The human moment

The photographer Joel Sternfeld talks about iDubai, his exploration of the built environment in relation to the people who use it.

Joel Sternfeld - a great chronicler in photographs of the late 20th-century American landscape - is talking malls. In particular, Dubai's Ibn Battuta Mall, and his admiration for it. Sternfeld, who says he is the kind of guy who'd rather spend his time in a cornfield than a mall, nonetheless concedes: "Some of the malls in Dubai are extremely imaginative, interesting places. A mall based on the travels of a 14th-century Islamic scholar: what a wonderful idea. Each section represents a part of Ibn Battuta's journey through India, China and the Middle East. There's a dreamlike quality to it."

Sternfeld's formidable and long-standing reputation as one of America's most important and influential fine art documentary photographers was built on subject matter far removed from Dubai's self-proclaimed "largest themed shopping mall in the world". His best-known work, 1987's now classic American Prospects, remains characteristic of his oeuvre: large-scale photographs of the human, built landscape, alongside the occasional formal portrait, allowed unity by their careful attention to super-naturalistic, beautiful colour, their wonderful strangeness, and the perfect little stories often embedded in them.

In the case of American Prospects, that style produced some of the most unforgettable documentary images ever made: pictures such as Exhausted Renegade Elephant, which depicts - from a distance that seems somehow to magnify - a fallen elephant surrounded by police cars, having escaped from its trainer and subsequently collapsed on a road in the state of Washington in 1979. Or McLean, Virginia, in which a fireman stands at a pumpkin stall while in the background a wooden house is engulfed by flames that are, marvellously, just the same colour as the vegetables on sale.

Sternfeld enthusiasts, then, might find the title of his latest book something of a surprise: it's called iDubai. So how did this interpreter of the contemporary American condition find himself amid the hyper-reality of Dubai's shopping malls? And why did he take the pictures in this latest book with an iPhone camera? The answers lie in a subject that is unlikely to come to mind first: climate change.

In fact, Sternfeld has been interested in that subject a long time. In 2005 he attended the UN's 11th summit on climate change in Montreal, and his portraits of the delegates, anguish visible on their faces, were collected in a book, When it Changed. It was research undertaken for that project, says Sternfeld, that eventually led him to Dubai: "In America - at least before Al Gore - there was widespread uncertainty about the reality of climate change, encouraged by extensive disinformation from corporate and government sources," he says. "But after listening in Montreal and reading the science, it seemed to me that anthropogenic climate change is the greatest problem that humanity has faced up until this moment.

"Later on, I also came to the realisation that even if we could solve this impending calamity, it would simply allow us to consume the world in some other way." Keen to investigate these ideas in his work, Sternfeld turned first in the direction of the natural landscape. He spent a year in a single field in Massachusetts, taking pictures every day in order to visually preserve that landscape before climate change altered it. That work was published in 2008 as Oxbow Archive.

While working on those photographs another thought came to Sternfeld. What would be the opposite of this untouched, natural environment? "What about a subject matter that embodied the very processes of globalised, consumption-led life that were causing the planet to warm?" he asked. The Dubai project was conceived. The result, iDubai, is a series of small, intimate, snapshot-aesthetic photographs, often depicting families as they while away an average day at a Dubai mall. We are amid, then, the kind of environment that any western reader will recognise: the preternaturally bright lights, the shining shop fronts, the sterile food behind panes of glass. The first impression for many, surely, will be a new realisation of the strangeness, the unreality, of this most familiar of spaces. Like all malls, those in Dubai are designed to put you in a semi-trance, to make you reach and buy.

"But I realised that the malls in Dubai also act as a kind of town-centre," says Sternfeld. "In Italy, you take a passeggiata [walk] around the town-centre in the evening, to greet your neighbours; in Dubai you stroll around the mall. I spoke to one family with a two-week old baby, who was already on her third trip to the mall. So the mall in Dubai really does work as Victor Gruen [the Austrian architect who designed the world's first indoor shopping mall in the 1950s] imagined it would: as a place of centrality of experience.

"But my point here is wider: it's about the whole mode of living that these malls embody. It's about the global consumption culture, and what that is doing to our planet." Of course, if the subject matter isn't enough to make iDubai feel something of a departure for Sternfeld, there's also the camera with which these pictures were made. For a photographer used to working with eight-by-10 inch negatives, surely the humble iPhone camera felt terribly limiting?

"I chose the iPhone partly because I got one, and I really love the colour palette when it's depicting the built environment," he says. "Also, the highest moment in art may be unity of form and content, and the idea of using a consumer product to document consumerism really got me." That playfulness on the theme on consumerism extended to the finished book, which comes in five colours - reminiscent of the iPod - and has a vast gold leaf barcode on its back cover.

The iPhone also helped Sternfeld capture the kind of images he wanted. In the mall he became just another idler with a mobile phone, or phoneur: able to remain inconspicuous, and work. That documentary style is one that Sternfeld has cultivated across a lifetime. He travelled across the US in a camper van for years in the 1970s while taking the photographs that eventually became American Prospects, and which were first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1984. It's a mode of working that relies on an ability to recognise the extraordinary image latent in seemingly prosaic surroundings. Indeed, so remarkable are images such as Exhausted Renegade Elephant that casual viewers sometimes assume that Sternfeld's pictures are staged, rather than happened-upon. No surprise, then, that while Sternfeld arrived in Dubai with a clear idea of his primary theme, this didn't prevent him from allowing impromptu observations to enter the work:

"I became aware that I could make photographs of Arabic men engaged in tender, fatherly scenes with their children," he says. "In the West, that's not a side of the culture that is often depicted. I was glad to be able to become a kind of civilian journalist, and use the iPhone to bring forward images that the corporate media were not." Taken together, the pictures in iDubai form a singular, ironic statement on modern living and its impact on the world. And Sternfeld's message is clear: "We can't go on like this: the lives you see documented in iDubai, and the lives we lead in the West, are unsustainable. I hope readers will not interpret the book as a criticism of Dubai or its people: it's not meant to be. They are only operating within an overall system as it's currently organised, and they are doing it well.

"I don't believe in blaming individuals, or single corporations, in a simplistic way when it comes to climate change. What is needed is a radically new understanding of this human moment, and of our collective destiny; it will take a profound change in the way individuals, corporations and governments work together. That's tremendously difficult to bring about, but, ironically, if mankind can pull together to solve this problem, then anything can be solved."

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