‘The Hero’ shot: Sharjah photographer on what it takes to produce a prizewinning Burj Khalifa snap
Sony World Photography Award recipient Riyas Muhammed explains what inspires his award-winning photos
Many reading this will have tried to take a picture of Burj Khalifa. And at the end of every year, when the Instagram reckoning is published to great interest, the still-staggering 829.8-metre structure is up there with the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and the Empire State Building as one of the world’s most photographed. Given its ubiquity, then, it’s something of a surprise to find that an image of architect Adrian Smith’s soaring skyscraper has won Sharjah photographer Riyas Muhammed the National Award at this year’s Sony World Photography Awards. But look closely and it becomes fascinatingly clear why.
“I wanted a shot that could combine nature with a man-made structure in one frame,” he explains. “I was in Boxpark in Jumeirah looking for some interesting images, but I was really struggling to find anything particularly original. The Burj Khalifa always tends to grab your attention but, as I was walking around the park, I suddenly realised that it seemed, from where I was, to be rising out of a bush. I knew I had an image right then that could portray a different perspective.”
Muhammed, 40, makes a good point that, usually, images you see of Burj Khalifa are cluttered with the concrete and glass of other buildings, the Dubai Fountain and mall. Here, there is nothing but shrubbery, luminous building and night sky. Aptly, he has titled the image The Hero, and it’s so unique I have to ask how much he manipulated it.
“Well, apart from fine-tuning the contrast and brightness, I didn’t do anything,” he says. “I made sure the Burj Khalifa stands out from its background, obviously, because that’s the subject of the image, but genuinely, there was no other building there. Pretty much, the shot that has won the award is the image I saw when I took it.”
Winning the Sony World Photography Award is a big deal for Muhammed, as are the reward of Sony digital imaging equipment, publication in the Sony World Photography Awards book and inclusion in the Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition at Somerset House in London – which was due to take place next month, but has been cancelled. The whole point of the competition is, it says, to “uncover images that show the world around us and to give the opportunity to photographers whose work might otherwise never be seen”. Although Muhammed was also a runner-up in 2017, he has not felt the need to become a professional photographer. Yet.
“I feel totally thrilled by the recognition, but I’m a motion graphic artist first,” he says. “Actually, there’s quite a lot of crossover there, with how you think about images. I think the two disciplines are quite complementary. I’ve also always loved drawing, that’s where I first started thinking artistically, and then I got a photography diploma … I think over the years, I’ve built a range of creative tools more than a portfolio.”
Perhaps because he’s self-taught, Muhammed is underselling himself slightly; he’s had images published in papers and has enough work from the past 10 years of simply shooting, he says, “anything that interests me”, around the UAE to fill an exhibition. However, when I suggest it, he acts as though it had never crossed his mind. “These photographs are my babies, I couldn’t imagine selling them and I never have,” he says. “And I don’t think I’ve got enough anyway – but I’d love to do an exhibition one day, of course.”
So what are his guiding forces when he takes his camera out? “A good picture is a combination of content, structure and light,” he says. “Get those three things right and you can convey something to your audience; it doesn’t matter what genre it is. It’s strange, my winning picture doesn’t actually have what the rest of my pictures nearly always incorporate – a human being.”
It’s this thoughtful approach to photography that makes Muhammed stand out in an era where literally everyone armed with a smartphone thinks they are an amateur photographer. In reality, he says, that means the people who take the craft more seriously than simply whipping out their iPhone and posting a picture on Instagram have had to raise their level. For Muhammed, that meant forensically dissecting the work of Jimmy Nelson, the British photographer famous for his striking images of tribal and indigenous people. Not to copy him, but to see how he could use Nelson’s techniques in his work.
And those techniques have also garnered Muhammed local acclaim. Late last year, the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum International Photography Award featured his work, and his images have been published in National Geographic’s Daily Dozen. “Maybe because it must surely be one of the best places to photograph in the world, but there is a really vibrant photography scene in the UAE,” he says. “It’s a land of real contrasts, and that’s always great for photography. For example, the Al Dhafra camel festival in Abu Dhabi is a great way to capture an entire culture, the traditional and the modern. There are possibilities everywhere.”
All of which makes it truly disappointing that Muhammed won’t be able to represent the UAE in London, now that the Sony World Photography Awards exhibition has been cancelled. But the significance of the prize remains. “It’s obviously the most important recognition of my work, and it’s given me self-confidence and encouragement to evolve my style of photography,” he says.
Speaking of which, what’s his next project? “I don’t know,” he says, with a laugh. “I never plan to take a photograph, it just happens. It’s my passion more than anything else.”
More information on the Sony World Photography Awards is at www.worldphoto.org
Updated: March 27, 2020 06:39 PM