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Cultural photography is a relatively new trend in the Gulf. This photographic practice is not as simple as a click of the shutter. It is a prolonged process that requires research, travel, cultural and contextual understanding, and, most importantly, an artistic vision. Today, local photographers are exploring the region’s hidden gems, capturing picturesque landscapes, heritage sites, and little-known cultural traditions. The images flooding social media platforms offer new national narratives, replacing the glitzy but characterless images of skyscrapers that have become conventional to represent the Gulf Arab states.
AGSIW spoke to Emirati Egyptian self-taught photographer Obaid AlBudoor to get a glimpse of his views on the role of photography in cultural representation and preservation.
AGSIW: When did you become passionate about photography?
Obaid: During my childhood, my father made it a point to document important moments of our lives. I am very grateful for this as I get to reflect on fond memories, which, as you know, become very hazy as we grow older. So, documenting came naturally to me. Even as a child, I was always the one with a camera at hand when we used to go to umrah pilgrimages or when I traveled with friends and family. I was the one in charge of taking class and yearbook photos. So, I always enjoyed taking pictures, but I never thought about it professionally. It was a way of journaling and documenting my personal journey. I was always interested in showing people how I viewed the world.
AGSIW: What motivated you to become a full-time photographer?
Obaid: When I first graduated, my priority was to earn money and become independent. I graduated in 2013 with a background in management and finance and was a corporate banker for about five years.
But as you know, our priorities change with time. The money was good, but working for the banking world really drained me. Long working hours, with little to no free time – it was a very harsh environment. Then I got called to military service, and I had an epiphany because it was the first time that I was alone with my thoughts. You know, with the 50-degree Celsius sun hitting my weather-beaten face, I had a lot of time to think. I realized I did not want to live for the weekend.
One day, I was off-roading with friends and cousins, and we stopped on top of this colossal dune. There were no roads, no trails except for our car tire marks. Back in the day, I was not very spiritually in tune with myself, but one friend said, “It is time for Maghrib prayers.” So, I got up, and we prayed together. I am very forgetful, but this moment was so powerful that it is hard to erase from memory. I remember seeing the sunset while we prayed and standing there being so overwhelmed with the creation in front of me. I realized how lucky I was for being in that place at that moment. It was just one of those out-of-body epiphany experiences. The thought that came to my mind was that I wanted to do everything in my power to chase that feeling and experience it as many times as possible. I started exploring new places and taking more photos, and people started believing in my photography. I was 25. I was young and single, with no financial responsibilities, and I still lived at home with my parents. So, after deliberate consideration, I decided to quit my job to practice my passion full time. Since then, I have been on shows hosted by National Geographic, hosted photography tours for Tourism Boards, and big companies and institutions have been approaching me to commission my work.
AGSIW: How would you describe your work and artistic thought process?
Obaid: It almost feels like ecstasy. I do not want to sound cheesy, but I really feel alive when I am behind the camera lens. Some of my favorite moments are when I am out on my own in secluded places. I see a scene, absorb it, internalize it, and then I start shooting. One of my favorite things is to shoot astrophotography; I truly enjoy sitting and observing the trillions of tiny stars, which look like fireflies, while my camera takes the shots.
To answer your question on the process, I have a great set up of computer screens in my home office. I spend weeks researching areas, using Google Maps and Google Earth, reading blogs, and talking to the community of explorers on social media. I pinpoint areas I want to discover and take my dog and my camping gear and just go. Of course, you always have a preconceived idea of what you are going to see, a lot of it involves planning, and there is a lot of intention behind my photos.
AGSIW: What areas in the United Arab Emirates or the Gulf states do you like to explore?
Obaid: In the beginning, I started going on trips and adventures to explore mountainscapes in the UAE. There is also a beautiful endless road that crosses the borders of Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. One of the early places I started exploring with my friends was Shuweihat Island, which only became a famous spot recently. Shuweihat is not just aesthetically beautiful; it is a geological marvel with unique structures. It is a fossilized calcified rock. If you look closely, you see fossilized roots of plants. It started blowing up on social media, and many people have been going since. Unfortunately, tourists damaged some of the structures, and it has been closed to the public since.
AGSIW: Well, that brings up the question – what do you think about social media-driven tourism?
Obaid: Social media tourism is a double-edged sword. In my opinion, there is a huge ethical question that needs to be addressed. For example, in the UAE, there is this beautiful, abandoned village in Al Madam, which is now buried in the sand. People moved out from that area in the ’80s because there was a lot of volatile wind. The area became popular on social media, and you now find a lot of graffiti, cans, and bottles, which I really find upsetting. I do not think social media tourism is a bad thing, but I believe it is important for people to be respectful of the environment.
I also want to add that social media tourism really helped people during the pandemic and the lockdown; people started promoting domestic travel and exploring countries from within. I do hope that people feel inspired to go out when they see my photos. I remember the excitement that I felt when I first discovered these places, and I hope I can transfer that kind of energy to others, especially the youth. Thankfully, people are not as bubbled as we were. So, I like showing people places that they would be surprised exist in our countries.
AGSIW: What are your main goals in documenting the region’s landscape and culture?
Obaid: Arabia is beautiful. My prerogative is to document and show people how beautiful it is. I think it is very underappreciated, and the places highlighted are usually the glitzy and the shiny skyscrapers. I like to describe the UAE as a book with a gleaming and fancy cover, but the best part is what is inside. And I think this is what we need to work on as a society; we need to develop and showcase new authentic and subjective content. Most times, the UAE is represented through external viewpoints in novels and historical books. There is a lot of work to be done to showcase the country from a local perspective, which we need to work on collectively. We have the means and resources to tell our story, and not just for public relations purposes. We have a unique culture of tribal history that is underdocumented, the historical traditions of which are exceptional to the region, such as the Shihuh tribe.
I am also starting a new project, which was my wife’s idea actually. There is a small subculture in Sharjah of manufacturing the traditional headpiece local men wear, what we call the agal. If you ask anyone in the UAE how the agal is produced, barely anyone can tell you its origin or how it is produced today. But there is a little Syria in Sharjah, and the people who make those headpieces are known to be Syrians. These craftsmen are part of our culture, and I think it is important to showcase their contribution to our society.
I think part of my work is preserving history, part of it is to educate people, and part of it is to increase appreciation of our land and people.
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