In a garden shed in Brighton in the UK, Alex Atack found an unexpected history of the UAE – shelf upon shelf of his family’s leather-bound photo albums.
Stuck on to pages preserved by cellophane and packed into boxes were photographs of his parents' life in the Emirates, from 1983 until their departure last year, covering much of the country's modern history.
Last Christmas, his mother pulled out old family albums and Atack was struck by parallels with personal photographs he had taken as a photojournalist in the UAE two and three decades later. Laying out prints side by side, he found he had unconsciously photographed childhood haunts: Safa Park and The Hard Rock Cafe in Dubai; Sandy Beach in Fujairah; a buffet on a dhow. It was a serendipitous time-lapse. Atack began to pair parallel photos in a project he titled Unsentimental City.
“Maybe stories about Dubai get told in one of two ways, which is the seedy underbelly of Dubai, or the Ferraris and the seven-star hotels,” says Atack. “There’s never [stories about] any normal people who lived there for 30 years and who gave most of their lives to this place and made all of their memories there and made their home there and brought their kids up there. It’s never really portrayed as this kind of place, right?
“There is such a broad spectrum of people who have spent their lives in the UAE, and I feel it’s important to tell more stories about that. I think Dubai is still associated with luxury and glamour and money. That exists, but I don’t think it’s the reality for most people.”
Atack's father arrived from a small mining town in the north of England in 1983, only 12 years after the UAE's formation, when Dubai was positioning itself as the region's transport hub. He managed freight at Dubai Airport, which had a single runaway. The job was considered a hardship posting. His mother was a flight attendant for British Airways.
“If you worked in aviation in Dubai in the early 1980s, there wasn’t a huge circle of people and they met through friends. My mum would come into Dubai on trips every month or every two months.” After three years of long distance, she moved to the UAE and Alex was born in 1993.
The Unsentimental City project takes its name from the words of Atack's friend Maysam, who is Syrian, born and bred in the Emirates. Atack interviewed him for a podcast about Maysam's relationship to a country that would never be recognised as his own. His talk of the jarring disappearance of childhood spaces resonated with Atack, whose childhood home was in Satwa.
“He’s like: ‘You know, I drive down a road I have driven down all my life, and I don’t go there for a month and then I’m lost. It’s not a sentimental city. It doesn’t have to be because it’s got its progress and it thrives on transience. That’s always how Dubai has existed.’
“I thought it was kind of true,” says Atack. “All of these places that I have fond memories of don’t really need to exist for Dubai to thrive. I guess Dubai has never really been a city that clings on to its modern history. Once things have run their course they kind of just go, but I think there’s something important about keeping them.
"It's these unintentional things that make a city, the urban planning coincidences that build up this sense of urban memory."
Atack's project is part of a growing number of family photography collections, such as Darah Ghanem's Middle East Archive and Ayesha Saldanha's Gulf—South Asia. Family photographs put history within reach, says Jasmine Soliman, an archivist at the Akkasah Centre for Photography at New York University Abu Dhabi.
“They communicate in a way that is universal. We can all go through our parents’ photos and find a photo of their first house or just after the birth of their first child. Everybody takes the same photographs, but they also reveal our differences. What were people wearing? What did the room look like? How many children were there? What were the parties like? There is so much contained within. Family photographs reveal societal change and the intangible intricacies of family life.”
Community-driven projects such as Atack's can be forerunners for institutional archives and spark personal interest in family albums. Recent history can often be most effective at stirring interest in the past, says Soliman. "I hope that the project acts as inspiration for others to recognise that their own histories, and that of their families, are important to document and preserve."
Such collections broaden a national history usually defined in economic terms. "I think Alex's work answers to this idea that the UAE was an economy built on oil with the super-rich or the labourers and nothing in between," says Mohamed Somji, director of Gulf Photo Plus photography centre in Dubai.
"The idea that there are people going out with their families is largely kept out of the narrative. Alex's albums are very much part of this invisible layer of life in Dubai that doesn't get spoken about. People's lives are being built here and we're more than a transitional stop in a blingy place."
Unsentimental City stretches the idea of who counts as local. Multi-generational stories of immigration are being woven into the discourse as children raised in the UAE grow up and add to the national narrative.
Atack has contributed to this through his work as a photojournalist in Dubai and Beirut, and as a founding producer for the Middle East podcast Kerning Cultures. "It's only in recent years I've tried to unlearn everything I learnt in photojournalism school and look at how else I can construct narratives," says Atack.
"When you study photojournalism at school and you study the greats – Robert Capa, James Nachtwey – you feel if you want to be successful in documentary photography, you have to fit this mould doing stories covering war, famine, the misfortunes of the world. There are a lot of up-and-coming photographers, particularly women, who are breaking that and realising the photojournalism industry is outdated and there needs to be a broader range of photographer that is considered documentary."
The ongoing Unsentimental City project has changed Atack's relationship to the UAE. "I always thought of the UK as the place that defined me above anywhere else, but doing this project and going through my own photo archives and my parents' archives, I really realised how much of my history and my family's history is tied up in this place," says Atack.
“And the way it’s tied up in it isn’t in a way that we could ever consider ourselves local, but we fit this niche of long-term expatriates, or long-term I-don’t-know-what-you’d-call-it. I never really gave the UAE credit for being such a big part of my life.”
More information on the Unsentimental City project is available at alexatack.com