Photo studio paints a pretty picture of UAE life for workers

Photo-editing is proving popular with expat blue-collar workers for everything from winning hearts from afar to reconnecting families across continents, but superimposing heads on to stock images of men in smart suits is not to everyone's taste.

Mohammed Arfan prints out the pictures he created for Mohammed Nasim. The Sheikh Zayed Mosque is one of many possible backgrounds for customers at Al Bashir Studio. Deepthi Unnikrishnan/The National
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ABU DHABI // The portrait of Dewendra Kumar will travel thousands of kilometres to the woman he might marry, crossing the Arabian Sea and most of India to reach her. It is the first time she will see him.

"It has to be nice," says Mr Kumar, 26, a welder who works in Ruwais. "Just for a change, I want a good photo with a jacket and trousers to send home."

Posing for the photograph in a button-down shirt and trousers, he stands in front of a stained white curtain - the standard backdrop at Al Bashir Studio - and smiles for the camera.

The gap between Mr Kumar's vision and reality is bridged by the deft fingers of Bangladeshi photographer Shobuj Mejan, 22. Using photo-editing software on his computer, Mr Mejan separates Mr Kumar's head from his shoulders and replaces his body with a template of a man in a suit.

When Mr Kumar returns to pick up his picture, he can choose any background to replace the white curtain - a garden, a villa, the Burj Khalifa.

If the woman's family like what they see, his parents in Bihar will meet her. But even if the marriage goes ahead, Mr Kumar will not confess to his future wife that his photograph was doctored.

"What is there to say?" he asks. "Telling everything to a woman is not good."

The lime-green walls of Al Bashir Studio are lined with portraits similar to Mr Kumar's. There are men in suits, men in kanduras and men in designer T-shirts, posing in front of lush greenery and gleaming images of the Dubai skyline.

It is only when you look out of the window and see the dusty roads of Mussaffah that the incongruity strikes home.

Al Bashir Studio is next to Workers Village, a large compound built to house thousands of blue-collar workers. Almost all the studio's customers are migrant labourers from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. These are the photographs they send home.

On a busy Friday, men stream in and out of Al Bashir Studio asking for their signature service.

"Everyone wants to look handsome to send pictures to his wife, or his parents at home," said Sameer Malik, the studio's owner. "What they say, we will do."

Three copies of a computer-edited portrait cost Dh25, a reduced price for Mussaffah.

"They're very poor people, all labourers," Mr Malik said. "They have maybe Dh600 salary."

Many customers do not want to be edited into a suit. Visiting Mussaffah on his day off, Yunus Ansari, a welder who works in Ruwais, asked for a portrait in his own clothing: jeans and a stylish black hat.

"It's just for my mother," said Mr Ansari, 23, from India. "Even if I look bad, she will be happy."

But for special occasions, or simply because they like the idea, customers can choose from a selection of suit and kandura templates.

"I don't like this too much … because the original body and Photoshopped bodies are different, no?" said photographer Anwarul Azim Arif, 24, from Bangladesh. "But what to do? Labourers here don't have a suit and they are so happy to send a photo of themselves in a suit to family back home."

Some customers tell their families the photos were computer-edited. Many don't.

"They say this is a nice suit, I have a good job," said Mr Arif.

He recognises the moral dilemma. "It is wrong, but what to do? If they tell them, then their mother and father will be tensed and if they don't say anything then there's no tension. Those who have a difficult time here, they don't say anything."

For those men, the portraits are dreamscapes, alternative realities where hardship dissolves into fantasy.

Mr Malik's father founded Al Bashir Studio in 1986. Today it has seven branches in Mussaffah. Before the advent of computer photo-editing, the shop was filled with costumes and props: sports jackets, ties, Arabic dress, carpets, backdrops.

Jane Bristol-Rhys, an anthropologist at Zayed University, stumbled upon a similar scene more than 10 years ago. Visiting a photo studio in the Tourist Club area of Abu Dhabi city, she was ushered up a tiny staircase to a room with vinyl backdrops and an executive-style desk. Low-income workers would take pictures sitting at the desk, wearing borrowed dress shirts and jackets.

"When the desk was being used, the roll-down vinyl [backdrop] was a window into space," she said. "So it just looked like the executive office on the 25th floor - nothing really out there, just clouds and stuff."

She returned repeatedly to the studio to talk to customers.

"They wanted people back home to be happy," she said. "They wanted to feel better about themselves, which was a big thing."

The studio will feature in her upcoming book on migrant workers in Abu Dhabi, Future Perfect.

"We all manage our image," she said. "These guys are trying to do it at a distance."

Since then, computer editing has largely replaced borrowed jackets and physical backdrops at Al Bashir Studio and similar studios. Labourers also have more options for sending images home. Some have Facebook accounts. Others take their own photographs on mobile phones.

But while the methods have changed, the images play a similar role. Andrew Gardner, an anthropologist who followed a group of migrant labourers in Qatar, found that many were not interested in "accurately portraying their circumstances". Instead, they visited parks or gardens to take photographs near beautiful scenery.

The pictures sent home are carefully edited, said Prof Gardner, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Puget Sound in the United States.

"You see them in those green and spectacular and beautiful places, taking pictures, and who doesn't sympathise with that? That's a normal thing for us to do, and I think it reinforces this idea that they're exploring the world and having an adventure."

Not all of the customers at Al Bashir Studio are trying to manage their reputation or soothe worried relatives. Ravi Kumar Singh, 25, a pipe-fitter who works in Ruwais, said he had no reason to hide the truth about his life from his wife and three-year-old son.

"Look, whatever … to work is a boon from God," he said. "Work hard and go home. Work is what will give you food."

He has sent photographs of himself in his work jumpsuit to his family in India. And even if he did not tell them that his portrait from Al Bashir Studio was altered, they would be able to tell on their own, he said. "Everyone in my family is educated."

Other men's stories are complicated.

While Mr Kumar will tell white lies about the portrait for his prospective bride, he is honest about his work, he said. "It's nice here," he said. "You get good earnings. Living here is nice."

Mohammed Nasim, a pipe-fitter from India, has also told his family about his job - but not everything about it. He does not say that the heavy machinery he uses sometimes malfunctions and can be dangerous. "My job is unsafe," he said. "I don't want my family to know my working conditions … they'll be worried and sad." When his family requested a photograph of him, he dressed up for the occasion, wearing grey trousers and a gold watch. He picked out a different background for each of his three copies: a garden scene, the Burj Khalifa and his favourite, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

Asked how his family will feel when they see the pictures, he said: "They'll be happy that I'm in a good place."

The customers at Al Bashir Studio usually cannot afford to bring their families to Abu Dhabi. But sometimes, with a bit of ingenuity, the photographers can arrange a virtual reunion.

"A man who came here from Bangladesh three to four years ago last saw his kids when they were very young," Mr Arif said. "And in those three to four years they had grown and he didn't have a photo with them."

The man's wife sent a photograph of herself and their children to Abu Dhabi. A photographer at Al Bashir Studio computer-edited the man's wife and children into a new image with their father, creating a composite family photo.

"He is happy and even his children are happy, seeing their photo with their father," Mr Arif said.

Photographs travel both ways, filling the outlines of relationships lived between visits.

Srinivas Reddy, a father of two who works at Al Basma Studio in the Tourist Club area, sees his family in India once every two years. He cherishes his photos from home, sleeping with an album on his bedside.

"I am not happy, because my status is low," said Mr Reddy. "Not mine - everybody's."

But when he sends photographs home, he is careful to pick out carefree snapshots with friends.

"The happy photos," he said. "They are thinking: 'Their lives are happy there, no problems'."

They are love letters, reassurances and white lies.