It's Not a Camera, It's a Visa

Of all of the things that I have learned from McNally, I think this is the one has stuck with me the most: Cameras open doors to new experiences and friendships. Or as Joe likes to say, "It's not a camera, it's a visa."

A few years ago my camera allowed me to meet two people who would go on to become good friends. Fast forward to last Sunday, when the three of us found ourselves 8,000 miles from home, meeting new people with our cameras all over again.

I first met Dave Kile and Erik Couse when they responded to a tweeted invitation to assist on this shoot for Since then we have become good friends as we have worked on all sorts of projects together. And this year they both decided to bail from work for a bit and travel to Dubai to attend Gulf Photo Plus.

Having been a teacher at GPP for five years, I very much enjoy the event. But even more so I enjoy meeting the people who travel to GPP from all over the world. In a climate where so many of the messages we receive about other cultures can be tinged with fear and/or mistrust, I have found no better antidote than spending time in other countries and making good friends.

I enjoyed watching Dave and Erik hang out with Emiratis, Saudis, Iranians, Afghans and others as they got their first person-to-person experiences in an Islamic country. And the news reports coming out of Syria feel much closer to home now that I learned that the family of one of my GPP friends escaped from Homs, the epicenter of the Syrian uprising.

A week or so into our trip everyone was pretty well acclimated to both the new desert climate and culture, so we thought it would be cool to have a more immersive day trip. So Dave, Erik and I hopped into a taxi for a 100+ MPH trip to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque an hour away in Abu Dhabi.

It is a beautiful (and somewhat intimidating) place to visit for the first time. The scale of the building is something you have to see in person to appreciate. And as far as the local Islamic culture, this is pretty much the center of gravity. Our guides arrived and divided the group into smaller groups for a more individualized experience.

In a country where the western guidebooks warn you not to photograph traditionally dressed Emiratis without prior permission, you tend to form preconceptions. Having befriended several students over the years here, those are pretty much gone for me. But walking into a serious and significant building like this, you are still curious what the folks are gonna be like.

So we did not really know what to expect, but we certainly did not expect Majed Al-Zubaidi. He was joking and not taking himself (or us) too seriously from word one, as were his colleagues. We immediately realized that our expected dry and academic tour was actually going be as fun as it was informative.

Throughout the afternoon we learned many interesting things. Majed was very knowledgeable both about Islam in general and this mosque in particular. But also got into the inter-religious stuff -- what was the same, different, etc. between Islam and Christianity. He had us laughing the whole time. He was as culturally self-aware as he was funny, and it made for a fantastic experience.

That experience got better when the other staff members started edging us out of the mosque as evening prayers were set to begin in a few minutes. Majed had realized we were all avid photographers, and had sensed our conflict between listening to him and wanting to shoot everything we saw from the best possible angle. So he decided to accompany us and backtrack all of the way through the tour, letting us photograph at will.

When we got back to the courtyard, mix light was starting to happen. I showed Majed some of my photos as thanks for the extra attention, and asked if we might photograph him. After all, I had mix light at a stunning mosque, a cool subject, a couple of SB-800s and my two favorite assistants with me. He was cool with it.

Without modifiers to use, Dave quickly grabbed one of the white plastic bags in which you carry your removed shoes. Not perfect, but it would do in a pinch. (FWIW, this isn't the first time I have lit someone with garbage bags.)

So I subdued the ambient by a stop and a half or so to make a more saturated environment. Then we filled with an on-camera flash for detail and keyed with a slaved SB-800 in a plastic bag for shape. Two lights, that is my mantra -- one for shape, another for detail. It was quick and easy work -- especially with Erik as my VAL. He's tall, and knows just where to go with the light.

Here's a pull-back:

Without the light, we would have had to expose for Majed and let the ambient fall where it may, as in this ambient-only pullback shot by Dave:

But the light basically gave us total control over the ambient palette. I tried to make pictures with a range of expressions in the short amount of time we had. And as photographers, it is important to remember that we have so much power to portray people in whatever way we want -- even if we do not consciously realize it.

You want the intimidating, traditionally dressed Arab man in an exotic, Islamic environment? That's easy enough:

And while that's a very easy photo to do -- and probably feeds into the preconceptions of some in the west -- that's totally not Majed. This is much closer to the mark:

He was the perfect host and ambassador, be it international, cultural, religious or just person-to-person. Frankly, I'd love to duplicate the experience for every person I know. But the best I can do is to write about it and hope that moves the needle just a tiny bit. (Besides, I'm thinking Majed would get pretty tired if he had to do all of that work in person.)

As we were finishing with his brief portrait session, mix light for the building was entering the sweet spot. Majed must have seen us all getting facial tics as we realized the photos we were starting to miss. So he just turned us loose in the courtyard to shoot our way back to the main entrance.

We shot until well after the light was useable. It was hard to stop making pictures as long as your eyes deceived you into thinking the mix light was still good, even if the useable moment had long passed for our cameras.

All in all it was a bucket-list type of experience for three people on so many levels, made possible by a small hand-held machine that had opened a series of doors over the span of several years and many miles.

Like McNally says, "It's not a camera, it's a visa."


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