Ammar Al Attar

Artist Ammar Al Attar discusses the transformation of place, the documentation of space, the investigation of medium, and creating a historical photography archive for the UAE.

You’re an artist who uses photography to document and catalogue the changes that are occurring around you. How did you get started making pictures?

I was always interested in cameras, but I didn’t study art or photography in college, I studied business IT. When I graduated and got my first salary, one of the things I bought was a camera.

I started shooting in December 2003. I didn’t have it in mind that I would be an artist one day and exhibit my work. At first it was just for fun, documenting what happened around me, my friends, my family, that sort of thing. My mother-in-law is an artist with the Emirates Fine Arts Society, and she was the one who encouraged me to take some photography workshops. By 2009, I had an idea of what I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to be a documentary photographer or someone who documents the changes happening around me. In 2011, I took a very interesting workshop in Abu Dhabi with Stephen Shore, an American photographer. That experience really changed how I thought about photography. You can see his influence in almost all of my work since then.


Was that the same year that you began working with the Cuadro Fine Art Gallery in Dubai, which represents you today?

During Stephen’s workshop, I started a series called Visual Diaries, which I brought to Cuadro. I knew Roberto, who is the creative director there, from when he was teaching photography at the American University in Dubai. He liked that series and another one I shot called Prayer Rooms. That was how the relationship with Cuadro began.


So 2011 was an important year for you as an artist, figuring out a style, a conceptual framework, and signing on with a major gallery.

That year was a turning point from me. Before 2011, I did exhibit, but it was always single images in group shows. From 2011, I started working on longer projects like Visual Diaries, Prayer Rooms, and Zabeel Water.


The series Prayer Rooms and Zabeel Water look at aspects of Islam—the spaces where prayer happens, the ablution taps on mosques—but they appear to have been shot with a detached eye. The projects seem to catalogue the subject matter in a removed, objective way.

Yes. I was trying to show the subject matter in a different way than it is normally presented, in a neutral way. Not in a negative way, not in a positive way, just neutral.


Do you use digital cameras or analogue photography?

I started with digital, but then in 2007 I tried analogue cameras. There was a movement at that time going on called Lomography, which I tried. I started to use plastic, disposable film cameras and I liked the process. Then I learned about the darkroom in Tashkeel (an art center in Dubai), how to process film and how to print my own photographs. I was using the darkroom so much, I loved it. So by 2009, I was shooting a lot more film than digital.



You started off shooting in a very straightforward documentary style. Do you ever shoot like that these days?

Of course! While I’m working on my longer projects, I also try to go out and take random pictures on the street. They’re like my sketches. I go out, shoot, and I get inspiration like this for my bigger projects.


You work on a lot at once. What are you focused on currently?

I’m working on three different projects right now. One of the projects I showed with Brownbook at the recent Kochi Biennale in India called Reverse Moment. Three years back, I visited some photography studios in Sharjah. I was curious about the history of photography there. There were photographers who came to the UAE in the 1940s and 1950s who took photos of the early days, but what I’m more interested in are the old photographers who are still here today, what stories they have, who they are, what their studios are like.

I found a few of these photographers and I interviewed them. They shared so much information with me. Like who was the owner of Kodak at that time or who started bringing Ilford papers here or who the people were who would come in to have their portraits taken to send back home to their families. In Kochi I exhibited a part of this project, which is about a photographer who is based in Sharjah named Prem. He’s been here since 1971 and he’s from Kerala. I found it very interesting to show his story from the UAE back in his home state to the people in Kochi. I exhibited photos of his photos, photos of his cameras, photos of his passport. He has the same passion for documenting with photography that I do. We share that passion.


It’s interesting how you look at the role of photography, with photography. In some of your work, it appears to be both the medium and the idea you’re investigating.

Another project I’m working on is called The Golden Cinema. That is a name of a cinema that’s been demolished in Bur Dubai. It’s near my grandfather’s house and was built in 1971. In April 2015 it showed its last movie before it was decommissioned. I’ve been visiting the place over a two-year period taking lots of photos of the changes. I also discovered lots of old files, documents, and letters in there. So I thought, since no one will care, I’ll keep them and make something out of it. It took around 630 days for the cinema to disappear, so that’s how many photos I’m going to show at the exhibition, which will be in Alserkal. I’ll also show some video, the old posters that the cinema used to promote movies, and old advertising slides.


What are some of the ideas you’re investigating in your new work?

For my new exhibition in Cuadro Gallery, I’m focusing on one image. It’s of people praying, but it’s not about that—it’s about the format the image is being presented in. So one print will be a darkroom print, one will be a digital print, one will be a photocopy, one will be a scan. The original image is a still from a video that I converted to VHS and played on a TV.

The idea here is that there is no one way to tell a story. One story can be told in many different ways by many different mediums and by many different people. You can be a news agent or a famous person on Twitter—everyone has their own choice of medium to send their message out through. So it’s not about the news anymore, it’s about the medium that’s communicating the news. I wanted to play with this idea. So the exhibition will be one image shown in many different ways.



You mentioned social media; are you influenced by the changes it’s brought to image making?

Sometimes I think that because of social media, I can’t go out and shoot properly because people are more concerned today. They don’t want their photos taken. Before, even four, five years ago, people were more relaxed; today they’re scared. Your photo can be taken now and instantly it’s everywhere, so it’s not easy anymore to go out into the streets and take pictures.


So in a way, social media has made your work more difficult.

That’s the problem! Maybe that’s why I’ve been interested in manipulating the format and in images that have no people in them. [Laughter.]


Your work focuses on place and change. Do you feel you are inspired by the rapid, unique pace of change that exists in this country?

That’s what motivated me with Reverse Moment and Golden Cinema. I feel that it’s my responsibility to document. I also don’t only photograph or collect material from the UAE. I’ve found lots of old photos in Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait, which I add to my collection. I think it’s all important to keep, because it will be added to the history of photography in this region one day. So like I said, it’s a responsibility; I feel that I have a responsibility to have our history documented in this way, and hopefully someday we can have all of it in one place.


Are you ultimately interested in setting up an archive or a physical space for the history of photography here?

I want to have a place online and eventually a physical space where you can go to study and to research. I would like to create a reference archive of photography for people coming here from all over the world. That’s the ultimate goal for me.