At the far end of Gulf Photo Plus, the photography gallery in Dubai, a large whiteboard has been screwed to the wall. Across the top, in black letters, is written: "What does home mean to you?" The whiteboard is covered in scrawled responses from people who have visited the gallery: "Where my cat is", "Mum's cooking", "Where you lay your head", "Sitting on my bed comfortably, while listening to my family's voices fill the house". One person has simply drawn the outline of Palestine.
As higgledy-piggledy as it looks, this whiteboard actually provides a neat summary of No Place Like Home, an impressive and moving open-call show, featuring works by amateur and professional photographers from around the world. The exhibition explores the myriad ways in which we define the concept of "home" – and asks how we cope when bereft of the familiar.
“We had over 500 entries from different countries,” says Mohamed Somji, co-director of Gulf Photo Plus. “We prioritised the diverse and wanted a variety of visual approaches that conveyed people’s sense of ‘home’.
“In this part of the world particularly, ‘home’ is a very loaded, a very poignant subject because, for many of us, this is not home, it’s just where we live right now.”
What is home?
"Home" can, of course, be a physical place – bricks and mortar – but, as we see in the show, it can also be a person, a feeling or even just a memory. Take, for example, Portuguese photographer Sandra Catarina Ferreira's simple – almost abstract – image of a field of hay, Seine-Saint-Denis, France, 2017. The sun-dappled hay, which is mostly flattened but stands rebelliously tall in places, looks like a head of tousled hair.
Though it was taken in France, the image reminds Ferreira of summers spent with her family in Portugal. “I associate the dryness of the hay with the scent of almonds and the sound of crackling under my feet on summer walks,” she says.
Not every photograph in No Place Like Home is so cosy, though. How to Slouch When Sleeping is an intimate series by Filipino photographer Augustine Paredes. It illustrates the difficulties of creating a home for those no longer surrounded by the people and the things that comfort them. Paredes is one of the thousands of people in the UAE who rents a bed-space, rather than a room or an apartment. We see the photographer lying in his bed – his "home" – surrounded by the clutter of his life.
Clothes and cables and chaos. It is, at first glance, a dispiriting image, but the defiant nods to normality – a vase of flowers, say, or a pair of shoes pushed neatly against the bed – are uplifting reminders of resilience and resourcefulness. “As Filipinos, we have a saying: ‘If the means are short, learn to slouch and make it work’,” he says.
Telling stories with a camera
An interesting counterpoint to these photographs is Jean-Luc Feixa's amusing series, My Public Window, which records the charming, sometimes wacky, items that people in Brussels put in their windows as a way of conveying to passers-by something about themselves.
As discomfiting as Paredes's images, though for entirely different reasons, is Eric Tomberlin's Garden of Earthly Delights. Inspired by Hieronymus Bosch's 1503 painting of the same name, Tomberlin's image is a mess of colourful houses squeezed together on a hillside in Seattle, Washington. It is, in fact, made up of about 150 photographs, digitally stitched together.
Though each of the houses is quite sweet, as a whole they become threatening and seem to be encroaching, like an avalanche, on the playground at the foreground of the photograph. Tomberlin is asking us to consider whether our desire for a home – and our consumerist obsession with filling it – is going to be humanity’s downfall. Like Bosch, Tomberlin is illustrating that our very future is on the line.
The standard of work on display in No Place Like Home is consistently high. What is particularly striking, though, is that the images submitted by photographers in the UAE are some of the most exciting here. Hussain AlMoosawi's Connect Four shows the 10-storey Obaid Al Mazroui tower block in Abu Dhabi. Its geometric design implies conformity, and yet, the details of each porthole – different coloured curtains; an item of clothing hanging on a railing – illustrate the diversity of life buzzing away behind the building's facade.
Ammar AlAttar, meanwhile, has produced a pair of solemn black and white images of the stone and wood houses, found in the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah, Dibba and Musandam, which people from the Shuhooh tribe still use. The serenity and simplicity seen here offers a welcome counterpoint to the hubbub of modern living depicted in other photographs throughout the show. I would have liked to see these photographs alongside Tomberlin's Garden of Earthly Delights.
These exceptional pictures reflect Somji’s ambition to encourage photographers in the region to think less about aesthetics and more about the stories they can tell with a camera. This is the fourth open-call show organised by Gulf Photo Plus and, while its benefits are already obvious, Somji still knows how much more there is to do.
“We are challenging people to think harder about their work,” he says. “I never shy away from saying that we are behind. We have a lot of photographers who are making very nice pictures of the Burj Khalifa and silhouetted deserts. It’s an uphill battle to move the needle and get people to start making thought-provoking work.”
You don’t even need much equipment. The emergence of better and better camera phones means anyone can have a go at photography. Some of the works in this exhibition were shot on iPhones. “The medium is less important,” Somji says. “The currency is ideas, that’s what we want to champion and foster.”
No Place Like Home is at Gulf Photo Plus, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai until November 3. For more, visit www.gulfphotoplus.com