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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

A message to India: Photography project connects UAE migrants with families back home

Abu Dhabi photographers head to Kerala to pass on images of the men working to feed and clothe them

A new photography project by two Abu Dhabi residents is seeking to spread joy among nine UAE-based Indian construction workers by connecting them with the families they support back home through a series of snapshots.

Titled the Father’s Day Project, the series features photos of the lives of worker's families in Kerala in cement and lime plastered houses near green fields, rubber plantations and even a 100-year-old, mud-tiled home perched on a hill. Photographers Waleed Shah and Nikith Nath spent a week visiting small villages to present family members with pictures of their migrant relatives, and take shots of the families to return with.

The montages show not just immediate family, but uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces - they are a sort of long-distance, affectionate greeting to the men working in Abu Dhabi to feed and clothe them. They tell a powerful story of endeavour and the struggle of migrants, some of whom have worked in Gulf countries for decades, to put a roof over the heads of their family back home and take their children through college.

It also brings to life tales of success, with one picture showing a family that runs a small business and another capturing the love story of a couple who speak twice a day to stay connected.

“A lot of people may think everybody is struggling, trying to make ends meet, but it’s not all a sad story. There are both stories of struggle but also of success. Some have sons and daughters who are graduating in mechanical engineering and English literature,” said Mr Shah, born and raised in Abu Dhabi, on his collaboration with Mr Nath.

“The wife of one man owned and operated a computer learning centre. These guys are struggling, but through their blood, sweat and tears they are building a life for their family. Some don’t see their family for two years at a time, some were visiting when we were there or had just come back from Kerala, so you can see the whole spectrum. Some of the men feed six or eight, sometimes 15 people with their salary from Abu Dhabi.”

Devassy Thomas receives the picture of his family with the portrait of him. Courtesy Waleed Shah and Nikith Nath
Devassy Thomas receives the picture of his family with the portrait of him. Courtesy Waleed Shah and Nikith Nath

In the UAE, workers from Kerala state make up more than 40 per cent of the Indian community, who are the largest expatriate group. Many workers do not return home for more than two years at a time to save money, purchase land and construct a house.

Some of the men featured in the Father’s Day Project are plumbers, others electrical supervisors or in charge of building sites. Their images also incorporate messages from the men.

In his note, Daniel Philipose tells of how, while working in the UAE for 12 years, he financed his daughter's training to become an airport manager, as well as a hotel management diploma for his son.

“Just like everyone who has dreams when they come to the Gulf countries, I too had some that I have managed to accomplish over the years,” said Mr Philipose, a civil supervisor in a facilities management firm.

“We do not know of our tomorrow, but at the moment I have a loving family. There is nothing special that I would like to tell everyone back home — just know that I am working hard in this desert for all of you.”

Devassy Thomas' family receive his portrait in Poyya, Trissur amidst wonderful fields and backwaters. His house provides for his parents, Devassy and Rosy, his wife Siji and his two daughters Saneta and Sandra. Courtesy Waleed Shah and Nikith Nath
Devassy Thomas' family receive his portrait in Poyya, Trissur amidst wonderful fields and backwaters. His house provides for his parents, Devassy and Rosy, his wife Siji and his two daughters Saneta and Sandra. Courtesy Waleed Shah and Nikith Nath

He calls daily at 3pm after lunch and 9pm after dinner to check on his wife and family.

“What really touched me was you could see that after all these years, they were so in love,” Mr Shah said.

“We were there during the lunchtime phone call. And you could see every time we spoke about Daniel to his wife she had this big smile on her face, she blushed a little and loved talking about him.”

The houses in the backdrop are integral to the photographs. “I was very adamant about having the house in the photos. That house signifies how hard this person is working and his accomplishments to build that house for the family,” Mr Shah said..

The entire project began two months ago with photographs of the migrant workers in Abu Dhabi.

The photographers then travelled about 1,000 kilometres over a week in May during the monsoon through rural Kerala and into big towns to deliver photographs fastened on motorbikes and secured with bubble wrap for protection from the rain.

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For Mr Nath, it was a chance to look at his home country through a different prism.

“This was another perspective of Kerala. You often hear from a worker’s point of view when you read the news, but I have never visited families. Their stories were moving to understand what it is like to miss a father, a husband,” he said.

The transformation in the migrants was obvious too, particularly in two men on vacation when the photographers visited.

“There was a blankness on their face when they answered our questions here. But when we went to their home, it was a completely different person. Their energy and vibe was totally different,” Mr Nath said.

Father’s Day came early for these men when they were handed the family portraits last week.

It was also a learning experience for Mr Shah after a project in April this year sparked a fiery debate in the UAE about race, exploitation and cultural appropriation. He was criticised for a photo shoot in the working class neighbourhood of Satwa in Dubai, although some welcomed it saying it attracted good publicity to the area.

This time, he was mindful about being sensitive to the men and their lives. His take away was that happiness has many shades.

“I came away with a valuable lesson about happiness. When we were in Kerala, happiness was all about family, community, being together and supporting one another. The financials are a means to facilitate it, but you really don’t need that much money to achieve it,” he said.

“For us in the UAE, happiness might mean lifestyle, more money, fancier cars and better dinners. The amount of money we have may not be enough for our happiness based on our lifestyle. It kind of taught me that happiness is how you choose to be happy.”

A documentary on the men and their stories will release next week in time for Father’s Day on June 21.

To more information, visit www.waleedshah.ae/Kerala-fathers.

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