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.

 

 

 

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!

About

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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.