GPP Photo Week 2019: A focus on Arab documentary photography

The event in Dubai highlights the important role of photography as a form of storytelling

Mohamed Mahdy’s works look into the effect of toxic dust on residents of Moon Valley, Egypt. Courtesy GPP
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Gulf Photo Plus in Dubai – better known by its initials, GPP – is an organisation dedicated to photography, and then some. It sells photographs, runs photography workshops, curates exhibitions and even runs Insta-stories workshops for the millennial lot in the form of its popular “Tutorial Tuesdays”. And then once a year, with GPP Photo Week, the organisation takes it up a notch and holds a six-day extravaganza of all things photographic. 

“GPP Photo Week is when we gather all the forces together and rally,” explains Lola ­Boatwright, GPP’s managing director. “It captures the attention of people who are thinking about starting photography and gives them an excuse to try it out.” 

The event runs in Alserkal Avenue from today until February 9, and comprises workshops, talks, technical demonstrations and an exhibition, as well as the famous “shoot-out” that closes the event, in which three well-known photographers are asked to produce the best image – determined by the amount of audience applause – in just 20 minutes. 

Looking at this year's programme

This year’s theme is Get Closer, which Boatwright explains is about a renewed focus on the Arab world and, in particular, Arab documentary photography. Similar to last year, most of the events will be held at Concrete, which will be split into two: one side for the exhibition, The Shortest Distance Between Us: Stories from the Arab Documentary Photography Programme, curated by Jessica Murray, and the other for the talks and workshops. 

Speakers this year include Saudi Arabian artist Tasneem Alsultan – who started with a Photography 101 class at GPP in 2015 and is now photographing for The New York Times – and the veteran ­Jordanian photographer Tanya Habjouqa. 

The exhibition is a collaboration with the Arab Documentary Photography Programme to show the results of the latter’s grantee programme, in which young Arab artists use photography as a means to explore and address social and political issues. The result is a raft of sobering, no-holds-barred works, such as the relationship between lucrative phosphate mines and the impoverished Tunisian villages they are set amid, in a story by Zied Ben Romdhane, or the efforts of former prison inmates in ­Lebanon who seek to reintegrate into normal life, in images by Elsie El Haddad.

The important role of documentary photography 

The programme underlines the important role of photography as a form of reportage. Despite the ubiquity of images, series such as these remain crucial as a means of testimony. Cairo photographer Mohamed Mahdy, for example, documents the effects of toxic dust from cement factories on the Moon Valley in Egypt: Becher-like images of the factory segue into portraits of the affected residents, X-ray scans showing scarring to locals' lungs, and images of their attempts to keep their houses safe and clean. "While commercial photography is a driving force that keeps photography a dynamic industry, documentary photography is where you can see and experience the impact and the storytelling of photography really come alive," says Boatwright.

Zied Ben Romdhane’s photo of pollution spilling out of a phosphate mine in Tunisia. Courtesy GPP
Zied Ben Romdhane’s photo of pollution spilling out of a phosphate mine in Tunisia. Courtesy GPP

For many, the highlight of the week is Fuji Film Photo Friday, a day of talks orientated towards budding photographers, culminating in the shoot-out. "We take three photographers and put them under a lot of pressure by giving them a theme on the spot," explains Boatwright. "They don't know it beforehand and they don't get to see what their competitors are doing. Last year we had three studio photographers and we took away their lights. There's always a challenge limitation and at the same time you're being heckled by the MC and you have to entertain the audience. You have to think, be innovative, and at the same time produce something in 20 minutes." 

It’s an adrenalin-fuelled event, in keeping with the ethos of GPP of always adding more to more.  

This year, photographers Caleb Arias, Sara Lando, and Mike Kelley will participate. And it’s up to you to judge.

GPP Photo Week runs until February 9 in Alserkal Avenue, Dubai. For more details, visit