x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Photo pitch is seat of learning in bid for UAE bone marrow donors

Photographer takes portraits to raise awareness for bone marrow donation

Photographer Sean Blake’s Untitled Chair Project features pictures of people from all over the world.
Photographer Sean Blake’s Untitled Chair Project features pictures of people from all over the world.

ABU DHABI // Sean Blake walks around town with a red wooden chair slung over his shoulder and a blue instant-picture camera in hand, to attract attention.

Whenever he is stopped out of curiosity, the professional photographer from Abu Dhabi sets down his chair and offers to take 10 free portraits in return for helping him spread awareness about the need for bone marrow donors.

Mr Blake is often asked what bone marrow transplants have to do with a chair. But he has found the quirky title of the project has helped to attract interest, and he dislikes titling his work.

The Texan was inspired to start the Untitled Chair Project after reading an article in The National about the struggles of an Arab family trying to find a matching donor for their child in 2011.

"I lost my best friend to leukaemia in 1996 and since then have always wanted to do something towards the cause," said Mr Blake, 43. "I moved to the capital in 2011 and saw the article about this young girl whose family members were not a match, and were trying to reach out to the general public."

Mr Blake knew the project had to be quirky enough to attract attention, and he put his photography skills to use.

"I found a lot of reluctance when I first pitched the project," said Mr Blake, who promotes it through a Facebook page and a blog. "When I got my first participant, the artist and jewellery designer Nadine Kanso, everybody else sort of jumped at the opportunity."

What started off as a campaign with the support of local artists and residents in Abu Dhabi and Dubai has gone global this year, with people from Europe and the United States joining the campaign.

Since the first set of photos he published on social networking sites, Mr Blake has photographed 36 people around the world, and has managed to attract 580 fans to his Facebook page.

He will meet participants anywhere they wish to be photographed, and promises not to dictate the composition.

"If you want to strap the chair to yourself and jump out of an airplane, we can do that," he laughed. "The only thing I ask is that you not look at the camera."

The photographer uses an entire roll of film in his Polaroid-style Diana F+ camera, then allows the participant to choose one favourite to take home. Mr Blake keeps the rest to promote his campaign.

Mr Blake did not expect the campaign to expand beyond the UAE's borders.

"It is interesting to see how people from all over the world have joined in. People told me they were inspired to go to their local registry and sign up to donate."

There are only 46 donors registered with the Emirates Bone Marrow Donor Registry, which is affiliated to the Bone Marrow Donors Worldwide registry.

Dr Ameen bin Hussain Al Amiri, head of the registry, said there should be more efforts to get people to volunteer because the number of patients was growing.

There are 13 million people registered to donate bone marrow around the world.

"On a daily basis there is someone who becomes sick, and there are several issues of mismatch," said Dr Al Amiri. "So far, nine patients worldwide have benefited from donors in the UAE."

Mr Blake plans to take the project on the road with the help of a crowd-funding scheme.

aahmed@thenational.ae