UAE royal snapper's 50 years of capturing history

Noor Ali Rashid, the Emirates' official royal photographer, can look back on half a century chronicling the rise of the country.

Noor Ali Rashid, the former official royal photographer, with one of his first cameras.
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Dwarfed by piles of yellowing photographs stacked floor to ceiling, Noor Ali Rashid leafed through an album, tut-tutting as he scanned the pages. The 80-year-old photographer, dressed in an immaculate white dishdash and head-dress, closed the book before turning his attention to a box jammed full of loose sepia-toned snapshots.

"I cannot find it," he frowned. "I know it is here somewhere." He could be excused not being able to immediately find what he was looking for. Searching for one photograph among a collection of more than three million is something of a needle-in-a-haystack problem. For almost a half-century Mr Rashid worked as the UAE's official royal photographer, chronicling various leaders as the nation underwent its most dramatic changes.

The father of six travelled the world as part of the royal entourage, meeting celebrities, sport stars and heads of state, even managing to squeeze in a trip to Buckingham Palace to meet Queen Elizabeth II. He took tea with the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, sat in on talks with the late Palestinian Liberation Organisation chairman Yasser Arafat and even shared a joke with the former US president Bill Clinton.

The days of shouldering his way through a boisterous media scrum far behind him, now he is channelling his energy into organising his life's work, which fills not only much of his penthouse apartment overlooking Sharjah's port, but also a separate flat several floors below that he rents for storage. After losing scores of pictures to a fire in a storehouse some years ago, he wants to keep his remaining treasure trove close at hand.

Mr Rashid was born in December 1929 in the Gwadar province of what was India and is now Pakistan. His wealthy family built up their fortune in the import-export trade, but he had no wish to follow in his father's footsteps. "It was a family business," he said. "My father did not want me to be a photographer. He did not think it was respectable but I could not help it. It was my passion." During the 1940s he began travelling to Karachi to photograph the street demonstrations, which coincided with the political upheaval as the British withdrew from India.

Among the chanting, banner-waving protesters who marched through the bustling streets, Mr Rashid realised his calling. "My father wanted me to continue the family business but I loved to take photographs," he said. "I spent all my time with cameras." In 1958, Mr Rashid's father dispatched his son to Dubai with a handful of money and instructions to open a branch of the family business. His father hoped that Dubai's limited distractions and hot desert climate would cool his son's enthusiasm for photography, but the ploy did not work.

"I was supposed to trade in fruit and vegetables, so I used some of the money to buy that, but then a lot of the fruit went bad so I just gave it away. I suppose I did not have much of a head for business. It just did not interest me. My father was not happy." Instead he used the money to embark on a charm offensive to woo Dubai's rich and powerful and become accepted into the city's inner circle.

"I would offer to go to events and take photographs for free," he said. "I met a lot of people. Some of them were very powerful. Sometimes you can buy a little friendship with a few ties and cigarettes." His hard work paid off and he was invited to attend a function to mark Queen Elizabeth II's official recognition of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum as the Ruler of Dubai. The young photographer shrewdly spotted an opportunity and took several flattering photographs of the proud sheikh, which he then enlarged and delivered as a present to him. The Ruler was so delighted with the images that he appointed Mr Rashid his personal and family photographer.

Mr Rashid began a meteoric rise, snapping the UAE's most important figures, including Sheikh Zayed. It was through this connection with the "Father of the Nation" that Mr Rashid went on to produce his most memorable images. He forged a close relationship with Sheikh Zayed, and through this connection was able to secure unparalleled access to the highest echelons of Emirati society. The intimacy of the portraits provide a fascinating insight into the daily lives and humanity of his subjects, not only during their working hours but also as they relax, and helped Emiratis connect with their leader, Mr Rashid said.

"Sheikh Zayed was a human being. He believed in humility. He was kind and generous and always believed in peace and tolerance. "The people who were close to him knew this. He wanted to teach these values to his people." He became the official photographer for the Al Nahyan family and the ruling families of the seven emirates, accompanying Sheikh Zayed on all his most high profile international visits.

In recent years he has devoted more time to archiving his colossal collection, and has published six books of key figures in the UAE in a series known as Life and Times. The accolades have also flooded in; he received 42 awards in 2000 alone. He was named UAE Photographer of the Millennium in 2001, and in 2006 Zayed University launched an annual photojournalism prize in his honour. Despite the acclaim, Mr Rashid remains modest, preferring to spend his time among his photographs.

In his storage apartment, every inch of floor and workspace is crammed with albums, cartons and loose bundles of photographs, all kept at a cool temperature and shaded by thick curtains. "I did not take pictures for money or for awards or publicity," he said. "I did it because I loved it. Looking around at these photographs reminds me of what I have seen and where I have been. "My pictures are more important to me than life.

"Every one of them gives me pleasure. I do not have a favourite. I have hundreds of pictures of which I am proud."