IN THE UAE
Four photographers share their views on the craft and offer tips to enthusiasts ahead of Gulf Photo Plus Week from February 10 to 17 in Dubai.
Ahead of Gulf Photo Plus Week, four photographers talk visual storytelling, and offer tips to enthusiasts.
MAGGIE STEBER Documentary photographer and author
Award-winning documentary photographer and author Maggie Steber is known for her touching and emotion-packed images, particularly of people in Haiti, where she has been working for more than 30 years.
‘Photography helps me make sense of the world,’ says Maggie. ‘It quenches a thirst; I have to understand a wider range of ideas, cultures, histories and people.’
Her works have been published in several international titles including The New York Times, Smithsonian, The New Yorker and National Geographic. The latter carried her photo feature on Dubai.
A judge on many award panels, Maggie is also a respected art teacher. How has visual storytelling evolved, particularly with the advent of social media? Social media has made visual storytelling much more accessible to a wider audience and allows the entry of every level of photographer. It’s another platform where people can post things as they’d like to have them seen.
I think Instagram and Facebook are very intimate. I’m excited about how these platforms can be used to reinvent one’s self, even though they really changed photography, photographic business and the venues for photography (magazines and newspapers). I feel storytelling now has become more contemporary. Stories are told or ‘visualed’ in a greater variety of ways, whether it’s photojournalism or documentary work, fashion, politics or portraiture. I like the contemporary feel because I have long felt that photographs that told stories tended to look the same. What challenges do you face when telling a story? You have to figure out what the story is, especially if it’s someone else’s story; how you will connect to it and to that person or group. Research is key. Focusing is critical. You can have a big idea but you have to go bit by bit. Also patience. Don’t be in such a hurry that you miss the best stuff. And, importantly: know the business of photography; you can be the best photographer in the world and not be able to earn a living. You’ve worked in over 66 countries. Which place is top of your mind? Haiti, because I worked there for 30 years and am still working there on personal projects and with a Haitian non-profit, Fotokonbit.org, which teaches photography to young people. I [also] have a website on Haiti, Audacity of Beauty. Haiti is an extremely complicated place where fair play has no home and where history imprinted a future that seems to be an unsolvable problem. But it’s also magical, beautiful, haunting, political, courageous.
I’ve also worked all over Africa and I love it so much. When I stand on African soil, a silent thunder roars up my body. Haiti is like that, too. Do you think people are getting desensitised after seeing so many pictures of people suffering, so frequently? I absolutely do and partly it’s because violence and suffering and hate seem to be growing. But it could also be because of social media showing us more of these things that happen. It’s also because often photographers go for the same moments, places, events and they don’t go deep.
I talk about this a lot in a workshop called Daring to See the World in a New Way, which is what I’m teaching in Dubai during Gulf Photo Plus week.
If we can find new ways to frame ideas and photographs, we help the photos do their job, which is to inform and to change things through knowledge. How we do that means success or failure of an image but, even more, whether someone’s life will be somehow changed for the better because their story is known. Is that a challenge for photographers? Yes, because we tend to copy stylistically photographers whose work we admire.
Everyone does this, some never go beyond but others do to create their own visual style, something unique and hopefully fresh.
But it’s important to look at all kinds of photography - photojournalism, documentary, fashion, film noir, portraiture, even periods of photography. Finally, you have to take a LOT of photographs, just to get better and find your style. What’s your take on gratuitous or excessive poverty/violence? I think that’s what we see and that’s why the pictures are ineffective in causing change, or informing. For example, photographers love to go to Haiti – it’s bright and visual, beautiful light set against a blue sky as a backdrop for the poorest people in the Western hemisphere. It’s poverty made beautiful. Showing violence for the sake of violence is pornographic, although some things must absolutely be shown. It’s a quandary. For example, in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, thousands of journalists poured in, many never having been to Haiti and knowing nothing about it, to photograph the suffering. Many came looking for violence, for shooting and looting and rioting. Bodies lay everywhere. There were so many injured people they spilled out on to the sidewalks of hospitals, people lay dying and photographers and cameramen would step over them, photographing and then moving on. No matter where you looked, there was great suffering. I tried to photograph their courage. Showing both devastation and courage was the best way to cover that story. You’ve said photographers have to think how to take new kinds of pictures that look different but still tell the story in an intimate way. Could you give an example? I’ve done stories on the history of the African slave trade, on cities and cultures, on my mother who suffered from memory loss for the last nine years of her life. With my mother, I photographed everything but especially her hands, which I loved, and as she slept. I had the time.
I did a story on memory and each photograph was a metaphor for a memory, so it was more interpretive.
AMMAR AL ATTAR Photographer and mixed-media artist
Ammar Al Attar’s first serious brush with photography was in 2003 when he bought his first 3.2 megapixel camera. ‘I was curious about photography,’ says the 35-year-old Emirati who works in the licensing department of the Roads and Transport Authority in Dubai. ‘I used to enjoy taking photographs and when I learnt that the Fifa World Youth Football Cup was happening, I decided I’d document it,’ he says.
The passion to document a sporting event led to capturing images of religious, historical and cultural relevance. Totally self-taught – ‘I attended a lot of photography workshops’ – Ammar, a postgraduate in international business relations, soon upgraded his equipment in 2006 and started taking pictures ‘with certain themes’.
His first solo exhibition at Dubai’s Cuadro Gallery was in 2013. Titled Prayer Rooms, the images depicted mosques – from ones on the roadsides and neighbourhoods to those in shopping malls and office complexes. He followed it up with Sibeel Water the same year at Cuadro. This one examined the public water fountains commonly found outside villas and government buildings in the UAE.
He has since done several projects with varied subjects, including the meaning of prayer in Islam; photography studios in the UAE; and the fast-disappearing old cinema theatres. He participates in GPP Week’s group exhibition Take the Shot.
If we can find new ways to FRAME ideas and PHOTOGRAPHS, we help the photos to do their JOB, which is to INFORM and to CHANGE things through KNOWLEDGE
Do you face any challenges documenting the culture and heritage of the UAE?
I must say it was a lot easier when I first started documenting Emirati culture and heritage in 2007.
There weren’t too many photographers at the time and, importantly, social media was not so popular or widespread. So people would talk to you and agree to be photographed. They had no fears that their pictures would be shared on social media. You could shoot in most places in the UAE without encountering problems.
But now people are a lot more sensitive. They ask so many questions. What are you doing? Why are you doing this? What do you plan to do with the pictures? People are more concerned, more suspicious. However, if you explain to them that you are doing a project to document and preserve culture, they understand and are willing to help you. What’s your take on the impermanence of things and the role of photographers? Unfortunately, it’s true – a lot of things are impermanent. Lots of things are being lost for various reasons, including development. You see, everything has a date and time so photographers have the task of documenting and preserving them so they will remain forever, at least in print. That’s what I’m doing with my project Reverse Moments. I set out to discover old photo studios in the UAE, some dating back to the early 60s. These studios were largely used by people to take passport photos. I wanted to collect copies of these old portraits and present them as works of art. The project was a document of the history of photography in the UAE.
I also found that a lot of people during those early years used to take pictures of various landmarks of the time. Their photographs offer an insight into the life of the times. That is a slice of history and I am collecting and preserving those pictures. In fact I will be showing some of those pictures at the GPP. So I guess in some ways we are recording history and preserving it for future generations. What subjects do you enjoy shooting? I’ve started a photography project, Salah ,on prayers in Islam. I did a lot of research about the various movements performed during our prayers and then translated the images into artwork. Now more people are aware of why we perform certain rituals. I think it’s very important to show how beautiful our religion is. Last year, Salah was featured at the Yinchuan Biennale in China.
I also started the Prayer Room project in 2012 to document the various places of prayer in the UAE and now I am expanding it to Saudi Arabia. What’s the best recognition you’ve received? I haven’t received a lot of awards, but there have been occasions when a few youngsters have come to me and said that they’d heard my talk and had taken up photography as a hobby. To me, that is the best award. If you can inspire a new generation to do work like your own, that, I think, is the best honour you can get. What is your guiding principle in photography? Always ask yourself a few questions when shooting. Why do you want to show a picture a particular way? Why do you want to photograph a particular subject? What made you think of the subject? Every time you ask these questions, you will get more ideas about how to shoot better and how to present your work. Also, imagine you are viewer and ask yourself whether you would like to see the picture.
24 Maggie Steber on a shoot in Haiti. Above: Pilgrims on the mountaintop outside Haiti’s Gonaives
A photo in a series Maggie did for National Geographic Creative shows healthy brain (foreground) and a brain affected by Alzheimer’s
One of Maggie’s favourite symbolic photos is of a Cuban woman swimming in the ocean in Miami, as the waters lap both her current and old countries
Ammar’s subjects include means of worship, such as salah (above) and prayer rooms