Bruno Barbey: 10 extraordinary colour photos that capture the days leading to UAE's union

The acclaimed French photographer, who died last month aged 79, recorded buoyant scenes as the country prepared for great change

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Among the more unlikely witnesses to the birth of the UAE on December 2, 1971, was a Moroccan-born French photographer called Bruno Barbey.

Barbey, who died last month aged 79, spent several days in Abu Dhabi leading up to the creation of the nation.

Most notable is a series that recorded celebrations marking the fifth anniversary of the accession of Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, as Ruler of Abu Dhabi.

On the insistence of Sheikh Zayed these were moved from the actual date he became Ruler in July, when important negotiations were still under way, to the last week of November, on the cusp of unification.

To break the fast, he took me by the arm to return to his palace. Such an invitation was a great privilege

The series includes a celebration banquet at Al Manhal Palace and a parade along the Corniche, along with scenes of everyday life.

Barbey, the son of a French diplomat, spent his early childhood in North Africa. After training as a photographer at a Swiss art school, he began a career that would last four decades.

He would become part of the prestigious Magnum Photos, an international photographers co-operative, in the 1960s.

Much of his early reputation was built on covering conflicts, including Vietnam, Nigeria, the First Gulf War and Northern Ireland.

In the Gulf War, he captured near-apocalyptic images of Kuwait's burning oilfields, which were set alight by Saddam Hussein's fleeing forces in 1991.

But Barbey rejected the label "war photographer" and increasingly turned his lens to recording the world as he saw it, eventually publishing about 30 books of his work on four continents.

A retrospective at the Empty Quarter Gallery in Dubai in 2016 noted “his instincts seem to have always brought him to witness at the right time, and ahead of everyone else".

He arrived in what would soon become the United Arab Emirates towards the end of Ramadan in 1971, with Eid Al Fitr falling in late November.

Barbey visited Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain, gaining remarkable access at the highest level.

He recalled Sheikh Rashid, Ruler of Dubai, asking whether the sun had set.

“To break the fast, he took me by the arm to return to his palace," Barbey said.

"Such an invitation was a great privilege. Today, they kept the same culture. These experiences take me on a fantastic journey."

Barbey died on November 9 in Orbais-l’Abbaye, north-east France. Magnum Photos said he was “generous with his time and thoughtful about the situations that he spent time covering, which ranged from global wars to the streets of Morocco, the country of his birth".

An obituary in French newspaper Liberation described him as "a figure from the golden age of photojournalism".

He was frequently described as a “gentleman photographer” by colleagues.

Barbey described his technique for the Empty Quarter retrospective.

“I photographed there when I could, sometimes on assignments, mostly on my own," he said.

"My goal was to try to catch the spirit of the place.”