x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Workers' street style intrigues Paris

A series of photographs of labourers in the UAE has caught the eye of a French fashion house.

DUBAI // Impressed by the way construction workers in the UAE wore their head coverings, a leading French fashion house wanted to use their look as the inspiration for its next line.

But Philippe Chancel, the photographer whose work had caught the fashion house's eye, said no.

"A fashion house - a very luxurious brand - approached the photographer to do something based on these portraits in terms of fashion," recounted Elie Domit, creative partner at Dubai's Empty Quarter gallery, which represents the photographer in the UAE. "He turned them down because that's not what this is about."

Instead, the Frenchman's photographs of workers at construction sites and labour camps across the country will appear in a new book called Workers Emirates to be published next month.

The work shines a light on the men whose role in the dramatic development of the country is often overlooked. It is part of a well-established photographic tradition that includes famous black-and-white shots from the 1930s showing builders posing nonchalantly on girders high above the streets of New York.

The Paris-based fashion company was fascinated by the different ways the workers in Mr Chancel's portraits shielded their faces. Designers often draw inspiration from the ways ordinary people wear their clothes, and many send out so-called fashion spotters to identify trends.

"Many of these fashion spotters go onto the streets, into ghettos, and they find out how somebody wraps their bandanna and this suddenly becomes a statement in the high-end world," Mr Domit said.

"You see this with these portraits of workers. Mr Chancel does them in such a way that they become different, almost like icons in themselves. The way they wear their sunglasses or their kaffiyeh, how they wrap it around and use their mouth to hold it, there are a lot of stylistic intricacies."

Workers Emirates is Mr Chancel's second book about the UAE - the first, Desert Spirit, appeared in 2009 and contained photographs of the striking new buildings that were appearing across the country. His interest in photographing construction workers grew from that project.

"The first book was about the new development and the architectural trends that were becoming reality," he said. "I thought the country was a kind of utopia, a vision of the beginning of the 21st century in this part of the world.

"The workers are of course very important for the construction so with the second one I wanted to focus on them. They are the new workers of the new world.

"They were a little bit surprised by the attention I gave to them but afterwards they were very happy about the pictures and the work, all the time they were very kind."

Mr Domit added: "I think it's interesting to acknowledge this as a subject and to take a closer look at it because all of us, though we live together, many, many times we fail to observe what's going on around us.

"You drive around and the workers are there, but it's almost as if they're not there, you don't really take an in-depth look at it because it makes us all feel uncomfortable. It's something that you don't particularly face, so it's good to have a bit of scrutiny of it, it's good to have a dialogue and to expose it."

Mr Chancel, 52, has been a photographer for 20 years and has exhibited his pictures in the US, France, Italy, the UK, Belgium, Russia and Japan. He says on his website that his work explores "the complex, shifting and fertile territory where art, documentaries and journalism meet".

Workers Emirates will be published by Bernard Chauveau Éditeur of Paris at €39 (Dh190). It is due to be launched at Paris Photo, a major international photographic fair to be held in the French capital from November 10 to 13.

Some of the photos will go on show in Dubai from October 19 as part of the Empty Quarter's forthcoming Metropolis exhibition.

csimpson@thenational.ae