National Geographic Abu Dhabi is on the hunt for the region’s best photographer

A new reality show sees eight aspiring photographers from across the region compete in a series of challenges all over the UAE.
Maha Al Kaabi, a participant in I Am Nat Geo Photographer. Courtesy Nat Geo Abu Dhabi
Maha Al Kaabi, a participant in I Am Nat Geo Photographer. Courtesy Nat Geo Abu Dhabi

The latest reality show from National Geographic Abu Dhabi, I Am Nat Geo Photographer, sees eight aspiring photographers from across the region compete in a series of challenges all over the UAE. Their goal is to find that perfect photo until, in time-honoured reality-TV fashion, only one remains to be crowned the winner and see their work in the pages of the ­magazine.

The panel of judges includes Jack Dabaghian, a professional photo-journalist, Matthew Dols, an assistant professor of new media at Zayed University, and the Egyptian-British photographer Laura El Tantawy, who took time out to tell us a bit more about the show.

El Tantawy notes that as well as a judge, she acts as a mentor to the contestants, although she says she tries not to influence their work unduly. “Mentoring is like coaching,” she says. “I’m basically there to help the participant with any questions or concerns and then I let them do their thing. I did not want to get too involved, in the sense that I begin to tell the participant to do things one way or another. I wanted to provide some information but allow them to capture the images that came to them naturally. It’s important the vision remained theirs, not mine.”

That sense of individuality is vital to each contestant’s success, adds El Tantawy. After all, it is their photo that will ultimately win the show, not their mentor’s. “For the winner, I was looking for someone who had a sense of individuality, solid vision and could tell a story in a way we had not seen it before,” she says.

Just another reality show?

I Am Nat Geo Photographer is entering a busy market. We’ve already had reality shows to find everything from pop stars to businessmen to ice skaters to wives, so what can this latest version bring to the table that will keep viewers hooked?

“I think this show has a lot to offer,” says El Tantawy. “Everyone is taking pictures now because there is easy access to cameras. In the Middle East there is still a sense that photography is something you do in a studio or to illustrate words, but pictures don’t stand on their own as a form of expression.

“I felt that my role was to show that photography was a serious profession, something that has ethical values and morals that the photo-grapher has to follow, but also that it is a form of expression for deeply personal emotions. There is a lot to move forward to from here and I think all these things make this show special.”

Athreyan Sundararajan, the head of marketing at National Geographic Abu Dhabi, agrees: “We wanted to bring something different to the region’s audience, something new to the reality-­format fans. I believe photography was able to do so. Bringing in this refined form of art offers the audience a new angle into the world of talent competition TV shows.”

He adds: “Another important aspect is that everything you watch on the screen did happen naturally. I believe the audience would appreciate that as well.”

Advice to shutterbugs

El Tantawy herself must have some sense of the excitement the eventual winner will feel. She is finally seeing her own 10-year project come together in the form of a book. “I must say my proudest moment is happening right now and that is working on my book In the Shadow of the Pyramids,” she says. “It’s a 10-year project about Egypt that has taken a whole lot of me, emotionally. It’s a good feeling to see all these images finally have a home, in a book that brings the whole story together.”

Asked how she would advise not just the show’s contestants, but also aspiring photographers all over the region, El Tantawy replies: “I don’t give advice, really, but I’ll make suggestions based on my own experience in this profession. Never imitate, but follow your own voice and vision. Surround yourself with people who are positive and who inspire you and eliminate those who are negative because they will bring you down.

“If you have work, show it to people you respect and listen to their feedback and then draw your own conclusions on how to move forward. Always believe in yourself because no one will believe in you otherwise.”

I Am Nat Geo Photographer screens on Wednesdays at 10pm on National Geographic Abu Dhabi

Published: June 3, 2014 04:00 AM


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