Jalal Abuthina is the creator of Inside Dubai, a photo book series that documents a unique account of the city. As a longtime Dubai resident, Irish-Libyan photographer Jalal set out to share a side of the city that challenges mainstream coverage — Dubai as a highly commercialised place that lacked a human element — by providing an alternative story that pays homage to the city’s rarely documented neighborhoods and people.
Jalal began the project after noticing the lack of books that authentically represent the city to visitors. His books take readers on a visual tour around Dubai’s older districts, where many of the city’s older communities have resided for decades. The books present Dubai the way he sees it: as a multifaceted place with its own complex history. Jalal independently published all the books in an effort to provide an alternative story, while acting as a resource for residents and newcomers alike.
Below is my conversation with Jalal, who candidly spoke to me about representation, storytelling and the city we both grew up in.
Inside Dubai essentially presents the city from a different perspective than what we’re used to. Why do you think it’s important to share this perspective?
Historically, artists are the ones who present changes in a city — artists have always been the ones who tell the stories of cities and get to define them. Over here, images of Dubai are represented by corporations. The projection of the city from that point of view will be very different from how an artist would present it because the intentions are different. Most images of Dubai are of buildings or a couple of photos of camels or falcons — which is not at all representative of life here. This then creates a one-dimensional perception. If all you see is a one-dimensional or two-dimensional image of something, then obviously you’re only going to think about it in a one-dimensional way.
But do you think it’s just corporations? I mean, there are also a lot of photographers who come here and only take photos of buildings or the Dubai skyline.
It’s also because a lot of people who come here are thinking ‘oh I am going to Dubai, so I’m going to take pictures of Burj Khalifa’. Also, these days we are in an age where everyone has a platform to share their images. There are a lot of people with cameras, but not everyone is a photographer. We are inundated with a lot of repetition in terms of photography, so you kind of see the same narrative over and over. Also, it’s just interests, maybe not everyone is interested in sharing a narrative, but just want to get a photo of an iconic building. Everyone has different intentions when they document a place.
As someone who grew up in Dubai too, I always wondered what tourists thought of the city when they visited it. Did they see just see buildings and skyscrapers? Or were they seeing the city the way I saw it?
If you take a look at the path that tourists take when they come to Dubai, they get to Dubai International Airport, they get in a taxi, [and] go to their hotel. Then, they go to all the tourist destinations, like the safaris and seeing the skyscrapers. So, when tourists come to Dubai, they only see a fraction of what this city really is. Tourists rarely get to see the full spectrum of communities that call Dubai home. They also only interact with a small percentage of the community. So, they leave with an impression of the city that is very limited and not entirely representative of the city.
When I was working in tourism and doing my alternative tours, the idea was to show visitors the city’s heritage and show sides that indicate its multilayered history. At the end of my tours, visitors would ask me for recommendations of books to read or resources to learn more about the city the way I portrayed it. Unfortunately, at the time there weren’t many publications or resources that captured the city in that way. That’s where I got the idea to create these photo books. I also had so many images of the city that I could use.
Speaking of tourism, how did you get into the tourism industry?
I was working in real estate between 2004 and 2008. In 2008, I decided it was time for a change so I helped out with the family business. But at the same time, I needed another outlet; a creative outlet.
There was a lady who was working for an alternative tours company that saw this book I made — it was a book about the graffiti around Al Badra, a neighborhood right next to Satwa. The book featured photographs of the community and this lady came across it, and I can’t remember how we got in touch, but we met up and talked about the book. One thing led to another, and I ended up crafting a tour with her. So, in my free time I began taking visitors on these alternative tours around the city. It was interesting showing people around Dubai. The tour would start in Satwa, and visitors would get to see how different communities lived in the city, just like any other place. The tour then went into Deira and across Bur Dubai. I did that for almost two and a half years.
So you were a photographer and leading these alternative tours around the city. But what was the thought process of creating the first book? How did you go about creating the project from scratch?
At first, it was just an evolution of thoughts. I started by planning what areas I wanted to cover in the books, and what topics I wanted to touch on. To be honest, although there are many photographers out there who are talented and creative, I really felt that, in order for this project to truly represent the city, it had to come from someone who understood its nuances and its many layers.
Early on, I tried giving the project over to someone, to turn it into something, but I realised that no one else would be able to do it justice — not because they were not talented or skilled enough, but because I didn’t think there was anyone else who could tell it the way I think it should be told. I am not saying this is the ultimate way of telling the story of this city, but I felt who was telling the story was just as important.
But that’s because, as you said, if representations of the city are so one-dimensional and perceptions are hard to break, so even the most talented person might not be able to tell the story.
Yes, because you have to have lived here and had a layered understanding. You have to be able to put the place in context for someone who isn’t familiar with it. You might think that that’s easy to do, but it’s really not. There are a lot of people who write well, there are a lot of great photographers out there, but not everyone can communicate something nuanced if they haven’t lived through it.
I can totally relate to that. I mean, when I first picked up the book it really hit home for me. I really felt that whoever made this is not an outsider. How did people receive the books?
The books connected me to a lot of people who grew up here that I totally wouldn’t have come across otherwise. And I think some of them feel like the books tie them to the city as well, so they feel represented. So, we kind of have this shared link to the city, which is fantastic. In a way, the books emerge as a kind of representation.
Since you first started taking photos of Dubai many parts you captured have changed. What are your thoughts about how quickly the city is changing?
To be honest, it’s overwhelming. But at the same time, I can’t imagine it being any other way. The good thing is that older parts of the city are changing at a slower rate, so a lot is still preserved, although there is a bit of gentrification going on.
Some final thoughts… do you have any advice for aspiring photographers in the region?
Shoot as much as you can, non-stop. Develop your own style and make sure not to publish everything you shoot online! Be selective with what you share.
Darah Ghanem is a journalist based in Dubai.