Schools of brightly coloured fish burst from coral; fog hangs heavy over a black shore with stones glistening in the foreground; historic buildings delicately crumble, punctuated by palm trees.
Now, having recently announced the first round of winners in its inaugural Kingdom Photography Professional Grant, Saudi Arabia's Visual Arts Commission is looking ahead to next month's Kingdom Photography Discovery Competition.
Together, they form the two main branches of the award, which offers a total cash prize of $106,000, as well as other prizes worth $53,000. The project aims to document some of Saudi Arabia’s never-before-seen landscapes and create a regional and global cultural exchange.
Dina Amin, chief executive of the commission, tells The National that it is also hoping to bring a variety of visual arts talent to the fore, while embracing different cultural practices.
“We have an amazing opportunity to really document and explore the country through a visual language, through photography, in ways that have not been done before," she says.
Last month's Kingdom Photography Professional Grant winners included Swedish photographer Alex Dawson for the Underwater category, Australian photographer Nyree Jane Cox for Urban Environment and Argentinian photographer Andrea Diana Alkalay for Nature Along the Coast.
Recipients of the grant were selected from a wide range of established photographers from around the world and were commissioned to create an archive of Al Wajh — a city in north-western Saudi Arabia, situated on the coast of the Red Sea in the Tabuk Province.
“The landscape of Saudi Arabia has not been hugely documented through the lens of fine art and through the lens of photography,” says Amin. “This is a wonderful moment to really refocus that lens and look at the landscape of Saudi Arabia.”
The second element of the awards is the Kingdom Photography Discovery Competition, which offers emerging and mid-career photographers from Saudi Arabia a chance to engage with experienced professionals through a number of collaborative workshops and masterclasses.
“We have a beautiful, creative community that for many years has not been known. And we want that to change,” says Amin.
“We want there to be understanding and awareness and celebration of those people that sit within the visual arts community of practitioners. So when we were thinking about this award, we were really looking to find a way to create moments for poignant exchange and poignant creative engagement.”
The 21 nominees, who were shortlisted based on an online application process, have already applied the skills and theory they learnt through masterclasses during a three-day shoot in Al Wajh. All the photographs by the shortlisted nominees will be printed and showcased in an exhibition organised by the Visual Arts Commission in Art Jameel’s new cultural centre Hayy Jameel in Jeddah, in December. From this work, three winners will be chosen from the same three categories as the Kingdom Photography Professional Grant.
The winners will be selected by a judging panel consisting of award-winning American environmental photographer Daniel Beltra; Zein Khalifa, founder of Tintera photography gallery in Cairo; dynamic Saudi photographer Moath Alofi and Abdullah Al-Turki, founding member of the Saudi Art Council, along with the three Kingdom Photography Professional Grant winners.
“As the Visual Arts Commission, one of the things that we care about very deeply is the idea of really bringing to the forefront the talent that resides within the country and really looking for ways to amplify and celebrate that on a stage that is local, regional and international,” adds Amin.
The winners' exhibition in Hayy Jameel will include both the Kingdom Photography Discovery Competition winners and runners up, and the Kingdom Photography Grant recipients.
This is the first step in encouraging both local and international photographers to discover, explore and record the landscape of the kingdom through the art of photography. Over time the awards will become a vehicle through which a rich cultural and artistic exchange can arise in Saudi Arabia, which also aims to forge global partnerships and transfer creative expertise and knowledge.
“I want the cultural landscape to be captured, to be celebrated, to be archived, to be documented, for it to be a point of pride for us all,” says Amin.
“I want this award to be a tool in that conversation, in a moment of change on a global scale, not just on a Saudi scale. I want us to be able to really highlight the depth of our history, of our culture, and of our landscapes.”
Scroll through images of the Sony World Photography Award winner Rinko Kawauchi's work below