Article in brief: The author reflects on the changing perspective on the need for archiving our lives through photography.
I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat as I tried to silence my mind. I knew how the talk would unfold and was weighing words in my head of what was necessary to state and what I can hold back. I was part of a panel discussion with the theme “photojournalism”, and of course the issue of access and importance to document as a testimony had to be brought up. You see, seven years ago I sat down writing just that. I wrote my post grads thesis on the Emirati Identity and the photographic archive. I was an advocate of the importance of preserving our history by locating and archiving every possible photograph. It was as if my very existence depended on a sheet of paper, to testify I came from somewhere and I had a family. At that very moment, I realized the absurdity of that obsession.
I forgot that my family told stories that are passed down by generations, that I am surrounded by skyscrapers and white sails across the blue Gulf. I forgot that we spoke a dialect of Arabic identifiable by the rest of the Arabs, our poetry and that my own name bears an archive.
So, I sat listening to complaints on how Emiratis refuse to be photographed and refuse to give access. It’s not a matter of being conservative; it is a matter of having the right to privacy. It is also furthermore the right to be respected and understood. Going out and pointing a camera at a person without permission and most of all without context to how this image will be used amazes me. To add to the fact that the person behind the lens doesn’t even speak the language or understand the nation he/she is representing through his/her own lens. This is by no means directed to anyone in specific – it is merely an observation I have witnessed during my experience as a photographer.
Which really leads me to the question: is taking a photograph more important than respecting an individual’s right to privacy? Also, will the lack of the photograph impact an article?
Yes, photographs are important to the article and without a doubt are what attracts most readers. We are living in a visual world after all. However, we are also equally living in a world where journalism ethics should be the first priority.
Let me return to the question: do we need photographs of ourselves as proof of our existence?
Putting aside the fact that our nation is young and that progress has been transformational, the camera has only been introduced to this region barely 113 years ago (first record by a passing traveler in 1901 of Abu Dhabi). The camera was not an apparatus that was used by the local inhabitants. Quite the contrary, it was used by travelers such as Sir Wilfred Thesiger and for colonial purposes by the British RAF. The camera was invented and developed in Western countries where it gained cultural and status-based meaning as it morphed and transcended through different formats and artistic movements. It started as a scientific experiment, then entered the elite households, later to the battlefields as news reportage and finally as art. The idea of the photograph being a tool of truth has long ago been discussed, acquitted and revisited with no conclusion but perhaps that it is a truth of many truths. Therefore, why is the photograph as a document of truth so violently imposed on this nation? Why is it still (post-colonial) so important to unveil a mysterious land?
I believe we have surpassed those times of uncovering the exotic other, and we are now defining and identifying ourselves by who we believe we are.
We are people of a history that goes back to Ibn Haytham who developed optics, who laid the foundation of photography. We are beyond a piece of paper and perhaps we are some of the few who cherish the privacy and sanctity of life in a world that knows no limits to what can be shared.
Al Shamsi’s recently published book Alayah by Sail Publishinghas been awarded the support from Dubai Culture part of their printing and publishing movement “Reading in Arabic Challenge”.