x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Flying photographer's unique views of his country

Ahmed al Shehi captures rare glimpses of the region when working for Dubai's search-and-rescue unit - and he's developed quite a talent.

The photograph of cars meandering through the desert taken by Ahmed al Shehi, left, from a helicopter.
The photograph of cars meandering through the desert taken by Ahmed al Shehi, left, from a helicopter.

DUBAI // In just eight years, Ahmed al Shehi has gone from taking informal family snapshots to publishing his work in tourist guides and displaying it at an art showroom in Jumeirah. His photography has two ingredients that make it special - a love of is country, and a helicopter.

The 35-year-old Emirati's day job as a Dubai Police search-and-rescue helicopter pilot gives him a bird's eye view of the city, enabling him to capture images such as the Burj al Arab perfectly reflected in the water, the Emirates Towers looming over the city and the undeveloped fronds of The Palm Jebel Ali. The helicopter is his means, but patriotism is his end. "I take pictures of the UAE because it is my country and I love it," he said. "I see things from the air that are so beautiful I can't describe them in words. I had to learn to take photos so I could share them."

Most of Mr al Shehi's work is architectural, focusing on the landscape of his home city, Dubai. His other interest is natural photography, for which he either flies his helicopter over the desert to capture the magnificence of the empty dunes or drives into the mountains in the north or into Oman to focus on wildlife. According to Sue McGregor, the managing director of Art House Dubai, where Mr al Shehi's work is on display, he has a unique talent. "Some are very interesting, particularly his architectural pieces," she said. "I've never seen that style before."

Mr al Shehi became interested in photography in 2002 when professional photographers from abroad began taking flights in his helicopter between emergencies. "The city was changing very quickly and hundreds of foreigners were coming to Dubai to photograph it," he said. "I had never seen such big lenses, they looked like bazooka guns. But their work was fascinating. I wondered if I could do it too."

Knowing nothing about cameras or photography, Mr al Shehi took to the internet for research. He bought a small digital camera and, during his numerous flights, learnt the best angles and began building up his portfolio, with the professionals still inspiring him. "I felt the other photographers were just taking pictures for projects, for work," he said. "But as an Emirati taking pictures of my country, I felt I was giving them spirit and soul." In 2005, he opened his own studio in Sharjah and began travelling further afield, across the UAE and into Oman, to capture images.

His friends and family often marvel that his pictures of the seas and rocks of Khasab on the Musandam peninsula or the green and flower-filled fields of a small village called Toyyeen, on the Fujairah-Ras al Khaimah border, were taken in the region. "People didn't believe that such views existed," he said. "That was why I started taking pictures, because I wanted to show people views they had never seen, even of their own country."

In 2007, he approached Explorer Publishing, which printed three of his images in their Mini Dubai guide. The following year, in March, he was first on the scene of the 200-car pile-up on Sheikh Zayed Road that became known as Fog Tuesday. His shocking images of the twisted wreckage were published in several newspapers. Now he is one of the few pilots charged with taking pictures of search-and-rescue operations.

"While the others operate the winch and the tow to lift people to safety, I sit in the doorway and take their photograph," he said. "It's very important. They often use them in court as evidence afterwards." Mr al Shehi's abstract work, such as a series of close-ups of the Burj Khalifa, caught Ms McGregor's eye when his sister-in-law took some photos to her gallery for framing. She chose a selection to display in her showroom. "I was interested by the angles he chose and his use of light and shade," Ms McGregor said. "It's something different."

She framed his pieces and put them on sale. "His Burj Khalifa piece is selling for Dh1,200 (US$326)," she said. "It is a good price but he is an up-and-coming artist at the moment, not many people have heard of him yet. I'm sure his prices will go up as he becomes more well known." Mr al Shehi said enrichment was not his aim. "I don't do it for money or recognition. I just want to share the beauty of my country."