x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Cabinet of Curiosities is the result of six years living in and photographing the UAE as one of The National’s staff photographers. Jaime Puebla talks us through his first solo exhibition.

An image of a bodybuilding competition in Dubai, which is now part of the photographer Jaime Puebla's Cabinet of Curiosities solo exhibition at Gulf Photo Plus.
An image of a bodybuilding competition in Dubai, which is now part of the photographer Jaime Puebla's Cabinet of Curiosities solo exhibition at Gulf Photo Plus.

Standing alone in the corner, against a pea-green wall, her black Darth Vader mask almost merges with the abaya she is wearing. Although this person is in fancy dress at the annual Comic-Con event, the way she has been framed is totally out of context and so she becomes bizarre and curious.

So, too, does a presenter at the local art fair. She stands, straight-faced, inside a white bird-cage-like structure on a white carpet and dressed in white. If the image were to pan out a little, the rest of the room and the audience she is about to address would contextualise the image, but as it is, the woman seems to be from a futuristic other world and ready to welcome us to join her.

Such is the case with most of the images in this exhibition, hence its title, Cabinet of Curiosities. For the photographer, Jaime Puebla, it is the result of six years in the UAE working as one of the staff photographers at The National.

“It started with me wanting to take advantage of the fact that I drive all around the UAE and I have these amazing opportunities to be in places that some people never visit such as the depths of Ras Al Khaimah or the Saudi border. The idea was to make something different and to challenge myself but in the end, after all these years, all the material started making sense.”

Rich in nuance

The 27 images in the show range from one of the first assignments Puebla was ever sent on: a lawyer behind her desk in Abu Dhabi, whose entire face and head was covered by a black veil, to the most recent taken this year at the Dubai World Cup.

When searching for a shot, Puebla says that he avoided the classic photojournalistic composition that he usually shoots for the newspaper and simply looked for images rich in colour and nuance.

“For the newspaper, you only have one image to tell one story so you must get as much information in as possible. But for these portraits, I cared mostly about colour and let the story come later.”

Although individually the images are shot to seem strange, together the series works to convey an element of UAE life that is not often documented.

Captured extraordinarily

“What attracted us to Jaime’s work was that he has photographed the UAE with a unique approach,” says Miranda McKee, the gallery manager at Gulf Photo Plus.

“There is something different to the UAE that is not always portrayed in the pictures and postcards that we see in the newspapers and we find it here. ”

The most recent image in the collection is that of a parade truck parked at the back of the Meydan Racecourse in Dubai. It bears the gigantic face of a woman with bright green eyes, golden lipstick and a neon-orange hat that extends into the blue sky like a carnival ride. It is put into perspective by a single workman in the foreground who is sweeping the road.

“The images do become kind of surreal sometimes,” says Puebla, who is Chilean and moved to the UAE from Mexico in 2008.

“But this is not photojournalism or photo-documentary, it is pure photographic language and that is what I love about photography – you can focus on the small details and create a different image.”

Colour theory

Puebla studied photojournalism at the ALPES institute and graduated in 1992. After working for local newspapers, he joined the Associated Press in 1998 where he began covering Latin American issues in El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. In 2006 he became the photo editor for Gatopardo magazine, where he also secured funding from the Ministry of Culture in Chile, which he used to support a photo project about syncretism in the religious rites of Mexico.

One of the biggest differences between his work then and now has been the exploration of colour.

“The UAE has been a discovery of colour for me,” he says. “In Mexico, I was shooting a lot in black and white or just hard news and in that way, this is more of a challenge. But actually, I didn’t set out to make this a big project, it just eventually started coming together.”

McKee is quick to point out that Cabinet of Curiosities is not supposed to be poking fun at anything or anyone. “I don’t want people to think we are highlighting these people as strange because they are not. The everyday subjects and settings that they are in, are very ordinary to some but to others it is extraordinary and I think that is what Jaime has done very carefully and very beautifully.”

• Cabinet of Curiosities runs at Gulf Photo Plus in Dubai until December 19

aseaman@thenational.ae