x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Family snaps of UAE's past

Old photographs tucked away in a box or thrown into a drawer can be priceless reminders of everyday life of just a few decades ago in the fast-changing Emirates.

Some of the family photographs chosen for the new Zayed University project, called Lest We Forget, where Emirati students turned their personal family photos into a book. Courtesy Zayed University
Some of the family photographs chosen for the new Zayed University project, called Lest We Forget, where Emirati students turned their personal family photos into a book. Courtesy Zayed University

There are black and white portraits of loved ones who had long parted this world, Polaroids showing? precious memories of a new car or new clothes for Eid, and family ?studio images frequently embellished with backgrounds of flowers, hearts or landscapes from foreign countries.

Each photo tells a different story.

When a group of Emirati students at Zayed University dug into their own boxes and searched for these family photos, they found all kinds of buried treasures depicting forgotten snapped moments that had shaped their family's story.

"This is a photo of my father when he was about nine months old. I wonder why he is wearing a dress and a gold necklace?" writes Aya Al Hamra next to a black and white portrait photo of Dhaher, her? father, taken in Al Ain in 1963.

This photo is one of several baby snaps, some of whom were photographed with heavily lined eyes with kohl, or wearing funky sunglasses, in traditional clothing or overdressed with gold chains with babies' dummies dangling at their ends.

They comprise just one of the themes captured in a new book compiled from a student project at Zayed University.

Called Lest We Forget, the book is one of the first in-depth studies of amateur photographs taken by Emirati families. It offers rare insights into the private images of local life and culture. Running from 1958 to 1999, the book contains more than 150 photos carefully selected from a pool of nearly 400 snapshots.

Some capture simple moments, such as a colour photo dated 1979, showing a child on the floor on a blanket. Student Wadima Al Mazouri puts it into context by saying: "Every Emirati family had the same fuzzy tiger blanket because in the past choices were limited in the stores."

A photo provided by Mariam Al Thahab is dated 1970, from Mecca. We see her grandfather, Hafedh, and her grandmother, Fatima, at a pay phone, where they were "calling up their children after performing Haj. They would keep in touch like that".

Marwa Dalak contributed an undated colour photo of her sister as a child wearing a gutra. She was photographed "pretending to be a young man flirting on the phone",  holding a bright blue dial phone.

Besides offering a view into their homes, there are photos capturing the sentiments and politics of the time, such as a snap contributed by Mariam Al Thahab. The black and white image shows her father's uncle in Qatar in 1960, wearing sunglasses and a blazer with his kandura, holding a photo of the late pan-Arab Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The project came out of a conversation between Michele Bambling, the assistant professor of art history at the university, and Karen Davies, the multimedia editor of The ?National.

They were "lamenting the dearth of published vernacular photography in the UAE", says Ms Bambling.

"I decided to ask students in my curatorial practices course if they would like to embark on a study of photographs taken by Emirati people over the course of the second half of the 20th century," she explains. "Published photographs of the UAE have largely been taken by non-local, professional photographers or by missionaries, oil companies, the media and the Royal family for purposes quite different that those of ordinary citizens."

The project began with a class of eight students in the spring term of 2011 and was developed over the next two and half years by four subsequent classes, with nearly 50 students involved.

"But the project is far from complete, as the story continues to be told with each new photograph," Ms Bambling says.

A limited number of books will be printed and given to the families, contributors and the sponsor of the project, the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation.

There are plans to release the book for sale to the general public within the year.

"The book is designed as an artists' book, not an academic volume," Ms Bambling says. "The photographs are precious family heirlooms, thus in the book they are treated as three-dimensional objects rather than flat images – each photographed, rather than scanned for the book.

"The photos are also carefully archived, shown in their exact size without alteration on photoshop and empirical data pertaining to each rigorously recorded.

"The students devised visual narrative devices aimed at guiding the reader through the images and narratives, while encouraging a sense of discovery and involvement by the reader."

Circles cut in the preceding page reveal incidental details before the page is turned to show the complete photograph. Notations on the back of photos also appear on the pages preceding the images they are taken from.

Private memories are inscribed in calligraphy on tracing paper with the photo just visible beneath, while narratives have been painstakingly typed on typewriters of the same vintage as the photographs.

Some photographs show the different types of passports Emiratis once needed to travel and of trips across the desert, often across ?Saudi Arabia. Others were snapped from aircraft as they travelled across the Gulf.

One photo, with a touch of humour, shows a teenage Emirati boy standing next to a poster of John Travolta in his bedroom.

"What struck me the most about the photos is the humour of candid shots, the universality of human interests, the fervent desire to make portraits and record family events for posterity, and the unexpectedly large number of photographs taken of women during the first decades of popular photography in the UAE," says Ms Bambling.

There also photos submitted of the founding President, Sheikh?Zayed, on hunting trips with his sons, including Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed.

A contribution from Sheikha Mariam bint Sultan bin Zayed captures her father in Pakistan, sitting with a falcon on his arm, drinking from an Arabic coffee cup.

"After the falcon gets the houbara bird, my father cuts the prey bird's heart out and gives it to the falcon as a prize. After the falcon had eaten the heart, my father fed it water in an Arab coffee cup," writes Sheikha Mariam.

"Usually my father or brothers would cut out the heart. But my nephews are learning the process. Only an expert at this would be allowed this privilege."

Each of the students who researched and collected their family photos was inspired by the project to look for more images and?investigate the stories behind them.

"These photos are special as they showcase our private lives. They show what our culture and life is really like," says Mira Al Awadi, 25, from Ajman.

"I advise every Emirati to look through their photo albums. Now during the summer vacation, I will go through the digital photos we have forgotten about and rediscover them and write the stories behind them."

For Safeya Al Maskari, 22, from Abu Dhabi, she was inspired to collect all her baby photos and do a timeline of the changes.

"I liked to see the changes to me. How almost everything changed except my eyes," she says.

She also discovered a photo of grandfather while searching for photos at home.

"It was a special moment to see that photo. I have never met my grandfather and when I found the photo of him, the stories told about him came alive."

Thikra Al Suwaidi, 23, from Abu Dhabi, wrote the poem about Sheikh Zayed that features in the book, his vision and how its effect can be felt today.

"I felt like I was going back in time and then moving forward to today," she says.

"I saw Sheikh Zayed's influence everywhere and so was inspired to write a poem dedicated to him and include it as part of the photos project."

As for her favourite photo, it was one of her uncle holding a phone connected via wire in an old car.

"I really liked it, as that is what we still do today, we talk on our phones in our cars," she says. "We discover so much about ourselves when we go back and look through our?photos."

rghazal@thenational.ae