x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Treasures of the Emirates Photography Competition

The annual Emirates Photography Competition attracts outstanding work from around the world.

Nasser Haji Malek originally photographed the man touching his face in colour, but felt it worked better in black and white.
Nasser Haji Malek originally photographed the man touching his face in colour, but felt it worked better in black and white.

The pictures of the old man are unforgettable. The utter poverty in which he is living, the eerie light, the dirt, the squalor, they are all there in rich, gritty reality, and yet there is a quiet dignity and acceptance in the face of the old man, whose name was Stanko.

He was born into poverty and lived his life in the almost derelict house where he and his wife had nine children. She had long since died and all but one son had scattered to the four winds and never visited. He didn't much like the son who did try to help him, so he was pretty much alone in the world.

Herman Cater, an amateur photographer from Slovenia, whose moving series of pictures of the old man won the Grand Prize last year in the fifth Emirates Photography Competition, Prince of Light, was driving in the hills of Slovenia, about 70km from the capital Ljubljana, when he spotted Stanko outside his house, which sits on its own about an hour's walk from the nearest habitation.

"There was something about him that made me stop. It was June 2008 and I was taking photographs of bicycles for a brochure when I noticed him. I stopped and asked him if he minded me taking some pictures and he was very kind and said he didn't. Some of the pictures that won the competition were taken during that first day."

As the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage gears up for the sixth Emirates Photography Competition (EPC), photographers who have entered this year, Cater among them, talk about what makes a prize-winning composition. Their work has been published in a beautiful book of pictures, called Prince of Light, compiled from last year's entries,

Cater, aged 70, says it's not a question of having the best camera. "The camera really doesn't matter," is how he puts it.

When asked what the secret of a perfect photograph is, he likes to quote the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, who wrote about work in his book The Prophet:

"Life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,

And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,

And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,

And all work is empty save when there is love."

"So you need love," says Cater, who nearly died when viral meningitis almost completely paralysed him for several months at the age of 44. His own experience fighting back to health over a period of two years made him appreciate life in all its aspects and he says he came to love the old man, Stanko, during the eight months that he knew him.

"I tried to help him and always brought him bread and something to drink. He would joke that I should bring him a nice woman to keep him warm. I visited him many times until he died and organised some help for him. Last winter was very cold and as he got older he was unable to make a fire. He was taken to hospital but died and it made me very sad.

"As a photographer I recognised that he was a wonderful subject. Many people look at the pictures and identify with the fact that one day they will grow old and may be on their own. They speak a universal language," he says. "Houses like that don't exist any more and I knew it was interesting. He had a very good face for a portrait and the light inside the house was very specific. Actually, some of the photographs look like paintings.

"I didn't use any artificial light and the windows were very small. The house hadn't been cleaned for 50 years and the smoke had made the walls black and green. Looking at the room with the naked eye I thought it was darker but when I saw the pictures all these other colours popped out when I took a longer exposure," says Cater, a former English teacher who used a Canon 20 to shoot his winning series which has also won prizes elsewhere.

Cater is now working on a book about Stanko, using more of the 4,000 shots he took of him.

The aim of the EPC is to develop photography in the UAE by attracting as many photographers as possible from all around the world to enter. As well as publishing the book, specialised workshops, seminars and exhibitions are run in conjunction with the competition. Each year there is a main theme, such as Prince of Light last year. The theme for 2011 is Black and White, as a tribute to the work of the US photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984), known for his dazzling black-and-white photographs as well as for developing the Zone System for determining a picture's optimal exposure and development.

The EPC also honours the late Noor Ali Rashid (1929-2010), one of the leading figures in the photography in the UAE, while a special award will be given to the best Emirati photographer of 2011 for work that highlights local environmental and cultural symbols.

Another category seeks contributions under the theme Image of the Future, to recognise young photographic talent from around the world. There will also be an award for the best collection of photographs from participants living in the Arab world and others for the best five groups from international photography associations and clubs in recognition of the role they play in developing the art.

Other categories include wildlife, people at work, sport, still life, abstract and, for entrants under 21, "Future Image by Future Eyes".

Already thinking about black-and-white compositions for 2011 is Abdullaziz bin Ali, a 25-year-old engineer with the Sharjah Electricity & Water Authority. He won a consolation prize of Dh8,000 last year with pictures taken on a hiking trip to China, one called Pipe Smoker. "I specialise in landscape photography but I saw this man smoking a pipe and waited for the perfect moment while he was smoking," says bin Ali. "I love art and started drawing but I have some ideas that I was unable to express through drawing and turned to photography."

The Abu Dhabi photographer Omar Al Zaabi won the silver medal in the UAE section with his portfolio, which included a stunning shot of a sand dune in Ras Al Khaimah. It took him two weeks to find the perfect location and he then faced the challenge of photographing directly into the sun while preserving the detail of the terrain.

"It was all about the blending of the light. In the UAE the light is very bright and people always take pictures with the sun behind them so the challenge was taking the picture facing the sun without losing all the contours. I used a graduated ND filter on a Nikon 9700 and took the shot at around 2pm, although it looks as if it is later in the day."

Al Zaabi, who runs his own corporate photography business, also received an honourable mention in the People and Portraits section with a picture of a little boy eating a biscuit, watched by his mother in the background. "I don't like direct pictures. I want people to look at my pictures and wonder if the little boy was sad or happy at the time."

Khameis Al Hefaity's newspaper instincts leapt into action when he heard the squeal of brakes as a car rounded a corner on a road near Casablanca. The 29-year-old freelance photographer who used to work for an Arabic newspaper lifted his camera and started shooting. One of the resulting pictures, called Tragedy, won an honourable mention in the Photojournalism category.

"We had left Casablanca and were driving towards Mekness when we decided to stop and take a few pictures, when suddenly I heard the squeal of brakes. I think a tire had burst and the car flipped over five or six times. I must have taken about 20 pictures when I realised the old lady had been thrown out of the car, so we stopped to help."

Nasser Haji Malek, a 49-year-old banker and amateur photographer from Abu Dhabi, took his black-and-white photo, Wrinkle Lines, after spotting his subject in Khasab, Oman. "There is no story behind my photo. It was a snapshot. But later on, when I was trying to pick the best of my photos, I discovered that the face with the hand was brilliant."

It was initially shot in colour, but Malek chose to enter a black-and-white version of the photo into the Portraits and People category. His image of an old man with his hand raised to his face was "stronger in black and white than in colour".

Copies of Prince of Light can be purchased for Dh50 from the National Theatre, Abu Dhabi. For more information about the 2011 Emirates Photography Competition visit www.ephotoc.net.

* Additional reporting by Zaineb Al Hassani