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Into The Wild, Empty Quarter, Abu Dhabi

1 December 2014

Emirati photographer Mohammed Ahmed Ahli bought his first digital camera in 2010. Just three years later he set off into Rub’ al Khali (known as the Empty Quarter) to indulge his passion for nature photography and returned with a collection of striking images that capture the majesty of the largest sand desert in the world

Photography is not your full-time job, is it? When did you start taking photographs?
No, not yet. Five years back I started taking pictures, because I have loved nature since I was a kid. I travelled with my family, and my family was drawn to nature. We started by going to Oman. Then we went to the UK, we went to Germany. Always to appreciate nature. One day, when I was 20, I remembered all the beautiful scenes I used to see, and I thought, ‘Why didn’t I have a camera?’ I wished I could go back in time and take those pictures. 

What else inspired your love of nature photography?
I am a big fan of National Geographic. I love to watch the documentaries and look at the images in the magazine. National Geographic inspired me a lot. I wanted to discover new places and to take photographs. I have been reading National Geographic for seven years. I am 25 now. 

How did you start taking pictures?
I wanted to buy a DSLR camera, but my family told me they wouldn’t buy it for me. They asked what I would do with it. ‘We will buy a Dhs3,000 camera, and you will just play with it.’ So I saved money and bought a small digital camera. I started taking pictures, and my pictures were, honestly, bad at the beginning. But I started to get better. I got feedback from a photography website for nature photographers (naturephotographers.net). 

What sort of feedback did you receive?
Actually, it was more insults. But I took it in a positive way. I found all of the best nature photographers in the world on that site, and I put my pictures up. They pointed out a lot of mistakes, technical mistakes. I wanted to learn. So I took the advice, went out and took more pictures, and learned something new each time. I didn’t want to edit the pictures in the beginning, because I wanted to learn how to handle the light properly, how to use the light. I started learning, I did an exhibition at The Ara Gallery in 2010, I sold some of my pictures, and I bought a better camera. 

What was your first project with your new camera?
Oman was the first destination I travelled to, because it’s close to the UAE and there are a lot of caves and mountains. I continued to post my pictures online, and the feedback on the Oman pictures was positive. I sold some of them, too. It was my first adventure with a good camera. But after that I wanted to do something big. I wanted to get out of the country. I used to watch the National Geographic Channel a lot. I would watch them camp and wake up with the sunrise, and I got very excited about doing the same. I decided to travel to New Zealand. 

How did your family and friends react to your decision?
While I was planning my trip to New Zealand everybody was telling me I was crazy, because nobody did it here in the UAE – trips purely for photography. Nobody encouraged me. They told me that I was not like one of National Geographic’s photographers who could go and do this. But I had confidence, which is good. I planned my trip for six months, to see how many hours I would have to drive, how many days I would have to walk. I walked for three days, camped, hiked about 18 or 19 kilometres [a day]. I learned. 

When I came back, the nature photographers who gave me the negative comments were asking me questions, which gave me great joy. I had an exhibition of those pictures in Burj Khalifa, and the New Zealand ambassador came. He saw my pictures, and he told me that he had never seen New Zealand look so beautiful. This was in 2012. So you decided to make your next project the Empty Quarter. I read that the Empty Quarter had the largest dunes in the world; it has eight different colours of sand. So I wanted to discover that. 

There is a guy called George [Steinmetz] who works for National Geographic. He made a documentary, and he was talking about going to different deserts around the world; he paraglides, and he said the Empty Quarter was the only desert where he could hardly fly. Why? Because the dunes were so large that he would hit them and fall, and he broke his leg. He said that it was one of the most beautiful places he had seen, but he couldn’t continue [paragliding in the Empty Quarter], because the dunes were too large. 

The Empty Quarter is surrounded by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman. It’s huge. How did you plan your trip?
First I looked at the borders; I asked some of my police friends where the borders were. I used Google Earth. I found out everything on the internet, and then through experience. 

Did you go alone?
I took a friend with me, but he was there to discover the Empty Quarter for the first time, too. We took a 4x4 vehicle. There is a rough road there. You go along this road, and then you stop and walk in. You couldn’t take a vehicle in. Some people went in and died because their whole vehicle sunk into the sand. Every weekend I spent there from October 2013 to April 2014. It killed my social life. 

You must have found yourself in some dangerous situations.
Once I spent a whole weekend in a sand storm. I didn’t shoot anything. The storms are unexpected. You go there, the weather is clear, and then suddenly you see a storm coming. You go into your tent, close it and never go out. The wind is so strong, and the sand, when it hits your face, scratches you. There was a storm once when I was halfway up a dune. Fortunately I was wearing glasses. 

You climbed the dunes?
Some of the dunes are 300m. I climbed one that was almost vertical. It took three hours. It takes so long because you keep sinking back, or you go in the wrong direction and you have to go back and find another path. I sank into the sand one time up to my stomach. Luckily I found a small tree close by and pulled myself out. 

What sort of images did you want to create?
The Empty Quarter project was a huge project for me. I had timelines. I wanted to capture different things: first the highlights and the shadows, because they are amazing; second the colours; third the size of the dunes. I wanted to cover everything, and trust me, I covered everything. Now when I go back there, I know every part of it. I was looking for very natural light. When the sun goes down it hits the big dunes; this is why you get the shadows. This is why it’s special. If you go to any other desert, you won’t find large dunes, so you won’t get the shadows. It was all about capturing these moments. 

The first two days I went there and just observed what was happening, writing notes and discovering the place. I have finished the project now, but I might go back just to relax. It’s the quietest place on earth. It gives you a peaceful feeling. 

Where do you plan to travel next?
I’m thinking Alaska or Patagonia in Argentina. I like to go to unfamiliar places. I did a bungee jump recently, because I like to face my fears. Nature taught me that. It can kill you at any time, but doing these things makes me feel so good, like I’m doing something before I die. Photography for me is education. I like to learn about a place and the nature in that place.