2013 – Year in Pictures

The mad scramble during assignment days leaves very little room for reflection and introspection. I’ve therefore decided to take a little bit of time in the past week to curate a gallery of the quieter photographic moments that have occurred in 2013. These photographs don’t necessarily represent the most exciting assignments in the past year, but these people’s stories have continued to resonate with me well past my allocated time with them. Nonetheless it’s important as a photographer to visualise tangible underlying photographic patterns in my work, especially when it’s displayed in an online gallery in chronological order. Here’s to 2014 – it’s time to push narrative and technical boundaries even further – Happy New Year.

Eid Camping in Dibba

Dibba, a quaint little town on the eastern coast, attracts hundreds of visitors, mostly families, during Eid and National Day celebrations.

For many years UAE residents and Emiratis used to pitch their tents along the beach, waking up to salty fresh ocean air mixed with the familiar scents of cardamom, saffron and coffee brewing in tents.  In recent years, however, Dibba Municipality has banned tents on the beach because of excessive litter, and suggested that visitors camp instead in the open space near by.

Despite this new regulation, hundreds of local families flocked to the area for Eid, among them Yaqoub Al Jasmi, his wife Zahra Al Balooshi and their extended family. For the past three years the 16-strong family and six of their domestic staff have driven down from Dubai to mark celebratory occasions in the open air. There is ample room to roam, run and drive their dune buggies yet still maintain their privacy within the confines of their campsite, which is no doubt why this place retains its popularity year after year.

– See more at: http://blogs.thenational.ae/photography/national-view/eid-camping-in-dibba-by-razan-alzayani#sthash.2kyRzTKT.dpuf

The History Project II

The UAE’s 40th anniversary had been looming over us for about 6 months; we knew we had to provide readers, viewers and listeners something unique that contributed to understanding the UAE’s very short albeit accelerated history.  Soon enough, 40@40 was born. 40@40 was the (almost impossible) brain-child of our Multimedia Editor Karen Davies and students from NYU Abu Dhabi’s Al Hemyan Project.  The aim was to visually depict the history of the United Arab Emirates through 40 unique objects. Our deadline? The nation’s 40th birthday. Let the treasure hunt begin.

Not only did we have to ask around to find these objects, appeal to collectors, citizens or long-term residents who may have barely found value in these items, but we also had to find the sources articulate and knowledgeable enough to speak about them. We began shooting our first object in late July, and ended shooting our last object around the beginning of November. Shoots ranged from in-studio shoots, to “on-the-road” make-shift shoots where we essentially had to set-up and light a believable studio environment in the weirdest, tiniest and hottest of spaces.

October 4, 2011. Sharjah, Children's Museum. We had locked ourselves into the kids portion of the museum to set up a studio. Here's Deepthi giving the tea-boy some of the Arabic Coffee they had given us through the window as there was no other way to enter or leave without disrupting the set.


The main initial challenge for Deepthi (Multimedia producer at The National) and I was studio lighting. We always knew how to work with available light, no matter how tricky it was, we would figure out a way to make it work. But with studio lighting we were just kind of…thrown into it.  Thankfully, fashion photographer Tina Chang and Photo Editor Brian Kerrigan gave us a good ol’ guidance push and then we were sent flying.

Aching backs, lots of sweat induced by ridiculous humidity, broken fingernails, pangs of hunger and thirst went into shooting, editing and producing this project. We also had some good laughs, poking fun of ourselves and the fact that we were entrusted to handle invaluable objects with such great care.

Abu Dhabi, The National's Studio - "We need a baby!" Handling one of the first wooden stethoscopes used by the first doctors at the Oasis Hospital in Al Ain (around 1961). This little instrument massively bought down infant mortality rates.

The project was well-received by Emiratis and expats alike. Ultimately, we really hoped it would provide the people of UAE with a visually compelling resource on the nation’s development in under half a century. We were also sooooo happy to hear that the project won 3rd place at NPPA’s January Monthly Multimedia Contest.  Click here or the main image at the top of the page to go to the 40@40 site.




The History Project

Over a year ago, The National created a team whose task was to investigate the events leading up to the formation of the United Arab Emirates.  It was a massive undertaking that involved passionate reporters, multimedia producers, photo and magazine editors and last but not least Emirati photo researchers.  We were forced to dig deep for archival footage and photographs mostly taken by foreigners in the 60s and 70s in the UAE.

Assigned the task of editing our main video element, I spent hours scrolling and scrubbing through fascinating, grainy archival film footage from the years leading up to 1971 and the years shortly after the Union.  We were all incredibly proud of the outcome; however its place has been lost on our new website.

Link to last year’s History Project can be found here.

December 2nd 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the Union of the United Arab Emirates. For this year we’ve decided to explore the history of the country through 40 unique objects. With the help of Tina Chang, Deepthi Unnirkrishnan and I spent most of October learning and experimenting with studio lighting. Sometimes we would shoot up in the studio in our building, but sometimes we were forced to transport our equipment to wherever an object was and shoot it there. It’s been a great learning experience, and we’ve handled some incredible historical objects such as a pearl diver’s nose plug, a fetal heart monitor from the Oasis Hospital in Al Ain, Trucial States passport and many more. Our series is released this coming Sunday in the paper and online. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a behind-the-scenes timelapse accompanied by extremely strange music of one of our studio shoots, featuring myself, Deepthi Unnirkishnan, Karen Davies, Brian Kerrigan and Pawel Dwulit.

Fashion Photography with Tina Chang & Mitch Baker

I had the absolutely pleasure of shooting on location with fashion photographer Tina Chang and model Mitch Baker at The Pavilion Downtown Dubai a few weeks ago. I enjoy working with Tina and really admire her lighting techniques and shooting style. I never thought I’d be interested in fashion photography, I don’t know too much about designers and brands, you’d never see me flipping through Vogue either.  However,  this production has been vastly different from what I normally do and the stories I usually cover so it’s been quite the breath of fresh air.

It was difficult to figure out this edit, I went through various sequences and cuts until I figured out what felt right. I initially tried to capture Tina and Mitch’s friendship whilst working on location – however that didn’t translate to video too much so I had to play and experiment with different angles of telling the story.  Hope you like it!


It’s come to the point where no calendar year is complete unless I’ve decided to take part is some gruelling physical challenge that raises money for a sustainable cause.

One of my best friends in London, a Palestinian-Libyan film-maker Tamara Ben Halim co-founded an initiative known as Cycling4Gaza. Cycling4Gaza is an independent, youth-led initiative that was founded by 4 humanitarians in the wake of the war on Gaza in 2009. What started off as a one-off cycle from London to Paris turned into a yearly international group event that aims to cycle ultimately into Gaza.

This year’s challenge, held in October, begins in Olympia and finishes in Athens (a painful 350km later) bringing together 45 cyclists from all over the world. There are 9 cyclists from the UAE; we’re all amateurs but our spirits are high and we’ve been pooling our efforts to fund-raise in the most creative ways possible.

The goals of this challenge are to raise more awareness about the ongoing situation in Gaza while raising funds for The Welfare Association, a non-political, non-religious, non-governmental British charity that provides education, physical and mental rehabilitation programs to the most vulnerable of Palestinians.  The Welfare Association works with partner NGO’s in Gaza – we are raising funds for 3 NGO’s – The National Society for Rehabilitation in Khan Younis and Rafah, Society for the Care of the Handicapped in the Gaza Strip (SCHGS): “Club for Disabled Children for Educational and Social Support” in Gaza City and Nour El-Marrifa Association, Friendly Learning Spaces in the Middle Area.

I was doing some statisical research on education in Gaza over the past few days, and the results were striking. The drop-out rates for males and females were essentially nil, and the literacy rate is over 90%. Even though unemployment is quite high, Gazans continue to educate themselves, which can only mean one thing – that they still maintain hope.  These statistics prove that education should be continuously and heavily invested in in those areas.

Other than attending spinning classes like maniacs and investing in padded spandex shorts. We will be hosting fund-raising events in Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the lead up to the cycle. We will be selling items at the Dubai Flea Market this Saturday. Feel free to come down and say hello, alternatively if you have junk items you’d like to donate before Saturday, I’d be happy to pick it up. We’re aiming to raise AED 10,000 this weekend.

Like our Facebook Page for more information on the cause and our initiatives, or follow us on twitter @cycling4gaza. Alternatively if you’re feeling super generous donate on our Justigiving page.


A Week in Shahama

For the whole summer, a series titled “A Week in Pictures” has been running in The National. Staff photographers spend a week getting to know a neighbourhood or a city photographing daily life there.  Although I’ve occasionally filled in and shot for the paper before when we have been understaffed, this was my first “real” photo assignment. And boy was I nervous.

Shahama is a lazy town in between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. We all make the commute between cities quite often but I don’t know anyone who has explored Shahama except to visit the Kids Park.  The area is mostly residential and local. This could have proven problematic for two reasons : 1) Locals are quite private and don’t usually like being photographed for the paper. 2) It’s Ramadan AND mid-August, was I really going to find people milling about?

Driving through Shahama’s residential areas, I was fondly reminded of the Abu Dhabi portion of my childhood in the 80’s and 90’s.  Locals and expats alike were quite approachable, extremely friendly and keen enough to show off their “forgotten” suburb between the two major cities. Some even welcomed me into their homes to photograph them eating Iftar – for which I was very thankful.

After shooting stills for a week I’m extremely keen to keep honing my photo skills as I focus mainly on video. Let’s hope I get put onto more photo assignments as the months progress…

The UAE’s exotic animal trade

For as long as I can remember, the UAE has forever had a massive problem with importing and selling exotic animals into this country. I was about 4 years old when my family and I first moved here. A few days after moving into our home we were terrorized by an aggressive baboon hissing and screeching outside our kitchen window. This was in 1990. There were no animal control services (are there any now?  I’m not too sure) and so 3 policemen showed up with pool-cleaning nets to catch him.

21 years later, we’re still facing the same problems of wild animals running out of villas on the loose in the streets of the UAE’s major cities.  Last December, a poor cheetah was found strolling along the sides of some buildings in Sharjah.  Just earlier this month, a UAE national was caught in Bangkok airport with a suitcase full of 4 baby leopards, a monkey, a bear, a monkey and a gibbon. And then of course, there was the most ridiculous footage we received of a young teen nuzzling up to two almost fully-grown lions in her home.

I just recently returned from a safari trip to Botswana, and got to experience the ways of ‘the bush’ firsthand. It was truly breathtaking and to be able to witness lions, elephants, birds, impala, bugs, mongoose, warthogs, zebra (and so on) co-existing so beautifully in open land. Nat-geo and Animal Planet are great, but nothing beats heading out on a walking safari with a knowledgeable guide. I believe many safari-goers agree that once they’ve done one safari the concept of visiting a zoo again is just impossible and the notion of keeping a wild animal locked up is just cruel. Obviously, the exceptions are that some are kept there for research and education purposes.

Deepthi Unnikrishnan, one of the other multimedia producers at The National just uploaded her piece today on two lions that were found at a private villa in Abu Dhabi with their canines rasped and paws declawed.  They’re undergoing surgery and rehabilitation at the Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort at the moment and unfortunately will have to spend the rest of their lives in captivity there (although it is apparently quite a lovely place).

Point is, yes, the UAE has some major human rights issues that it still needs to deal with and that takes priority, but there also needs to be some serious campaigning on the exotic animal trade in the UAE. No one no matter how wealthy someone is they should be able to get away with smuggling and buying wild animals in this country.  I can’t even begin to imagine how many exotic pets are hanging out in palaces and backyards; these examples are just a small number of cases that have been brought up the media here.

We can only hope that with the rise of these stories that UAE residents will be more aware that it’s just not acceptable.

The Manny Pacquiao Story

I admit it, I was never a boxing fan, to be honest I didn’t know much about it until this recent project was dumped onto our hard drives 2 weeks ago.

Mike Young (photographer) traveled to the town of Bagiuo along with Chuck Culpepper (sports reporter).  They spent a fascinating week up in the mountains accompanying Manny while he trained in high altitude for his upcoming fight next month.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away our multimedia team at The National had no clue that Mike was going to come back with countless photos and great behind-the-scenes footage (from a flipcam of course) of Manny’s daily training sessions.

Mike arrived, captioned all his incredible photos and dropped all his footage off. Eek. Not sure what’s worse, too little footage or too much good footage. In this case, most of the content was so great, including Chuck’s copy. We spent days going through colorful images of the gorgeous mountain town, Manny’s funny..yet serious entourage and of course Pacman.

The result was the launch of our Manny Pacquiao page on our site. It took a good 2 weeks of hard work from all the multimedia producers, to the photo, managing, online and sports editors to the IT development team upstairs at ADM (Abu Dhabi Media).

Whether you’re a boxing fan or not, I hope you find this interesting:





The Falcon Hunter

So Istabsir is coming to an end, and we wanted to go out with a bang with our last few pieces. Galen randomly found a falcon hunter on one of the secluded islands near Yas. He spends his days in his make-shift shelter, with two birds tied down by a string acting as live bait.  He sits and waits for a falcon to approach before trapping it in his net. Sound exciting? The reality is that he’s been waiting all summer to catch just one, and it just hasn’t happened.  There is a reason he’s patient though; hunting falcons sell for quite a hefty amount of money, especially in this part of the world. The day we shot was the last day of the season. He mentioned the weather gets too cold now, and that he’d probably be back around March or April to look out for falcons again.