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.

Friday - - Contents - By Anand Raj OK

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, Fo­tokon­, 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

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