has started his own photographers' association and has drafted a business plan for his gallery. He said Paris changed his life. "I was thirsty to learn as much as possible about photography, and going to Paris felt like I was jumping into a sea of knowledge," he said. "It was more than just the practical experience; I also visited galleries, museums and took inspiration from everything I saw. It was the kind of thing I had been craving for. Now I am full of ideas and I am ready to help other photographers." Mr al Hefaiti was one of three Emirati artists selected for the pilot scheme by the Emirates Foundation's arts and culture department. Ahmed Arshi, the programme's co-ordinator, said the aim was both to give a boost to talented individuals and the local arts scene.
"By selecting a few artists and helping them as much as possible then we are helping the community as a whole," he said. "Every community is made up of individuals. This foreign residency programme will build the confidence of the individual artists who in turn will be able to pass on their knowledge. If one person helps 10 people and those 10 help another 10, then this kind of programme will have a wide-reaching effect." Mr Arshi said the candidates had been carefully selected not only for their artwork but their personal qualities. "We wanted them to develop their skills in Europe but also learn from experience. While they were in France they had to deal with institutions directly and curate their own work. Also they had to learn to cope by themselves in a completely different society." The three successful candidates - the programme's first - also represented distinct creative fields. Besides Mr al Hefaiti, they were Faiza Mubarak, a sculptress, and Mohammed al Mansouri, a contemporary artist. "This summer was a pilot and it was a real success," said Mr Arshi. Ms Mubarak, the only woman to take part, said the experience was more than she could have imagined. The 35-year-old primary school science teacher found out about the programme after her sculptures were spotted in the Emirates Expressions show at the Emirates Palace hotel last year. "A representative from the foundation saw my work and called me in for interview," she said. "I was really nervous because I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I had visited Paris and seen the sculptures at the Centre Pompidou, dreaming that one day I might be able to reach that level. So to be asked to go to work in France felt like I was one step closer to that dream." Ms Mubarak spent 10 days in Paris during her internship, but the rest of the time she was in Dijon at Le Consortium, a contemporary art space and gallery run by a trio of French curators. She was given her own studio and one-on-one tuition from the artists in residence. Although she had to overcome problems with her job and her family to go on the trip, Ms Mubarak said she had made the most of every day. "It was not easy to be allowed to go. I am a single woman and it wasn't acceptable for me to travel alone, so my mother and sister agreed to come. Then I had to get permission from work who didn't want me to go for the full three months. "I had to plan everything down to the smallest detail, but it was worth it. I went to museums, galleries, exhibitions. I met artists who explained to me about different techniques and I managed to visit Venice and Geneva." One month into the programme Ms Mubarak presented her first solo exhibition. It was four sculptures called Dialogue Bird where she explored the differences between Emirati and French cultures in the forms of birds made from wood and oil paint. "In the UAE there are only a few galleries and at every exhibition you see the same faces. But this was an amazing opportunity to show my work to a wider audience and get direct feedback." Ms Mubarak said the internship had offered her a "gateway to a whole new world". The best thing, she said, had been not just the programme but the experience of living abroad. "I am now more confident about my work and about myself," she said. "My art is no longer a hobby; it is something I am committed to making a career out of. I now have an idea of what the art world is like outside the UAE and that kind of knowledge is invaluable. I am ready to tell others about my experiences and help those who are not able to travel." Mr Arshi and his team are now considering applicants for the programme's second year, which begins in October. firstname.lastname@example.org