How pictures remind us of the fleeting time we have together

Living in the UAE really is exotic for an American, says Christine Hinz. Antonie Robertson / The National
Living in the UAE really is exotic for an American, says Christine Hinz. Antonie Robertson / The National

One of the things that continues to astound me more than two years after I moved to Abu Dhabi is the phenomenon I call the “expat paparazzi”.

Go for coffee with new expat friends? Someone will snap a photo. Go for coffee with old expat friends? Snap. 

Yoga class? Snap. 

Tuesday morning golf? Snap! 

Pool date? Mani-pedi? Book a club gathering? Snap, snap, snap.

At first I thought maybe this was born out of the trend of posting everything we do on social media or, as one of Dubai's top travel marketers explained to me, as “having to constantly justify our decision to live here to the people back home”. 

At first I saw the excitement: we’re in a new place, doing new things with new-found friends.

But after a while, any time somebody called out to me to gather for a photograph, my eyes began to roll. 

At first I assumed this was a sign that my inner jaded New Yorker was clouding my bright, shiny, new expatriate exterior. 

That said, I kind of understood it. Despite all the similarities to home, the reality is that living in the UAE really is exotic for an American. There are mosques and camels and palm trees and things that don’t feel so extraordinarily foreign when you live here day-to-day but do make for extraordinary photo displays for the people back home.

After 18 months in our new life in Abu Dhabi, however, I began to have a different view on the whole expat paparazzi thing as the never-ending turnover of the place started to have an effect. 

When I first arrived, I found the transitional nature of the place surprising but refreshing. I knew no one, and that brought freedom because for the first time in 25 years, I was a blank sheet of paper. As a person who had lived her life up until that point looking for ways to stake roots, here I was among an entire community of people who didn’t like to see the grass grow under their feet. 

It was eye-opening, awe-inspiring, electric.

Then at the start of last summer it happened. Those people who I started out with in Abu Dhabi were suddenly packing up and leaving. For some, it was planned and we saw it coming for months. For others, it just happened – a more lucrative job offer, work running out, or just one day walking into the boss’s office and saying: “Enough.” 

In a few months’ time I lost about a dozen fabulous women from my core group in Abu Dhabi, to the point where I suddenly realised I didn’t have a core group any more.  

So now when it comes to the expat paparazzi, and someone wants to take a group photo, I understand the meaning of it more. I realise that maybe it's not about the social media and vanity but the fleetingness of the here and now. 

Those fast-found friends – the ones I was laughing like teenagers and swinging golf clubs with, the ones with the itchy feet who are so full of life and adventure, and the ones who I’d never probably befriend in New York City – have proven to be the greatest of allies and have shown me new ways to look at my world. 

Well, those fabulous people may not be here next year, next month or next week. Or maybe it will be me who moves on.

So, from here on in, I’m embracing the expat paparazzi, throwing myself in the middle of the group photos and smiling big for the camera. 

I’ll be the one looking around and taking in – really taking in – the people I'm sharing the moment with. 

My Facebook newsfeed might run over with group ­photos but I won't be as embarrassed about it as I have been in the past. 

It reminds me of a time several years ago, when a friend told me that if I wanted to make friends with someone new, all I had to do was take a picture with them. 

“It’s not about the photo,” she said, “but the moment shared.”


Christine Hinz is a writer and publicist in Abu Dhabi

Published: January 3, 2016 04:00 AM


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