Thursday, February 18, 2016


I took this massive panorama (original) during my favorite moment in Dubai: a trip to the Pakistani cricket pitch. On one side are skyscrapers of Dubai, on the other, working class homes.

A few months ago, my friend Michael Cannon gets in touch with me. "I'm going to Dubai in February, want to come and join me for some workshops at Gulf Photo?" "I'd love to," I replied, "but I got two kids in college." "No problem," my generous friend assured, "I'll cover it." And so he did, and so I went. I ended up visiting three of the emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah, and spending three days in a street photography workshop with the famous photographer Steve Simon. I can never thank Michael enough for his generosity and kindness, it was a wonderful learning experience.

Click on read more for zillions of photos and commentary...

Playing cricket amidst the towers of Dubai. One of the very talented and creative photographers in our group places himself in the path of danger for his art.

Dubai? It's everything you hate about modern consumer hypercapitalism: its rabid environmental destructiveness, its stupendously ugly and inhuman built environments, its proliferation of inauthentic logos and brands, its caste, class, and ethnic divisions of production, labor, and wealth, its frenetic speed and driving urge toward ever greater size and power, and its unslakeable thirst for discipline and control of everything imperfect and human. I developed a strong dislike toward Dubai, which piles authoritarian religion, an oil-based economy, and a soul-destroying lack of greenery atop the hyperconsumptive modernity. Someone asked me what my impression of Dubai was, I wrote back: walking on sand between buildings.

Walking on sand between buildings.

Part of my problem was that we were staying in a new area populated with forests of soulless glass and steel towers. Fortunately Dubai had some older, more interesting, more human areas to explore.

A little restaurant in Sharjah, an emirate to the north of Dubai.

The first full day in Dubai, Michael and I enjoyed a pleasant morning running around the public beach and the older areas of the city. But I began to worry about the street photography workshop.

Michael grabs a shot of the nice, clean, empty streets.

I enjoy taking photos of Taiwan's streets because in Taiwanese society everything happens in the street. But when you look at the area which were going to photograph in the street photography workshop, you get a sense of how barren I felt it to be.

Back alley.

An ordinary street.

Specifically, Dubai streets have no insects, spiders, stray dogs, birds, snakes, rats, garbage, signs, street vendors, stalls, food processing, food preparation, clothing drying, scooters, shrines, temples, old men playing chess, young people engaged in PDA, gaggles of hot local girls, and so many other things I normally photo in Taiwan. Anarchy is kept to a minimum by the strictures of law, custom, and religion. Later I would learn that I am a mediocre photographer who does not understand street photography at all, but that morning I was really wondering what I would do.

And the lack of stray dogs sucked. I love dogs.

Michael bargains for dates.

We had a good time walking around the older city area and the port, though.

Scurrying to work.

Giving directions.

Waiting for a taxi.


Workers rest by the port.

Small ferries go back and forth across the harbor.

Ferries wait for passengers.

Nuts. The abundance of nuts was a great joy to me.

Lost? Look here.

An actual tree.

The port area.

These two women on the beach were great.

On this beach I had an experience that became almost defining: talking to Chinese in Chinese, with no remark on the fact that I spoke Chinese. A Chinese woman stopped me and asked me to help her take her picture. We had a whole conversation in Chinese about the images, of which I took several, in various poses, and never did she ask: "Where did you learn to speak Chinese?" This happened again and again with Chinese people in Dubai. I guess the attitude is Of course the whole world speaks Chinese. My flight passed through Guangzhou and when I spoke Chinese there, mental processes ground to an instant halt, with people turning to each other to ask "what language was he speaking? What did he say?" I found it was better to confine myself to English there.

Yep, a beach.

Residential street.

In the evening we went shopping at the Mall of Emirates to get stuff we needed for work. No, no pictures of shopping malls here, it's exactly the same design, including the same color scheme, railings, and internal layout, as the mall at Taipei 101, just bigger.

Tuesday, with Michael busy and me not starting the photo workshop til Wednesday, I decided to day trip up to Sharjah, the next emirate north, about 90 minutes by bus. A few images...

The most important building at the bus stop. Costs 1 Durham to use it.

The port of Sharjah was filled with yachts and wooden boats carrying all manner of cargo.

Playing hookey or hockey?

Why the harbor is so damn clean.

Fishing boat.

Fishing equipment drying in the sun.

A major street.

Sharjah town was built to a more human scale than Dubai. I immediately liked it, and spent the morning in total happiness.

In the animal and bird market, the stalls sell just that. Here a stall sells falcons, a favorite animal among locals.

Next to the animal and bird market is the pet supply market.

After three days, I finally saw an animal on the street.

In the heritage district, there's a fort.

What a great day.

The front of the fort

Of course I stopped at the dessert shop....

...for some gulab jamun, my favorite dessert. I am sure jamun inventories all over the region plummeted due to my presence in the area.

One thing I enjoyed about Sharjah was that the labor force in the small shops had a reassuring I-don't-give-a-damn-about-you minimal surly politeness that made me feel at home, unlike Dubai and later Abu Dhabi, where the obsequiousness of the foreign laborers drove me to distraction.

Wednesday my street photographer seminar began. After some discussion, we headed out to the older part of the city for some street photography. Steve emphasizes getting out of your comfort zone and getting in people's faces, working the subject. As I sat there listening to him talk, I realized that the my Sony DSC RX-100 is my comfort zone. I don't get in people's faces and I don't use my DSLR because I don't understand all its many functions or how to use it properly.



So for the Wed session I set myself the goal of imaging people up close, using the DSLR, and photographing only males. Needless to say, everything I did was garbage, which I won't put here.

I also realized many other things. It was difficult for me to take photos because I had to overcome my visceral dislike of Dubai. I also found that my Chinese skills are a crutch I use to select whatever level of "insideness" I wanted when I take photos on the street -- I can talk a little, and maintain some distance, or a lot buttressed with local knowledge, and get right in. In Dubai I didn't have that crutch, and approaching people was more difficult. I also use the little camera to keep my distance from people, preferring to photograph things and wide scenes. I put my images on the blog, where I produce a narration for them, so the images do not themselves speak. I have silenced them.

Finally, for years I have had others use my photos in publications and tell me how much they liked them. Over time I realized that while I take many enjoyable pictures which are well composed, I do not even know what a good picture is. Often I will put up a block of images, and I will think, "oh this one is really good", but invariably no one else thinks so. Instead, they will favorite a photo and tell me it is good, and I am completely mystified as to the reason. I am a blind man in a world of the sighted. I realized with a thrill of terror I must have deleted scores of good images over the years.

I have always known I have no talent for the visual arts, which is why the photos on this blog tend to run toward the informative rather than the artistic, but this seminar rammed that home. Watching Steve showing how he cropped different photos and won awards, and realizing that I would have done it differently and produced something inferior, was a brutal lesson. Working alongside people who take lovely pictures was wonderful and humbling at the same time. But I learned a little...

Thursday we did an evening photo shoot in Satwa, an older area of Dubai. I was so demoralized by the previous day I reverted to the Sony point-n-click, a camera which I have total mastery of.

Steve gives advice.

Two really wonderful people from the group, Ziyad in blue, and Martin in purple/pink. They were talented and knowledgeable photographers.

Maha, our assistant. She was overflowed with the two traits I consider most important in a human being, competence and kindness. She spoke several languages and had traveled widely. Really just a great person, we spent a lot of time comparing notes on child raising.








As I was walking through this area of working-class housing, I stumbled on Bernard, an amazing Swiss photographer who lives in Dubai, and who has published books of his photos. "Not here," he said. "I will show you a better spot."

Bernard. He brought me to this sandy pitch at the foot of the great buildings of Dubai, where trucks are parked, and the foreign laborers who constitute 70% of the population, but can never immigrate, play cricket and stage wrestling matches.

We were greeted with total friendliness.

It was nearing sunset when we arrived...

Bernard took several excellent photos of me.

The Pakistani laborers at the cricket pitch proved to be excellent company, explaining the ins and outs of cricket, which is like particle physics but more difficult, and happily posing for pictures.

Bernard shows his photos.

Then it was night and shops and restaurants. Yeah, I know, should have cropped this one, but with 3500 images, I don't have the time...

Street life.


Bernard has a great trick of working with mirrors to get interesting photos of passers-by, but I failed to reproduce it.

At the bus stop.

Restaurants and the community.

Two men discuss in front of a mosque.

Bernard showing me the techniques of using a mirror to put oneself in a street photo.

Making my dinner.

If you are in Dubai you must visit Ravi's, where the food is both cheap and amazing.

On this trip I had Indian food almost every day, because I knew I'd come back to the inferior stuff in Taiwan.

Friday morning we rose at the crack of dawn and hit the fish market. I took many photos, almost all bad, and besides, it is just a fish market, and the Taiwan ones are far more interesting. So I am just tossing up a few random images here.

The whole place is staffed by foreign workers, who were enthusiastically cooperative, to the point that I longed for them to display some surliness and sullen refusal to cooperate like normal human beings.

There was a fruit and vegetable market next door. This wall of dates from all over was quite impressive.

Each foreign worker had a uniform with his specialty and a number. It was efficient, and scary. Give me the anarchy of a Taiwanese fish market any day...

The one great thing about this place was the insane number of seagulls who hung out, hoping for scraps.

Saturday we left for Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, whose ruler is probably the richest man who has ever lived, since he owns all of the emirate's oil deposits worth hundreds of billions.

Michael Cannon disembarks at the bus station in Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is not as frenetic as Dubai and we appreciated its mellower character.

The city is also greener than Dubai, and built to a more human scale.

There are plenty of great restaurants, and then there pasta and sushi places too.

Sunrise from our 11th floor hotel room.

There are a few glass and steel towers. These are down near the presidential palace and ministries. I walked over the area, and then went inside to the super-upscale mall to use the bathroom. Came out, got some soap, and was washing my hands, when the janitor attendant cleaner hygiene enhancement technician began to laugh. "Sir," he said, "that is the lotion."

Sheik Zayed, the founder of the UAE.

I like this building style, with its blocks of single buildings. It is easy to walk around, and the buildings funnel in breezes.

In every corner there's a mosque.


$6 lunch: tea, labneh, a sour milk product (delicious), olive oil, a sprig of mint, flatbread, and a plate of tomatoes, green and black olives, and cucumbers. Dessert was dates.

Of course I hit the dessert shop.

The hypermarkets were mind blowing. The one good thing about the UAE is the incredible food experience you can have there, with top-flight restaurants from almost every cuisine in the world.

I spent an afternoon walking near a mangrove covered island, but you can't get out to it because there's a palace there.

The island.

The path, much used by cyclists, joggers, and walkers.

There were even some birds.

The best thing about Abu Dhabi was that an old and beloved friend of mine from Peace Corps lived there. The night before I left Larry took me to a great restaurant across the water from the city, with excellent views.

At dusk the rowers were out practicing on the water.

Larry smokes shisha (hookah; 水煙), a popular local past time.

Night views.
The night, and my trip ended with a lightshow and a visit to Carrefour. Then it was 11 hours back through Singapore to Taipei. I can't say I liked the UAE, but it was good to be warm for two weeks...
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Ji Xiang said...

Haha I have had the same experience with Chinese abroad, when you talk to them in Chinese and they don't seem the slightest bit surprised.

It's funny, because as you say people seem more surprised to hear white people speak Chinese within China then they do outside of China, when actually the opposite should be the case. I think it's also to do with some Chinese feeling shy about displaying surprise, or not wanting to ask questions of a stranger. Still it's a weird phenomenon. I also don't think it's an "of course the whole world speaks Chinese" attitude. The Chinese have many faults, but believing everyone speaks their language isn't one of them. Actually a lot of them assume that no foreigners can ever speak their language, which is equally silly.

Grant said...

Those are some fabulous pictures of Dubai Michael.

Michael Cannon said...

Michael, it was a sincere pleasure to have you join me in UAE during Gulf Photo Plus. I think you've taken a step forward with your photo selection here today. With practice, it gets easier, but at day's end, shoot and show what you like. It's your style.

P. S. said...

I read the whole damn thing and kept waiting for your street photos to suck, but it never happened. I even kept reading after your opening paragraph, which is not exactly what I imagine the Dubai Tourist Bureau had in mind. Funny stuff.

Marc said...

Your telling comment about what was missing on the streets of Dubai reminded me of Luc Sante's comments about how we have forgotten what a city is:

Herman said...

Really enjoyed your post! I visited the UAE in 2012 and was left with much of the same impressions as you about the three emirates you saw. Though, as a minor quibble, Dubai's wealth isn't built on oil, but rather banking and trade. Abu Dhabi is the emirate built by oil. If you get a chance to go back to the UAE, I highly recommend visiting Umm al-Quwain, which is the emirate that time forgot. Or the emirate whose ruler has decided not to pursue frenetic modernity at all cost to culture.