Reverse Moments: A project by Ammar Al Attar Emirati photographer Ammar Al Attar has recently embarked on an intriguing research project entitled Reverse Moments. His chosen subject of exploration is the photographic studios of his native UAE. He started with the oldest ones, set up in Dubai in the early 1960s by Emirati pioneers: Mr. Jafar’s Al Ahram Studio and Abdullah Al Awadhi’s Dubai Art Studio.
Reverse Moments is also a testament to the social history of the UAE and its relations with its neighbours across the water, India, Iran and Pakistan. It uncovers the employment opportunities that became available in tandem with rapid development through the stories of the studio pioneers and their networks of friends, families and compatriots.
Al Attar is investigating in detail the longest-standing studios, some set up in the late 1960s when the country was still part of the Trucial States, a British protectorate, others in the early 1970s after the founding of the UAE. For these men mostly from India and Pakistan, who set up business here, the nascent state was a land of opportunity. And they would be the ones to document its development. These studio photographers would record its population, both transient and more permanent; everyone needed to have their passport photograph taken. As well as official business, the studios catered to personal needs from staying in touch with family to finding a prospective marriage partner. You can imagine copies of the old portraits Al Attar has unearthed being proudly displayed by relatives ‘back home’.
When he visits a studio, Al Attar interviews the owner. He makes video and audio recordings as he discovers the history of the businesses along with fascinating anecdotes about the events, buildings, people and places the interviewees have photographed and their own journeys to the UAE and the lives they have built there. Through these visits Al Attar has gained a group of friends and an impressive lucky-dip box of uncatalogued negatives, slides and photographs that have been given to him. These include portraits of adults, children, officials and shots of landscapes, buildings and oil wells. They will be scanned to create a digital archive. The project is a real treasure hunt, often the studio owners don’t know what they have, leaving Al Attar to unearth cardboard boxes of old photographs which they are happy to be reunited with. Searching through the boxes together leads to conversations and reminiscences.
Dr. Alexandra MacGilp
*A version of this text originally appeared in Al Tashkeel Magazine