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December 2019

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Welcome to a world of travel, entertainment and culture, curated from a global collective of writers, photojournalists and artists. Each article of our award-winning magazine is sure to inspire, no matter which of our destinations you call home.
 
 
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1 December 2019

In Dubai, a new city aesthetic abounds

The shrill engine whistles at the Gare St. Lazare, the bells of the betjaks in Jakarta… fish drying in the sun for Ålesund; coffee roasting for Boston.” In his treatise on the urban aesthetic, John Ely Burchard extols all facets of a city – sights, smells, sounds – that make up its aesthetic beyond mere architecture. It is these minutiae, he says, that truly define our experience of a city; an experience that: “exacts all the use of all the senses, not the optical alone; and that this experience is more sensuous than intellectual.” Written in 1957, when Dubai was barely stirring, one wonders what he would have made of the city – and indeed, how we aestheticise our urban hubs today.

Place markers have always been important in how we make sense of cities. It is why we have the Tour Eiffel, Seattle’s Needle, Shanghai’s Bund. But in this ultimate age of photography, a city’s surface aesthetic has arguably become its most defining factor. So how do we penetrate this, and dig deeper than a surface image?

“We’ll receive emails from people saying they’re coming over for a holiday and they want to hire one of our instructors and the list they’ll give us is the same: a rooftop to get the skyline; the desert; the Palm,” says Mohamed Somji.

The Kenyan-born, Dubai-bred photographer also owns Gulf Photo Plus, a dedicated centre to photography in Dubai’s artistic district, Alserkal. With an ultimate aim of elevating the practice in the UAE, the centre holds masterclasses and regular exhibitions that aim to show a different perspective from the Gulf region.

“Architecture and these hero shots of skyline and the Burj are obviously always popular,” he says, attributing their recognition in par thanks to Instagram. “I think Dubai is so made for Instagram due to its shininess. It’s actually not difficult to get top photographers to come here and that is due to what they see online – images of the shiny Lamborghinis that the police drive, or Roger Federer playing tennis at the top of Burj al Arab – these “big” photos.”

The term nation branding came about in the 1990s, coined by Simon Anholt, who created an entire index around the idea that a country could be marketed. This rather nebulous idea of place definition brings with it a large emphasis on the aesthetic, with recognisable visual markers of paramount importance to tourist boards.

“The [Dubai] fountains are so well known because everyone puts it on their phones, which is an excellent form of marketing because it’s free! People are doing your work for you,” says Alex Atack. Like Somji, the British, Dubai-bred photographer separates these commercial images with more artistic shots of the country. But both, they agree, can descend into cliché.

In the last few years, the city’s photographic aesthetic has split into two veins. There’s the vein that is most well-known to outsiders: neon light trails on Sheikh Zayed Road; tops of skyscrapers peeking out over morning mist; the “Dubai sail”, or Burj al Arab, images that remain constant visual tropes.

And then there’s the other vein, more popular with artistic photographers. “When it comes to a common aesthetic in Dubai, every day outside is either bright or hazy sunlight, so aesthetically that feeds into [the look],” comments Atack. “There is a colour palette I’ve noticed: it’s the muting of greens into yellows, blues into magentas for the sky. Part of that is the way the city looks, but part of it is a feedback loop.”

Atack defines it as part of the “presence as absence” trend… namedropping the construction projects on the edge of the city, the “road to nowhere” in Al Qudra and pastel buildings in Dubailand as being particular examples one can find on a more ‘hipster’ Instagram.

But this unusual imagery is itself becoming unexceptional, with a wave of photographers looking to push the city’s definitions still further.

“This Mad Max scene… that’s a response to all these big shiny buildings. Again, it’s become so commonplace that people are looking for the next faddy, trendy thing,” agrees Somji.

Aside from architecture, a large part of how we define a place is by its people. The British makeup brand Rimmel urges viewers of its adverts to “get the London look” – epitomised as a smudged smoky eye and insouciant, messy hair. Paris needs no further explanation, its inhabitants the subjects of endless, weary fascination on their walk, their style – their manner of speaking. In the Congo, the high fashion sapeurs decked out in Saint Laurent suits and suspenders are subject of both intrigue and imitation, their style slowly spreading out into neighbouring countries.

In Dubai, too, the sheer variety of demographics prove a welcoming challenge to photographers, who look to use their subjects to elevate aesthetic in the city.

Magnum photographer Olivia Arthur came to Dubai for a three-month residency, with the idea of portraying the city from the perspective of a shipwreck survivor from the Sixties. Playing on ideas of confusion and alienation, her book, Stranger, jumps past photojournalism and observational formulae, into the disjointed perspective of a time traveller.

Richard Allenby Pratt’s images are similarly surreal: his exhibition ‘Abandoned in Dubai’ saw the city reimagined as apocalyptic, with zebras wandering across highways, an emu standing in the midst of ruins.

Augustine Paredes has documented his own experience of arriving in Dubai as an expat Filippino worker, using self-portraiture to define his experience. “As Filipinos, we have a saying – ‘kung maikli ang kumot, matutong bumaluktot,’ he writes. “It means, if the means are short, learn to slouch and make it work.”

Emirati photographers, too, are concerned with subject rather than city. Lamya Gargash’s practice has been concerned with the extensive study of identity and perception, often documenting forgotten spaces in public and private realms in Emirati society. Finding herself caught in the chaos of daily life and the demands of motherhood, her series ‘Traces’ echoes her longing for silent, stationary moments, as well as acting as celebration of the visibly banal.

Ammar Al Attar goes beyond film as documentation, hoarding dog-eared postcards and orphaned negatives to preserve increasingly elusive local Emirati cultures and rituals.

“When Diwali was on, it was wonderful to see everyone celebrating on the streets of Bur Dubai to the backdrop of fireworks,” says Somji. “I love that there is this diversity, and living here for all these years with all these different nationalities has undoubtedly shaped my world view.”

One of his recent projects, ‘Metro Garden’, involves documentation of people in repose. “I spend time with them and get their stories. A lot of people I meet in the park wear uniforms for their work – they’re security guards or baristas – but on a Friday they can wear clothes that they like, play music, talk to each-other.” Somji’s aim is to strip away what he sees as Dubai photographic tropes, by documenting workers on weekends. “After all, who looks their best after a working day?” he comments.

Dubai has also proved formative for those moving on from the city. Philip Cheung moved to Abu Dhabi in 2007, taking a job at a local newspaper before returning as the official royal photographer to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

Now in Los Angeles working for titles including the New Yorker with subjects like Keanu Reeves and Justin Trudeau, his approach, he says, has been informed by the UAE. “Looking back, I was pretty green – I was only a year in as a full-time photographer, so I hadn’t really developed yet, but it was this city that really influenced my aesthetic, from the architecture to cultural influences, and the effects these had on the environment.

“Capturing all those elements forced me to pull back and think about my use of space. I got comfortable with the use of distance. The aesthetic is really unique and apparent when I moved back to Canada; that was when I realised how organised and structured everything in the UAE was. I learnt not to be so literal, and it influenced my very formal style.”

Structure, form, presence: all are serving to influence both the UAE, and the people that choose to document it. But as Burchard said, it is more than surface aesthetic that makes up our coherence of a place. And as he might imagine himself drinking coffee in Boston on the water, or wandering around at sunrise to Jakarta’s ringing bells, you too must conjure up your own sense of a city.

In Dubai, perhaps it’s the smell of the fish market in Deira, or the steaming cup of chai in a Jumeirah café. In a seemingly limitless place, it will be these tangible senses – as well as aesthetics – that will define your reality.

Words: Georgina Lavers
Images: Alex Atack

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