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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 1 March 2021

Charney Magri talks about her Women of the UAE project

Photographer Charney Magri talks about finding and recording the intriguing female faces of the UAE.
Randala Jishi Anabtawi, left, and Tatiana Antonelli Abella, the Goumbook Girls, who run an organisation and website devoted to environmental issues in the Middle East. Courtesy Charney Magri
Randala Jishi Anabtawi, left, and Tatiana Antonelli Abella, the Goumbook Girls, who run an organisation and website devoted to environmental issues in the Middle East. Courtesy Charney Magri

Charney Magri insists that her new project is not a beauty contest. The 32-year-old photographer is setting out to photograph the women of the UAE but she is not trying to find the next Miss World.

Women of the UAE is all about inner beauty, strength of character and whatever it is that drives the women who live here to make a significant contribution to the progress of the nation.

Australian-born Magri is looking for 100 female faces to photograph, and they could belong to anyone – waitresses, housemaids, high-flying executives, nurses, mothers and housewives, grandmothers – in fact, anyone who has that indefinable glow and feels she has made a mark.

They will all be photographed in a similar style, against a plain background so that it is not immediately clear whether they are rich or poor or what makes them special, apart from having a great face. The resulting images will be published in a coffee-table book and shown in an exhibition in March next year to coincide with International Women’s Day.

“It will be more of a time capsule than anything else, so that in 100 years’ time someone can pick it up and see who and what were the women of the UAE at this particular moment.

“We’re not talking about beauty, as on the front cover of magazines. It will celebrate their contributions to the region, so it won’t be the top 100 most beautiful women, but faces of ordinary women, waitresses, taxi drivers, nannies, locals and expats,” Magri explains.

Despite her focus for this project, Magri does have direct experience photographing some of the world’s most beautiful women, which in a way led her towards this project. She worked in London for the famed photographer Nick Knight, sometimes dubbed “the Steven Spielberg of photography”. She was an assistant for Knight for three years in London, whose international clients include such stellar names as Alexander McQueen, Audi, Calvin Klein, Christian Dior, Jil Sander, Lancôme, Levi Strauss, Mercedes-Benz, the Royal Ballet, the Royal Opera House, Swarovski and Yves Saint Laurent.

Magri then went on to work as a full-time freelancer for Vogue magazine regularly working on shoots with top models. “They are what beauty is all about to many people’s eyes. When I was working on shoots like this I started to think about what made them icons of beauty.”

When she travelled to Africa on a charity fundraising trip, she began to explore the idea of inner beauty and started photographing local women working on a farm. “I was reading the Big Issue magazine one day, which raises funds for the homeless, and there was an article calling for volunteers to raise funds for a children’s charity called International Children’s Trust. They wanted people who were prepared to ride a bicycle across Africa, 420km through mountains, valleys, beaches on a three-week trip. It was a challenge, and together we raised a total of about £70,000 (Dh406,000). Afterwards, I stayed on for a short break with my husband and started to photograph lots of women at work. This is very much a follow-on from that.”

Magri, who was born in Perth (her unusual surname comes from her Maltese grandfather, and her first name was made up by her parents) won a scholarship to study photography and design at Intekma University in Malaysia, and like many young Australians headed for London to find work. She and her husband, Francis Leung, who runs a software business, decided to look for a new adventure two and a half years ago and plumped for a life in the sunshine of Dubai. Their daughter Eleria was born 17 months ago.

“I arrived with my portfolio and a pair of heels just before the global financial meltdown and have been very busy with my daughter for a year. Now it’s time to get on with the project that I have been planning for so long.”

Since she moved to Dubai in 2008, Magri has worked on fashion shoots and advertising campaigns for high-end companies, including Louis Vuitton, Memac Ogilvy & Mather, Volvo, L’Oreal Professional, Leo Burnett, Emirates Airlines, Jumeirah Living and the Yas Hotel. She recently won two golds and two bronzes in the Dubai Lynx Awards 2010.

The Women of the UAE project is being driven by publicity on the radio, in magazines and via Facebook. Five or six images of women are already up on Magri’s website to give people an idea of how they will look. Already 400 women have registered and Magri is in the process of sifting through the faces and stories to choose her final 100.

Inevitably, it will be a personal selection, although she is being helped by an Emirati friend, Naja Hussein, who is helping her manage expectations and steer her through any cultural chicanes.

“I haven’t run into cultural problems as yet, but there is a sensitivity I need to manage and that is that not everybody who registers will be in the book. This is not a beauty contest like the Miss World show. The selection will be entirely personal. It will be a time capsule for the region.”

“Initially, I asked some women on my database and just went through that and met as many as I could. To me, they represented some facet about the region.”

One of her first subjects was a British Muslim woman called Amal Lording. “She is a mother and sees herself as being a bridge between East and West. Sometimes it’s difficult to talk to someone about religion, but you really feel comfortable talking to her about it,” says Magri.

The Goumbook Girls, Randala Jishi Anabtawi and Tatiana Antonelli Abella, came next with their website devoted to environmental issues in the Middle East. “They are teaching people how to be green. I have a strong passion for the subject and feel a personal connection.”

Then there was a woman called Shimi Shah, an entrepreneur who invests in a variety of companies, whom Magri met at a networking group, and a jewellery designer called Mansi Mallya. Another woman, Gulshan Kavarana, has a daughter, Zara, who has Dravets Syndrome, a mild form of epilepsy that affects the speech. Says Magri: “She used to do a lot of work with disabled children and set up Tuesday groups for the Start charity. Then, when she had her second child, she learned her daughter had a disability.”

With regards to the style of Magri’s photographs, she says: “They are all shot with a plain background so that material possessions don’t become a distraction.

“When you photograph somebody in their home, it detracts from them. Either they have a lot of money or no money, and either way it makes a statement about them that I don’t want in the picture.”

There will also be a special section featuring women who are battling breast cancer.

Their photographs will highlight several aspects of their treatment and Magri is hoping to collaborate with a breast cancer charity.

Women can register themselves or friends can nominate them. There is no age limit, but each applicant is asked to write up to 100 words about themselves and why they believe they should be included. They are also asked to answer the question: What do I live my life by?”

“My own particular mantra is ‘trust the process’,” says Magri who has already begun the main body of her work. It will be launched on March 8, with a photographic exhibition and a book.

“I am hoping it will be something the region will be proud of. I am actively seeking sponsors to fund the work and hope for local support. One reason for doing this is to build bridges between the local people and expats, and the other is to build bridges internationally.

“There is a lot of interest in the UAE, but people tend to focus on Dubai. It’s all about discovering hidden gems and finding beauty.

“A lot of it is personal for me and simply about women that I find interesting. They all come from different backgrounds. They represent the diverse nature of the community. There is a very big mix of people who come here and I want to reflect that. I want to discover how the female role has evolved, how their voices have grown and the achievements they’ve accomplished over the past 40 years.

“As a third-generation western female I’ve hardly had to ‘fight for my rights’ as a woman within society or the workforce. Even though fashion photography is a male-dominated industry, traditional perspectives have been challenged by the women of the generations before me, and I now reap the rewards of many years of their campaigning and hardship.

“I now live in a city where the female is still relatively new at being a leading light in the community, injecting ideas, influencing and making decisions otherwise led by men.

“As the United Arab Emirates progresses, each generation is becoming broader-minded, more outspoken and educated. This voice and independence is what captivates me. Through photographing the women of the UAE, I will explore what women are achieving, how they are making a difference, and the positive effects this is having on the community I am living in.’’

• For more information and to register for the Women of the UAE project go to: or

Published: October 2, 2010 04:00 AM

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