My UAE: Ammar Al Attar on documenting life in the UAE

The photographer's ongoing project, Reverse Moments, captures the function served by some of the oldest photographic studios in the UAE. He has also shown his works internationally.

Ammar Al Attar’s latest photo series will be shown at the Kochi Biennale. Reem Mohammed / The National
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Ammar Al Attar, 34, is an Emirati artist and photographer from Ajman. While he has a day job with the Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority, Al Attar dedicates his spare time to documenting the rapidly changing society that he sees around him.

One of Al Attar’s most recent and ongoing projects is Reverse Moments, where he sets out to find the oldest photographic studios in the UAE, some that were set up as early as the 1960s. These studios were often used to take passport photographs of the country’s transient population, and Al Attar is interested in collecting copies of these old portraits and presenting them as works of art alongside images of the photographers and candid video interviews.

“I am interested in the history of photography of this nation,” he says. “I want to try to unearth the stories that are not found in books, but are passed on only through word of mouth, and document them in my way.”

Reverse Moments was first shown as part of Portrait of a Nation, an exhibition organised by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation, and a new iteration of the project will be shown in India at the Kochi Biennale in December.

Other notable series include Prayer Rooms, where Al Attar has taken images of the humble and informal areas of worship that are mandatory in public buildings across the region. In all the images, the rooms are empty, which brings the viewer's focus to the small details, such as the colour of the carpet, wall decorations and seating. The emptiness is also suggestive of the rituals that take place inside. These simple shots offer a window into the private aspects of prayer that many non-Muslims find intriguing or concealed.

In September, Al Attar was one of two Emiratis to be featured at the Yinchuan Biennale in China, where he exhibited pieces from Salah – an investigative series of self-portraits centred around the act of prayer in Islam, and the underlying explanations for each movement.

Removed from the religious context of the prayer rooms, the prayer itself becomes a series of movements and gestures that are similar to those made in everyday life. Al Attar says he is interested in demystifying the religious ritual.

“This is about me questioning the practice myself as much as my audience,” he says. “I am also concerned with other people’s reaction to my work, especially when showing in a place like China. I am not just representing the UAE, but the whole Muslim community and I feel responsible for that.”

In general, Al Attar’s artistic practice is one of documentation – perhaps a natural inclination for an Emirati of his generation, who has grown up witnessing his country in a state of constant flux.

“Because we are in a developing stage, we are always changing, so some of my photographs become pieces of history only a few months after they have been taken. I find that fascinating.”

However, he says, it is also something that could be present in his genes. “I think this was also the case when my ancestors were living a Bedouin lifestyle. They were always picking up and moving to a new place, and changing their surroundings. Maybe that energy has been carried forward with the new generations,” he muses.

Ultimately, Al Attar’s artistic mission is one of preservation, whether he is pointing his lens at architecture, experiences, people or places. “I have a passion for documenting and preserving this era that I am living in. All my projects are about this, whether it is spaces and buildings or stories and experiences.”

Al Attar is represented by Cuadro Gallery at Dubai International Financial Centre, and will have an exhibition of his new works there next year.

Quick chat with Ammar Al Attar

What do you never leave home without?

Of course, my camera and maybe two. My phone, wallet and also I usually take food – coffee and a sandwich – because every day I have to sit in one to two hours of traffic coming from Ajman, and that means I need to eat my breakfast in the car.

Which photograph of yours are you most proud of?

I’m proud of them all, but still think I need to work harder to do better.

Where is your dream travel location?

Palestine. I want to continue both my Prayer Rooms and Water Fountains [exhibitions] in Palestine.

What is your favourite film, and why?

Finding Vivian Maier. It is a documentary about a mysterious nanny, who secretly took more than 100,000 photographs and hid them in storage lockers. They were discovered decades later and she is now considered among the 20th century's greatest photographers. I have watched it many times and I always find it inspiring. It was actually the inspiration behind my Reverse Moments project.

What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?

The Emirati artist and curator Mohamed Al Mazrouei once told me to always keep questioning myself while doing any new photo series or artwork. I remember those words often.

Where is your favourite place in the UAE?

My favourite place to spend time is my studio space in Sharjah Heritage Area near the art museum. It is where I do my thinking, where I look at all my photographs and work on ideas for future projects.

If there was one art show you could visit anywhere in the world right now, which would it be?

I’d love to visit the International Center of Photography in New York; they always have amazing shows, and it is a great place for any photographer to visit.

What do you do like to do to relax when you are not taking pictures?

Actually it’s relaxing for me to take pictures. I especially like going on road trips into the mountains around the UAE. I like to discover new locations, and look for farms and small houses or villages. I usually go alone, but sometimes I like to take my family so they experience something different. I think this is important for my kids who need to get out and experience new stuff.

Is there any particular artist whose work you admire or get inspiration from?

I’m always inspired by Stephen Shore’s photographs. He is an American photographer known for clicking seemingly normal or banal scenes. I like that because he takes everyday scenes and makes them into artworks.