Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 6 August 2020

57 portraits of Abu Dhabi's Covid-19 workers taken by an Emirati photographer, using only her phone

Noura Al Neyadi spent three weeks at testing centres in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi to tell the 'stories behind the masks'

"Because we're all wearing masks, all we have now is eye language and beauty transmitted from the eyes."

It's this statement that underscored a project dreamed up by Emirati photographer Noura Al Neyadi to document those working across several Covid-19 screening centres, armed with only her iPhone and a few conversation starters.

Over three weeks in Ramadan, Al Neyadi isolated herself from the outside world to photograph 149 volunteers, nurses, doctors, security guards and cleaners, as they went about their jobs each day testing thousands of UAE citizens for the virus.

Click through the gallery above to see a selection of images from Al Neyadi's project

In these screening centres I saw a representation of what the UAE really is –a community, and despite our differences we are all the same and we are all helping each other

"These are the people who have put their whole entire lives on pause to help the community," she says.

But her portrait project had a point of difference. The age of Covid-19 meant that half of people's faces were now obscured by a mask – meaning Al Neyadi had one main feature to zero in on: her participant's eyes.

"All of a sudden life changed and people had to wear a mask and this is all you see going anywhere," Al Neyadi says.

"I saw these beautiful eyes trapped behind the masks. I wanted to capture the feelings of the eyes behind them."

And so, Al Neyadi came up with the idea of photographing those on the front line of the country's screening centres, to highlight their hard work.

She approached Abu Dhabi Health Services, or Seha, with the idea, and "they were nice enough to support the idea so they approved it".

Emirati photographer Noura Al Neyadi spent three weeks in four UAE screening centres photographing their inhabitants. Courtesy Noura Al Neyadi
Emirati photographer Noura Al Neyadi spent three weeks in four UAE screening centres photographing their inhabitants. Courtesy Noura Al Neyadi

From May 5, she spent three weeks in four screening centres in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, photographing and speaking to workers. The work also meant she had to spend three weeks in quarantine in Ramadan, away from her family.

"Before they got their photo taken, I wanted a small chit-chat and to share a heartwarming moment," she says.

"They thought I was going to hit them with the boring Covid questions, but no. I asked 'what did you eat today', or 'what do you miss the most', 'what is your favourite smell', 'who is one person you want to sit beside driving from the beach', 'what is your favourite colour'.

"Some tears were shed, some people were in absolute shock, some of them just wanted to be given a space for whatever goes on in their minds."

Al Neyadi, who works full time for the Abu Dhabi Government as well as being a professional photographer, says she chose to use her iPhone instead of her DSLR in order to get more natural reactions from her subjects. She says she would ask them a question, and the moment they were "think deeply with their eyes about the answer", she would lift her phone and take the shot.

"I talked to people who lost loved ones and can't be there for their family. I spoke to people about their daily morning routine – some say they had to call their mum to hear her voice, mothers said they had to kiss their children every day or just hold their kid's hands and pray every night.

"It was these kind of beautiful, intimate details that have kept people going."

However, Al Neyadi says one specific story stuck with her – that of a group of three local students who returned home after studying in the US, and had finished their mandatory 14-day quarantine only to immediately volunteer at the screening centre. Another was from a dentist who told her he had learned to decipher a person's "mental state" from their eyes.

Al Neyadi is not yet sure what she is going to do with her 149 portraits. She posted them on Instagram for a start, picking out one quote from each picture subject as a simple caption, in an almost Humans of New York-type documentary style. She says she would love to see all 149 faces on a billboard, so after the pandemic eases, each of the subjects could use it to look back on this time.

"I came across all these cultures and nationalities and that made me feel really hopeful. Because in these screening centres I saw a representation of what the UAE really is. It's a community, and despite our differences we are all the same and we are all helping each other.

"And there's nothing I love more than projecting my community and projecting the UAE internationally.

"One single photograph can change a whole perspective or draw attention to something so powerful, and it's also the perfect way to document the world we are living in."

Updated: June 14, 2020 05:32 PM

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