Camel wrangler, Dubai, UAE.

Monday Memories: The Dubai Camel Handler

On my recently updated photography portfolio website, there are only a few images that have endured from the beginning of my professional career as a photographer and one is of this Dubai camel handler. For me there was always something about the sadness in his eyes that kept me coming back to this photograph.

Although I studied photography at university many years earlier and took photographs for some of the books I designed in my early years in publishing in the late Eighties and early Nineties, I didn’t start working full-time as a professional photographer until 12 years ago when we were living in the United Arab Emirates, in Abu Dhabi, and later in Dubai.

One of my first assignments was shooting the classic Dubai desert safari experience, where visitors do a tour that enables them to see the desert, do a camel ride, watch the sunset, smoke some shisha, get a henna tattoo, see a belly dancer, and feast on some local food.

As the tour participants waited their turn to take the short camel ride, golden hour began; that period where the light in the final hour before sunset takes on a warm, soft, golden glow.

As a photographer I was drawn more to this camel handler who looked after the tour company’s magnificent ‘ships of the desert’ that Lara and I came to love during our many years in the UAE, than the tourists awkwardly bobbing up and down on the camels as they rode off into the sunset. Naturally, I asked him if I could take a few photos.

I love the way he is looking off into the sun, the expression on the camel’s face, and the gentleness of the trainer’s touch. I also love the way that his headdress is wrapped around his head and his worn-out sandals (visible in the full image).

Strangely enough, I’ve included this photo in galleries we’ve submitted for probably over 50 commissioned stories on Dubai and no one has ever published it.

Although we’ve always tried, as much as possible, to do stories on ‘the real Dubai’, these sorts of images still don’t appeal to editors who take the risk in publishing our pieces on the grittier and, in our mind, more interesting side of the city. And they definitely don’t fit the narrative of sun, sand and shopping so prevalent in print and online travel writing on the city.

When I selected this image to write about for this week’s Monday Memories, I noticed in the image’s metadata that the flash had fired when I took this image. I recall that the sun was setting and I knew that soon I would have to get images of the increasingly dark campsite area, so I must have put the flash on for that. Other images in this set don’t have the flash firing, so I’m guessing it was mistakenly on after I mounted the flash.

While it certainly doesn’t look like the flash was on, it actually helped even out the light, so that the shadow detail was easy to bring up so you can see the details in his face. It was quite a fortuitous accident for a frame that has become one of my favourite photos I have ever taken.

Details: Nikon D2X, 17-55mm f/2.8G Nikkor @ 17mm F5 @ 1/250th second @ ISO200. Flash: SB800 with bounce card and wide flash adaptor.

There are 4 comments

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  1. paper boat sailor

    I’m so glad to see this photo and read about your impressions of Dubai. I moved to the Emirates a year ago, and while I see that the gritty reality of the megacities is everywhere and unmistakable, I find many other people who don’t seem to notice it–deliberately avoid it perhaps. The camel handlers at the safari sites are never Emiratis, and almost always low-income South Asians living a sad double life all year round with infernal heat and desolation for company.

    Interesting photography analysis as well 🙂 Thanks for posting!

  2. Terence Carter

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, this guy is from Afghanistan. When we used to write about Dubai we always tried to balance our work. For example an intro I wrote for a Lonely Planet guide to Dubai contrasted that it was heaven on earth for professionals with maids and gardeners and hell on earth for labourers on building sites. They (Lonely Planet) then gave this piece to a newspaper who took out the part about the labourers! It appears that there’s only two types of Dubai stories, the ones about cruel treatment of labourers and anyone who gets into trouble there, and the fluff pieces on shopping, sand and sun…

  3. Lara Dunston

    @paperboatsailor – you can read more about our impressions of Dubai in that destination guide under the Middle East, above. We lived in Dubai from 1998 for almost a decade and kept returning on guidebook/magazine assignments for years after that, so we have a colossal amount of content we haven’t posted here yet, but will get around to doing so. If you only read one piece, take a look at my piece on how to experience ‘the real Dubai’. Enjoy the Emirates! Do make an effort to get to know Emiratis. I spent most of my time there with Emirati women and that was by far the most enriching part of our experience and all our years there. Thanks for dropping by!

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