Guardian of her father's legacy

When her father died, Shamsa Noor Ali Rashid gladly took on the daunting task of cataloguing and preserving his life's work as a photographer with access to the Rulers since the 1950s.

DUBAI - 29NOV2010 - Shamsa Noor Ali Rashid, daughter of Royal photographer Noor Ali Rashid during an Interview at her residence in Dubai. Ravindranath K / The National
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As the guardian of her father's legacy, Shamsa Noor Ali Rashid admits that when she first saw the extent of the task she had set herself she wondered if she was up to the job.

Photographs chronicling the history of a nation and dating back to the day when Noor Ali Rashid first picked up a camera were piled higgledy-piggledy into boxes in several houses.

They needed to be preserved, digitised and catalogued and there were literally millions of them.

"I remember going into these rooms full of photographs from floor to ceiling, all piled into boxes. It was quite a daunting task. There was one room in one house and three rooms full of photos in another house. I would walk in and look at it all and get this amazing knot in my stomach, thinking 'What have I committed to and how am I going to do it?'" says the daughter of the UAE's most famous photographer, Noor Ali Rashid, who died in August this year, aged 80.

Noor Ali Rashid was named "royal photographer" by the late Sheikh Zayed and became the official photographer for the Al Nahyan family as well as the ruling families of the other emirates. He was trusted by the royal families and had unprecedented access to their daily lives and to the major events leading up to the formation of the nation in 1971 and ever since.

He photographed every visiting statesman from Nelson Mandela, Indira Gandhi and Yasser Arafat to the US presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton as well as other celebrities and sporting heroes. He won more than 80 trophies and plaques for his work and had a photography award for students named after him by Zayed University.

In his lifetime, eight books of his work were published, and after his death a ninth, Celebrating a Special Relationship, UAE & UK, was published to mark the visit to Abu Dhabi in November of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh.

More than that, he was loved and respected by the Rulers, several of whom paid their respects to his widow and family in person when he died suddenly at his home in Sharjah on August 18. He is survived by his wife, six children and 11 grandchildren. He was working with Shamsa on cataloguing his life's work right up to his death.

"He had a clear vision of how he wanted it to be and we have his notes," says Shamsa, a prominent businesswoman in her own right who, with her husband, developed her own software company in the US and later became the chief executive of a UAE government-backed investment company for women investors.

She took time off in 2002 to help her father begin the enormous job of creating a computer archive of his work. "But he wasn't ready then. He was still very active and I couldn't get him to sit down and concentrate on the project. I had given him three months, but in the end I went back to work," she says.

"At the end of 2008 he asked me if I would start work on it again. At that time all of his photographs were in nooks and crannies and boxes and briefcases in several houses. My father was artistic and took a lot of photographs but, like many artistic people, he needed help keeping track of it all. We have approximately one million but it could be two or three million photographs to go through and catalogue. We haven't been able to count them all yet. There was 55 years of work that was all over the place in three homes."

Many another would have simply closed the doors and admitted defeat, but for the entire family this was a labour of love as well as a filial duty. "Nothing was more special for me than doing this for my father. It's my father's legacy and I wanted to be sure that as a family we were committed to doing it. The whole family wanted to do it."

Shamsa set about tidying up her business interests and selling her company and returned to the UAE from her home in California, where she lives with her husband and their two children, to start work on the project with her father in the summer of 2009. First she needed the benefit of some expert advice and embarked on a tour of museums and archives to talk to curators, gallery owners, auction houses and colleges, including the British Museum and Oxford University. "Anywhere I could get informed advice," she says.

Next came the job of getting all the material into one space where it would be protected with acid-free painting, temperature control and special lighting. More than 20 lorryloads of material were brought to a central storage unit including paraphernalia such as cameras, film boxes and light meters as well as the precious photographs themselves.

"I was thinking more of a museum where all his old cameras and equipment could be displayed. Dad was very excited about the project. By now we had 400 acid-free boxes broadly sorted into four 'buckets'."

The actual job of physically archiving each negative was a painstaking one. Says Shamsa: "We had to clean them with soft brushes and then digitise and crop them before storing them in a large data management base."

Cataloguing and researching such a large archive is expected to take at least three years with between seven to 10 people working on the project in shifts when required. The first batch covered photographs taken in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Eventually the archive will be available for educational purposes. It will also be used commercially and several more books are planned.

Even in his last months, the diminutive Noor Ali Rashid attacked the project with the same vigour and enthusiasm with which he had approached his work throughout his life. He would often work all night and once he had set his mind on an idea, he was impossible to divert.

"One day, we were sitting in a bedroom working on a project and he started going through negatives. I was getting tired, but he would say we have to go on till we complete the task. He would get up in the morning at 6am and sometimes wouldn't sleep at all if he had an idea in his head. Once, I told him he looked tired, and he said he was up all the previous night thinking about an idea for a book."

Photography was an absolute passion for Noor Ali Rashid and one for which he was not paid. Born in 1929 in Gwader, originally part of Oman and taken over by Pakistan when the British protectorate ended, he arrived in the UAE in the 1950s. His fascination for photography started when he was in his early teens and he bought his own camera when he was 18, much to the irritation of his father, who thought photography not a proper line of work for his son.

He set up his own retail business selling carpets and shoes in Dubai Souk, but put managers in to run it so that he could find time to go to every public event and occasion to take pictures. He soon became a familiar figure in the entourage of Dubai's then Ruler, Sheikh Rashid.

"It was a very different world then and he had wonderful access. Everybody knew that he was there. In those days Dubai was very small. He was just there every day to record every event that was happening.

"I see my father as a father of photojournalism in this region. He captured historic occasions live. There were photographers who would come in and take nice photos and go home, but he was the only one who was focusing on this as a historic project. We don't come from a wealthy family. My father's photography took up almost everything he earned. He would just say he loved taking photos. He was always with his camera and always with his photographs. He was happiest with them," says Shamsa, who relates an anecdote that underlines her father's commitment to his work.

"He wanted a particular picture that involved climbing to the top of a water tower, which was the highest point above ground in Dubai in the early days.

"So he got up early in the morning with all his camera bags and climbed to the top and was so involved in taking aerial views that he forgot about the time and it was almost noon. The steel bars of the ladder were so hot that he had taken off his shoes because the soles would have melted. He told me he was wondering what on earth he had done and started praying hard. He said, 'If you save my life I will never do this again.' He finally managed to climb down but he had blisters all over his feet and hands.

"He was such a passionate man and so inspiring. Even at the age of 80, for somebody to live his life with such passion was amazing. He didn't teach me about photography but he certainly taught me a lot about life. He taught me to be independent and not to worry about what other people say. In my earliest memories of him he is always carrying heavy cameras."

Ali Rashid had heart bypass surgery a few years ago after a cardiac attack but recovered well and carried on working. Just days before he died he was learning to use a new digital camera. "His grandson came over to show him how to use it. He was fascinated by cameras right to the end, but realised he couldn't go on carrying heavy cameras around his neck."

Shamsa, whose two sisters are helping with the project, is determined that her father's work will be properly archived for the benefit of future generations. "I wanted to make sure that all his work is understood by people. We wanted to build a foundation in his name or a museum wing in his name. No museum would be complete without his work in it. If I don't do it, who will? It's our father's work. It's our history and our pleasure and honour to do it."