Photography and the City

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

“The city was seen as dangerous, but also obscure, crowded with secrets and containing districts that were inaccessible to respectable folk. It was to such areas that the inspectors of city life and labour had to journey in order to illuminate them” – Derrick Price, Surveyors and Surveyed, in L.Wells (ed.) (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction.

Photography, in the nineteenth century was seen as a kind of social investigation, an “unmediated transcription of reality” (Price, 75). Susan Sontag in her essay, On Photography, sees photography as the most surreal of art forms, ” in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality of the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision” (52)

The Surrealist movement saw the essence of revolution as the ability to capture” the marvelous in everyday” and photography was seen as a conduit for doing so, but not without contention. Photography grew in the days of the Empire and according to Price, became an “important adjunct to imperialism, for it returned to the Western spectator images of native peoples which frequently confirmed prevailing views of them as primitive, bizarre, barbaric or simple picturesque.” (68)

The tendency of imperialist photography to construct “the Other” for the purposes of study and perhaps, control, “privileged the purchaser” and allowed the dominant culture to be defined against those being colonized. The consumer of photographs thus constituted a distinct social class, with a growing appetite for images of people in living conditions that were different from their own (Price, 70).

Photo credit: Amina Waya

Photo credit: Amina Waya

This became even more pronounced with the depiction of poverty, squalor and urban decay that obsessed the middle class spectator. Alan Trachtenberg, the American historian, writes, “exploration of forbidden and menacing spaces emerged in the 1890s as a leading mode of the dailies, making spectacles of the “neither side of New York” or “the other half.”  The reporter appeared now often as a performer, one who had ventured into alien streets and habitations, perhaps in disguise, and returned with a tale, a personal story of the dark underside of the city.” (126)

Sontag further argues, “For more than a century, photographers have been hovering about the oppressed, in attendance at scenes of violence – with spectacularly good conscience. Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, hidden from them.” (55)

According to Sontag, the camera became the extension of the eye, for the middle class flaneur. 

Photographs are still used to represent “other” realities. Realities that were considered out of reach or exotic to the consumer. This commercialization of voyerism is used extensively by the tourism industry in order to “sell” places to potential visitors. The mechanics of how a photograph is taken is rarely evaluated, despite the awareness that they are taken to elicit a certain response.

 

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

Fortunately, today there is a proliferation of excellent social media sites that offer a wide range of perspectives on any city. Dubai has recently launched an e-museum on Instagram made up of photos taken by its residents. This fantastic current exhibit running at the International Center for Photography in New York documents the changed political and social landscapes of South American cities. A post about urban photography wouldn’t be complete without paying homage to the father of the medium, Henri Cartier Bresson. Also, check out the Telegraph’s showcase of award winning street photography under its culture picture galleries.

 

 

 

The Non Place

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

There was a time when people explored cities with just an eye and a notebook or perhaps, even a camera. Today, however, explorers are more keen to remove themselves from their immediate surroundings and mediate the world through a digital interface. Consider this paragraph from Kazys Varnelis’s Networked Place,

“You’re in the café with your Moleskine notebook—a non-networked object ubiquitous among the digerati—trying to start an essay on the role of place in network culture and finding that the only way forward is to detach yourself from the network as much as possible. But the people surrounding you have other ideas. The man behind you is trying to commit himself more deeply to the network, purchasing a plan that will allow him to talk on his mobile phone for one-tenth of his waking hours every month. A woman next to you is browsing the Internet with her laptop, a late-career executive is thumbing his Blackberry,two students are studying together, and some teenagers are hanging out listening to music on their iPhones. While one texts her friends, the other downloads music from the iTunes store. A thirtysomething man is on his laptop working on a screenplay, while a few people are just reading books or the paper. You are all somehow drawn together by the lure of the generic (but branded) caffeinated beverage and the desire to share a similarly generic, but nonetheless communal, space with other humans with whom you are likely not to have any direct interaction.”

How has technology changed our cities? By converting them into non-places.

In her book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Jane Jacobs links the collapse of the public sphere to the lack of “architectural infrastructure” that encourages face to face interaction. What we have today are a profusion of transitory places – malls, supermarkets, airports, hotels, restaurants, cafes, modes of transport – purposeful, commodified and mediated by text rather than speech. Otherwise called the Non Place

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

Each place or (non-place) requires a certain protocol of behaviour, which minimizes interaction with strangers. Take the airport, for instance. After you’ve traveled once, the protocol becomes familiar. If you’re lost, look for the signs that lead you to where you want to go. Your identity is checked once when you enter and once when you leave. The airport is the perfect embodiment of the non place.

Coined by Marc Auge, and explained in this video about “Architecture and the Non Place” the non place is the most significant aspect of supermodernity. While places are created through identity and memory, are finished and ordered, non places are distinguished by the fact that they’re constantly changing, are created to meet a certain end, they’re mediated by text and are governed by spectacle (Auge, M (1995) From Place to Non Place. Non-Places Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity”, London: Verso)

As Auge says, “it creates the image, produces the myth and at the same stroke makes it work”.

Today, most cities of the world build “sights” for the explicit purpose of attracting people to enjoy them for a brief periods of time. Their marketing machines go into overdrive, giving rise to a proliferation of literature that together produce the myth of the city. The experience of the city is then packaged as a product and sold to be consumed in a particular way. Today the world is a an interconnected network of non places.

The drawback of this whole operation is the inability of places to shake off the myth created so aggressively by their tourist offices. Even inhabitants of cities that are market aggressively, buy into this image and, in the process lose a deeper, more meaningful engagement with the city and its inhabitants. Interaction become purposeful and driven by expectation.Cities are now consumed and used like products to meet certain ends.

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

On the flip side, the confluence of globalization and the technology enabled networked economy that brings to life the non place, can also give rise to “place” in the most unexpected way. Like in this fantastic  TED talk by photographer Iwan Baan, “Ingenious homes in Unexpected Places”, he documents the lives of people who took over an abandoned high rise tower in Caracas, Venuzvela and how through ingenuity, creativity and a little hacking, have made it their home. In another Ted Talk, Robert Neuwirth talks about “Shadow Cities”, or squatter sites in which more than a billion people live.

Do you unconsciously endorse the non place? Are you ready to break out of structure and discover something truly unique about the city you live in and yourself?

Go for a drift today!

 

The flaneur

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

In the streets of early nineteenth century Paris, a new figure emerged. Charles Baudelaire’s flaneur. The urban observer, a poet-wanderer, a reporter of everyday street life, an artist, a loiterer, a city dweller who was as Baudelaire describes, “a lover” of  “universal life”.

In his La Pientre de la vie Moderne, he writes:

“the crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”

Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project (1939), resurrected the flaneur when he wrote:

“For the flaneur, a transformation takes place with respect to the street: it leads him through a vanished time.”

And about the lost art of walking he says:

“An intoxication comes over the man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets. WIth each step, the walk takes on greater momentum; ever weaker grows the temptations of the bistros, of shops, of smiling women, ever more irresistible the magnetism of the next street corner, of a distant square in the fog, of the back of a woman walking before him.”

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

This romaticism of urban exploration, of bearing passionate witness to movements of city life, of being an almost insatiable observer of the human condition, is an indulgence our techno-economic lives deprive us of. There is an undeniable spiritual characteristic to the existence of the flaneur, which Walter Benjamin called “auratic”. This urban explorer was enveloped in an aura of transcendence; he was almost other worldly.

This idea gets even more interesting when placed in our present context.

One wanders to become familiar. People usually explore their surroundings when they’ve arrived in a new city or when on holiday. There is already a sense of “longing to belong” about wandering. One almost has to feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar to become a flaneur. So walking and exploring becomes a medium to feel united to the spirit of the city.

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

One of our class’s favourite texts, is Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” from his infamous Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Equally popular is Virgina Woolfe’s, Street Haunting. (Check out our intervention inspired by both these writers) Both describe “a hunger”, as Benjamin wrote, “to prowl through unknown districts”. Both Poe and Woolfe take to walking as an excuse – the former to satiate his curiousity about a distinct looking man, the latter to buy a pencil. Both evoke images of their cities with magical detail; offering charming spectacle to life on the streets.

To nurture a sense of belonging, one has to lay claim to the city by traversing it on foot. Paths forged in the city, through our imagination and curiosity, create indelible connections in our minds and entwine us in a unique relationship with the city.

Try it. Our Urban Writers are here to help. 

 

Our urban interventions

It’s time to introduce our Urban Writers and their urban interventions. Made up of third year journalism students at the University, these students are working to recontextualize the city in new and creative ways.

Amina Waya:

Photo credit: Amina Waya

Photo credit: Amina Waya

Amina is exploring the personification of cities. Inspired by the writings of Poe, Woolfe and Sukhev Sandhu, Amina will be playing the part of a Dubai resident who “leaves notes for other residents around the city, asking them thought provoking questions that should help them understand how their city has been personally personified for them i.e. who their city is to them.

The notes will contain a simple question about the receivers relationship to the city. “Are you a part of of your city or is your city a part of you?”

She says: “It fascinates me how Dubai transforms from day to night. It’s like watching a woman get dolled up for a night out or seeing a man put on a mask and go pretend to be someone else for a few hours every night, only to wipe off the make up, slip out of the camouflage again before dawn”

You can post your answers on her Twitter page.

Ayesha Islam:

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Creator of the Instagram page @discoverdxb , Ayesha has been looking at the city through her camera. Inspired by surrealistic narratives of the city, she dreams of a city where people converse in images.

Many of us don’t act upon our dreams and passions… Often people push their dreams aside, only seeing them before heading to bed, as they close their eyes. The fast paced city life is demanding and constantly makes us aware of time. Everyone is running on a schedule and forming relationships for a rational purpose. We should ask ourselves this question on a regular basis: when is the last time we did something for the first time?”

Daniil Shilov

Photo credit: Daniil Shilov

Photo credit: Daniil Shilov

A gaming enthusiast, Danill takes his passion for video games and recontextualizes the city as a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG). He takes on the guise of a Game Master who sets simple tasks for players to accomplish. In accomplishing these tasks, his goal is to create a new “lore” for Dubai, one made up of the achievements of the common resident.

“Dubai, the way I see it now, is a virtual world where you are your own protagonist who moves, interacts and develops his skills as well as makes moral choices about his actions…It is like a social MMORPG with different hub areas and zones, all connected by the Metro. The intervention would work on the basis of getting people to talk to each other more and interact with their environment for the sake of improving their skill.”

Join the conversation and add to the new “lore” of Dubai. 

Dilwin Kaur:

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

For me Saed Al Suwadi represents Dubai completely.

Saed Al Suwadi is an old Emirati Man, his father was a pearl diver and also owned a museum which he then later on sold, but not before parting the hobby of collecting old trinkets to his son.

On one hand we have Saed Al Suwadi, son of a pearl diver; an Emirati who values and respects the olden ways and on the other hand we have Saed Al Suwadi, proud father of Fatima, a civic engineer now an offshore engineer. Not only is he literally from a past long gone, but he has a future vision. He appreciates history and looks forward to what the future would bring.”

Dilwin wishes to forge new relationships in order to understand the city better. She’s convinced that an appreciation of a city lies between the spaces between people. The city and its emphasis of timeliness and productivity, rob people of the time to be truly social; to slow down and appreciate everything the city has to offer. To fix this, she plans on placing social furniture in a place not necessarily used for that purpose. She wants to allow strangers to converse with each other in a setting otherwise reserved for “passing through”.

Dilwin’s intervention will take place in Knowledge Village in the week of the 30th March – 3rd of April.

Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

An inspired psychogeographer, Marwa is making maps of her urban explorations (or derives) of the city for people to enjoy.

She sees the city divided into 2 halves, each half on either side of Sheikh Zayed Road. To encourage movement between these two halves, she’ll be taking people from one side on “purposeless walks” to the other side. The aim is pure exploration and hopefully a deeper appreciation for the city as a whole.

Download Marwa’s maps (displayed below) and get started on your very own drift of Dubai.

Made by Marwa Chihab

Made by Marwa Chihab

Meena Bazaar

Made by Marwa Chihab

Al Ras

Made by Marwa Chihab

BUR DUBAI

Made by Marwa Chihab

DOWNTOWN

Made by Marwa Chihab

Sharmeen Khan

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

Permanent residence in Dubai is a luxury only few can afford. For most, Dubai remains a very comfortable transit city. In the context of this situation, Sharmeen is interested in exploring the concept of “Home”. How does one create home in a foreign city?

“What I really love about the area I live in, is that it is really lively, even though the signals are jam-packed almost every evening, the area is well lit, lots of supermarkets and eating joints, parlours and petrol stations. Something I have noticed, peculiar to other parts of Dubai is that people in this area make an effort to talk to each other, be it the supermarket cashier, the watchmen, delivery boys or even people in the lift. Personally, I have had people in the lift with me in my building who have made an effort to say a simple hello, or even ask about college and work.”

We look forward to hearing your thoughts on all our forums!

The City as a Canvas

We’re getting a lot of eyeballs and support from the digerati community already, and just for that, we’d like to say a big THANK YOU!

Image credit: WAM

Image credit: WAM

We were in a truly celebratory mood this past week with the announcement of the metro makeover by the city of Dubai. The Metro Museum Project is set to “enhance the quality of life and transport, and transform Dubai Metro stations into destinations of culture, creativity and aesthetics,” said Shaikh Mohammad, following the launch of the project.

What a fantastic idea for an urban intervention!

Photo credit: Daniil Shilov

Photo credit: Daniil Shilov

The city itself, being an assemblage of architecture, technology and media, becomes a veritable communication device. Acknowledgement of its power to enable better social relationships amongst its residents and inspire human ingenuity, allows it to be one of the most effective and important  incubators of human potential of our time.

In “The Culture of Cities“,  Lewis Mumford wrote:

IMG_0400“The city … is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn urban forms condition mind. For space, no less than time, is artfully reorganized in cities … With language itself, it remains man’s greatest work of art.”

Cities across the world are using art to revitalise urban communities. While some artists work anonymously like the infamous Banksy to draw attention to the issues around urban decay,  others invite the community to lend its voice to a growing urban regeneration movement. One of our favourites is Broken City Lab Project situated in Windsor, Ontario. An “artist led interdisciplinary research collective,” they look to “explore and unfold curiosities around locality, infrastructures, education, and creative practice leading towards civic change”

In the lead up to the London Olympics, a London based design studio Hide and Seek created 99 Tiny Games designed “for real world play on specific sites” for every borough in London. These were placed in public areas and had to be played by strangers, like “like Eye Contact, a race where you can only move when you’re making eye contact with someone else – another player, a stranger, whoever you like.”

Typerventions, brainchild of designer Kriti Monga of Turmeric Design, uses “experimental typography installations from everyday materials to spell meaningful messages in Delhi’s public spaces”

Starting the first week of April, residents of Dubai will be able to participate in a series of urban interventions created by students of this lab.

More on that in my next post. Stay tuned!

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The Middlesex University Dubai’s Urban Writer’s Lab grew out of a journalism module called Writing the City. In this module students are invited to develop a critical understanding of the relationship between individuals, media and the urban environment. If we … Continue reading

The Travelogue

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Cities were first described in travelogues. Accounts of journeys were recorded as early as the 2nd century, when Pausanias, a native of the ancient city of Lydia undertook an expedition of Greece.

Several travel accounts or  “Rihla” which is Arabic for “Journey” were undertaken by prominent Muslim geographers and writers. The most important among them being Abu Jubayr and Ibn Battuta.

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Abu Jubayr was a resident of Granada who accompanied the Muslim army of the Caliphate of Damascus to quell a Berber uprising in the area. He undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca which he chronicled in his “Rihla”, one the earliest pieces of travel writing available. Abu Jubayr’s journey takes him through Saladin’s Ayubbid kingdom which at the height of its power, included Egypt, Syria, Iraq, parts of Turkey and Iran, Kuwait, western Saudi Arabia, Yemen and parts of North Africa.

Ibn Battuta, often said to be one of the greatest travelers ever,  whose life and journey is chronicled in our local Ibn Battuta Mall, undertook a journey that spanned 30 years. He journeyed from Morocco, across Northern Africa into Somalia, stopped at Mecca for a while, and continued into Persia, India and China.

Consequently, travel writing became increasing linked to pleasure trips, the earliest account being Italian poet Petrarch’s account of his climb of Mount Ventoux.

John Eade, in his book, “Placing London: From Imperial Capital to Global City” often likens the traveler to an explorer, who has to “construct a narrative that will make this strange place familiar to the reader”. Travel writing allowed the reader to form impressions of a place, without ever leaving home. As travel became more and more affordable, the “guide book” became more popular. The birth of the tourism “industry”  warranted investment in a plethora of literature that allows the visitor to feel like he’s undertaking a journey unlike any other, much like the explorers of the past!

How travel has changed!

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Once thought to be an adventurous undertaking, today the travel experience comes in a customized, carefully crafted, time bound, plug and play box which requires no effort, no research and no surprises.  In an increasingly globalized world, our conversations while on holiday  with “local” people might be restricted to hotel staff and tour guides who might be foreign themselves. We stay in hotels that make us feel “at home”, eat food which aren’t too unfamiliar to our own, and check off  “must see” sights which could include well rehearsed cultural programmes which give us just the right dose “of the local experience”.

To counter this growing commodification of the travel experience is the urban “drift” or “derive”. It is possible to experience uniqueness even in the most familiar neighbourhoods. Click here for a primer.

An introduction

VIDEO: Check out this brilliant compilation, depicting people and their lives in cities around the world.

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

In a world that is shifting rapidly from rural to urban, more than half the world’s population live in cities. The ability of cities to concentrate financial, technological and political resources make them hotbeds of opportunity. Money flattens the playing field, enabling people with the best talent and ideas to get ahead.

“The efficiency of urban association underlies the basic process of human invention and innovation. People of all backgrounds are drawn to cities to break from the restrictions and injustices of traditional rural societies and to reorganize themselves into new communities. By facilitating new forms of association, our cities increase the pace and variety of human invention and social change” – Jeb Brugmann, Welcome to the Urban Revolution

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

On the flip side, increased migration to cities increases competition for resources within them. The race to get ahead, demotes every transaction to a purely quantitative level. Individuality and personality becomes invisible in the city and people tend to become part of, as Georg Simmel describes, “the faceless crowd”, caught up in an infinite loop of a time bound life. Wake up-work-socialise-sleep-repeat. Over burdened resources, if improperly managed, widens chasms between the rich and poor.

The primary challenge of every 21st century city is the same. How does she remain efficient and productive while offering equality and access to resources to all her inhabitants? Can the urbanite utilise his urban advantage in more responsible, socially beneficial ways? Can we build cities that allow people of diverse interests to meet and connect without the pressure of having to “gain” something at the end of every interaction? Can cities be less about purpose and more about life?

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

The students of this course, while ideating about possible solutions, try and find creative expression to the issues faced by cities; and in the process, discover much about their environments and themselves. Creativity always attracts a following, thus allowing for greater public engagement with the issues facing cities. From all the research available what is undeniably clear is the fact that well structured public private partnerships will drive the design, structure and execution of the cities of the future. Inhabitants cannot continue to be indifferent to the challenges facing the city. Instead they must become co creators, fashioning their environments to serve the greater good.

In order to include residents in the discourse about the metropolis, cities have to make people feel like they belong, which is counterintuitive to its very innate purpose. How can cities nurture a sense of belonging?

Exploration. Experience. Connection. Reflection.

IMG_4083

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

The above can occur in myriad ways, through photographs, books, film, music, sound and imagination. Through this course, we look at how cities are perceived and explored by writers, theorists and artists. We look at how they are deconstructed, how they take apart the elements of the city to negotiate a better life within the urban environment. We look at how cities are built layer by layer, network upon network to create the urban “jungle”. We look at the effects of the city on our psyche and how we unconsciously and consciously choose to engage or disengage with our surroundings.

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

We are fortunate to have Dubai serve as our veritable playground. It is an international, multicultural city whose residents enjoy a fairly high standard of living. Resources are incredibly well managed and the regular challenges of urban life seen in other parts of the world, do not feature here. How does Dubai manage this? It embraces a unique and innovative urbanism: by marrying futuristic architectural and technological ambition with a strong emphasis on areas which promote play and social cohesion.

While Dubai has been featured increasingly in travel literature, films and books, we are hoping to use social media tools in conjunction with multimedia to allow for higher levels of engagement and exploration. We want to discover Dubai in ways not discovered before and we wish to share what we learn with you.

Get in touch to know more.