The road to riches: Al Dhafra Festival’s Million Street becomes focus of a new photo exhibition

Photographic and digital artist Yiannis Roussakis lives and works in Abu Dhabi. We catch up with him ahead of his newest exhibition set to take place in March.

A farmer with a goat during Al Dhafra Festival in Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Yiannis Roussakis
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Cars, camels and chaos — those are the three words Yiannis Roussakis chooses to describe Abu Dhabi’s Al Dhafra Festival.

The annual event in Madinat Zayed, Al Gharbia, close to the border with Saudi Arabia, is a gathering of camel herders and farmers from across the Gulf and from Yemen, North Africa and even as far afield as Pakistan.

For 20 days, visitors set up camp, trade camels and compete for prizes. Much has been written about the festival, not least the huge sums that change hands for valuable animals along the main thoroughfare, which has been dubbed Million Street as a result.

Roussakis, a photographic and digital artist based in Abu Dhabi, spent 10 days living in the camps beside Million Street and has produced a series of fantastic images that capture not only the heart of the chaos, but the raw emotion that accompanies it. They will go on show at Etihad Modern Art Gallery next month.

“After a few days, it became clear to me that although they were there to trade camels, the real reason people were there was to express their joy for life,” he says.

“These days, it is very rare to find people who are not overly self-conscious regarding their appearance — not thinking about how they are perceived and just living life for the joy of living. I saw a huge release of emotions all around me and it didn’t need to be intellectualised or justified — these people were simply ­happy.”

Roussakis, who is from Greece but has lived in more than 12 countries, is a digital artist as well as a graphic designer. His usual style of photography is carefully considered, framed imagery, which he often layers with paint or alters digitally to achieve his artistic effects. For the Million Street project, he says he had to abandon his plan for stylised photographs and switch to a documentary style to capture the buzz of activity that surrounded him during his time at the ­festival.

“I still found precious moments and wonderful detail in the structure of people’s faces and their expression, but I also found myself letting go of my normal control and just going with the spirit of the event,” he says.

The results are a combination of wide-angled landscape shots that take in the energy of the festival and some pensive portraits focusing on individuals, as well as several artistic images from which Roussakis has bled all the colours except for red.

“Ultimately what I am trying to do with this series is offer a truthful representation of what this city is,” he says. “Abu Dhabi has housed me for several years and, too often, there is an element of pretence when it comes to culture.

“My time at the festival was an opportunity to see people interacting in a natural way, not in the context of a mega city, and living in the ways people used to live.

“What I found was raw, it was pure and it was the truth. It was not about cultural diversity, it was about authenticity — and this is what I hope comes across in my images.”

The Million Street runs from March 17 to 31 at Etihad Modern Art Gallery. For more information, visit