From darkness to light: new exhibition reveals rare photos taken by UAE's 'royal photographer'

With Sheikh Zayed’s birthday being marked on Monday, we visit The Founding Fathers Exhibition at Etihad Museum

When the curtains were closed, that was life. There was no light, it could last days – it was exciting.”

I’m standing in a small room, scarcely furnished, but with a row of cabinets along one wall. It’s dark, except for a deep red glow that comes from a bare lightbulb. Above the cabinets, ladles and serving spoons hang from a string next to black-and-white photographs. A box of Omo washing powder sits beside strips of photography negatives. A silver thali bowl lies next to the sink.

[My father] would be only focused on the shot and he would capture that with such integrity

Neel Shukla, the son of photographer Ramesh

“We used to have to smell the thali dish,” says Neel Shukla, the son of photographer Ramesh Shukla, the inspiration behind Etihad Museum’s new display, The Founding Fathers Exhibition. “My parents didn’t have fancy equipment. So one dish we used for food and the other was for developing photographs. We didn’t want to get them mixed up, so we’d check which was which by smelling them.”

Look through the photo gallery above to see more of the new exhibition.

A 'royal photographer'

Photography permeated the lives of the entire Shukla family. It’s this passion, commitment and relentless all-pervading sense of camerawork that has established Ramesh, who is now in his eighties, as one of the UAE’s most prominent “royal photographers”.

Having come to the country in 1965 on a ship from Mumbai, Ramesh landed in Sharjah with only his camera, a few rolls of film and 50 rupees (Dh3) in his pocket. He fell in love with the nomadic lifestyle instantly and began taking pictures. Not long after his arrival, he met Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father – whose birthday will be marked on Monday – at a morning meeting at the Sharjah Camel Festival.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - April 30, 2019: Postcard: Founding Fathers Exhibition, exhibition of rare Sheikh Zayed photos. Tuesday the 30th of April 2019. Etihad Museum, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
The exhibition is on at the Etihad Museum until December. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“He was drawn to him and took some pictures that he immediately developed by hand,” Neel explains. “The next day, he took them to Sheikh Zayed, who liked the pictures and asked my father what he wanted in return. He replied, ‘only your blessings,’ and a connection was formed.”

A new mission

From that day on, Ramesh dedicated his life to capturing images of the UAE’s leaders. He recorded moments of the nation’s history using equipment given to him by his father when he was 15 years old, a single reflex camera with no focus, no mirroring and no light metre. “He could feel the light,” explains Neel. “The camera was an extension of his body. He would throw himself on the ground, he would do the impossible, he would hurt himself, but he would be only focused on the shot and he would capture that with such integrity.”

With only 12 photographs in a single roll, every picture had to count. Ramesh would rise early and leave home before sunrise to settle in the place he knew the sheikhs would be later that day, often bringing his son along for the journey. After finding the perfect spot, Ramesh would simply wait.

Many of his pictures are on display at Etihad Museum and cast two key historical figures, Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the former Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, in a new light. Some images have never been published before, while new treatments have been given to others. There is a sense of symmetry in these images, which capture the friendship between Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid. Fittingly, many of the images were originally taken on the same site where they are now displayed – the historic land in Dubai on which Etihad Museum now stands.

The new Etihad Museum in Dubai. Dubai Tourism
Etihad Museum, based in Dubai, is the location for this new exhibition. Dubai Tourism

As I wander around the exhibition, huge prints of the sheikhs tower above me and the sense of symmetry intensifies through the composition of the pictures on show, with the subjects depicted side by side or opposite one another. There’s also a feeling of significance in the size of the canvases, as if they are somehow looking down on me from above.

'She was his muse'

Ramesh did not speak English and could not read. When it came to turning off the lights and entering “darkroom mode”, the wisdom lay with his wife, Tarulatta. She would read him pages of the Kodak Master Darkroom Dataguide, published in 1967 and he would follow her every instruction to bring the images to life. “She was his muse in so many ways,” says Neel, smiling.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - April 30, 2019: Postcard: Founding Fathers Exhibition, exhibition of rare Sheikh Zayed photos. A recreation of Ramesh Shula's darkroom. Tuesday the 30th of April 2019. Etihad Museum, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
A recreation of Ramesh Shula's darkroom. Chris Whiteoak / The National

As well as the sheikhs’ images and the replica darkroom, the trusty camera that Ramesh used is also on display. A video shows the photo­grapher talking about his work – at one point he gets quite emotional and it’s clear his passion runs deep. A timeline of moments, both from the history of the UAE and Ramesh’s life, run along one wall.

Unused rolls of film, strips of negatives, a box of camera lenses and a cumbersome tripod that accompanied the photographer everywhere are on display, too, having been preserved carefully by Neel’s mother.

The original negative that captured the seven rulers of the UAE as they stood together to form the country closes this memory box on a note of sheer historical importance.

For Neel, it has been a test of patience. “To be able to capture this detail and this resolution and these moments in time from a 55-year-old negative can only happen through dedication, love and patience,” he says. “We have all been waiting patiently for this moment.”

The exhibition runs at Etihad Museum until December and also celebrates the release of Ramesh Shukla’s book, also called The Founding Fathers, proceeds from which will go to charity

Updated: May 3, 2019 12:02 PM


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