UAE Portrait of a Nation: Instagram star’s work puts the abaya in the picture

It may sound corny but photography just clicked with Sarah Al Balooshi when she found an artistic output for her creativity that didn’t require words.

Photographer Sara Al Balooshi has built a substantial following on Instagram. Her latest project documents Emirati women in abayas, highlighting the beauty and style of the traditional dress. Vidhyaa for The National
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ABU DHABI // While a picture is said to be worth a thousand words, in today’s social media-driven world it can also be worth thousands of followers.

In the case of Sarah Al Balooshi, it is 32,000 to be precise.

That is how many people follow the 23-year-old Emirati on the photo and video posting site Instagram, with more being added every day.

Being able to express herself without words is what attracted the Zayed University graduate to photography and art.

“I started taking drawing classes but realised later that it was much harder for me to learn than others, which opened the door for photography,” she said. “Almost instantly I felt I had a knack for it. It just clicked.

“I took my first course in university where the teacher was surprised to learn that I had never had professional training.”

The Abu Dhabi native said her photographic output relies on having an eye for the shot, the lighting and the composition and not simply having the best camera.

“When I take a picture I like it to tell a story,” she said. “People would roll their eyes at me when I would tell them that a professional camera is not needed to take great pictures.”

Proof of this can be seen in her Abaya Series project, in which she took portraits of Emirati women in different situations to highlight the beauty and style of traditional UAE dress. The whole series was done on an iPhone with stunning results.

“I relate very much to it because people look at women wearing the abaya and assume we are restricted. In my series, you see a woman working in different scenarios, showing that just because they’re wearing an abaya doesn’t mean they cannot do what anybody else does.”

Ms Al Balooshi said such projects contributed to breaking down stereotypes about Arab women.

Despite her success, she admits to finding it difficult to adapting to life in the social media spotlight.

“One of the main issues of social media is that you open yourself to people’s opinions and you have to take it,” she said. “Some people find it difficult to accept others who want to be unique and different, they look at being different as a bad thing.

“Criticism comes with the territory and I knew that I was going to have to encounter that when I first started my Instagram account.”

But her family and supporters help keep her strong, she said.

“Most of the time, when people say something criticising me, my followers stand up for me,” she said. “My family and friends are my support system.”

Ms Al Balooshi’s photography work was recently recognised when she was chosen to be a judge for property management company Khidmah’s #MyKommunity competition, which allowed people to submit their work on Instagram.

“I was proud that an organisation like Khidmah would choose me,” she said.

“Such competitions are what give people a chance to gain recognition on a higher level.”