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Noora Al Neyadi on narrating the stories of frontline heroes

The Emirati photographer follows 148 frontline heroes for 3 weeks to document their stories.

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By Sekka Editorial

With many of us spending most of our time indoors for the past few months, it is photographers, like Emirati photographer Noora Al Neyadi, who have become the eyes through which we see the outside world, and who are documenting history for future generations.

Like many photographers around the world, Noora has dedicated her skills to documenting the Covid-19 crisis in the UAE. Her latest project Eyes Stories, which took her 3 weeks to document, features the stories of frontline workers working in Covid-19 screening centres in the cities of Al Ain and Abu Dhabi.

We speak to the young photographer, whose photography has been exhibited in Dubai’s Sikka Art Fair, Riyadh’s Misk Art Institute, Abu Dhabi’s Manarat Al Sadiyat, and has graced the cover of our Identity Issue last year, about her latest project, her aspirations for it, and how it has impacted her. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about the story behind the Eyes Stories project.

Noora: As a photographer whose obsession is documenting everything around her, I have been thinking non-stop about how to document this pandemic in the most heartwarming and beautiful way possible. For three weeks, I was fortunate to be around frontliners who are fighting the invisible enemy. I wanted to put my camera to good use, spread joy, and give everyone equal attention and to allow everyone who crossed my path to express their feelings and whatever was going on in their hearts. Their beautiful, determined eyes and their stories, are what fueled my energy and gave me the courage to create this project.

Who were the main subjects of your story and why?

Noora: All individuals working in COVID-19 drive-through screening facilities: doctors, nurses, cleaners, security guards, volunteers and managers. I was very curious to meet everyone, and I was honoured to photograph the people who have paused their lives and stayed away from their families to serve us and take good care of everyone. I wanted to celebrate them through my photography and to invite everyone to meet their determined, beautiful eyes, know their first names, and to think of their stories through the one-line quotes that are written under every photograph I took (shared on Instagram).

Exclusive behind the scenes photos from the Eyes Stories project. Images: Courtesy. Click on each image to enlarge it.

Your photos focus on the eyes. Why the eyes?

Noora: Eyes to me are great soul, feelings, and energy transmitters. When captured correctly, you can produce a photo in which the eyes, and the thousand feelings behind them, are highlighted. Another reason is because wearing masks has become the new norm this year, and therefore the eyes’ beauty has been highlighted more. When I was in the screening centres, which are as busy as beehives, I noticed how everyone was reading the other’s emotions by looking into their eyes. So it hit me that this mask- wearing year is all about reading each other’s eyes and understanding each other’s emotions through them. That’s when I decided that this project had to be called Eyes Stories.

“This mask- wearing year is all about reading each other’s eyes.” Image: Courtesy.

What do you aim to communicate through this project? Is it just for documentation purposes or do you have bigger plans for it, like publishing a book?

Noora: The fundamental goals I had in mind for this project— to give these people exposure and to get the community to appreciate them— were achieved. But I would very much love to print every single one of those photos and have them stacked on a big billboard!

What was the story or incident that impacted you the most in this project?

Noora: I was touched by the love expatriates have for the UAE, and how they consider it their home. This country would not have been as beautiful if we did not have all of these nationalities living with us. This project simply showcases what the UAE community is all about: different people living happily and in harmony despite their differences .

It was quite interesting for me to be able to take photos in a biohazardous environment.” Images: Courtesy. Click on each image to enlarge it.

How did this experience change you, and how will it affect your photography journey in the future?

Noora: It was quite interesting for me to be able to take photos in a biohazardous environment. I’ve seen with both my eyes how hard people work together to keep our nation safe. I will cherish this in my heart and mind forever. I’m glad that I got all these photographs of them. In the future, people will have something to look back at and remember their hard work by.

What was the most important lesson that you learned?

Noora: That despite hard times, humans always find a way to recover, work hard together, and survive.

Why did you choose to document the stories using an iPhone?

Noora: At first, I used my camera, but since it was a stressful environment full of biohazards, I needed something more practical, especially since we were talking about 149 photographs and interviews. I used my iPhone for both purposes, to take their photos and record their stories. iPhones are great documentation devices.

How important is it to document our everyday life even if we only had an iPhone?

Noora: The way I look at it is that everyone has a story to tell on this planet. Everyone is living in a very interesting place and in interesting times. But how can you share this with the world? The answer is simple: Document it even if it is just by using your phone.

With a lot of people documenting the Covid-19 crisis, could you share with us your top photography tips and tricks for taking portrait photos during such a difficult time?

Noora: If you’re taking photos of people, always start by introducing yourself, have a good ice breaking chat, listen and once the subject starts to be themselves, their eyes will smile and glow. This is the right time to take their photos. Photography is an art, not a random click.

Tips from Noora on how to take great portrait photos using your iPhone:

1. If you’re staying indoors or can’t find a great background, try Portrait Lighting effects to convert your ordinary background into a studio-style portrait background. On iPhone 11 Pro, you can alter the Portrait Lighting as you shoot, or in the editing process. There are six lighting options available: Natural Light (default), Studio Light, Contour Light, Stage Light, Stage Light Mono, and High-Key Mono (iOS 13 and above).

2. Decide what type of lighting effect you’re looking for. Natural Light is the default and will keep your photo looking as natural as possible. Studio Light brightens up the subject, while Contour Light adds some shadows for a defined look. Stage Light blacks out the background entirely, so it appears as if the subject is in a spotlight. Stage Light Mono is the same as Stage Light, but the subject is in black and white. High Key Mono is the same as Stage Light Mono, but the background is white instead of black.

3. For creating the most pronounced bokeh, avoid excessively bright backlit scenes where too much of the background is saturated with light.

4. The best portrait bokeh photos include subjects without fast motion to produce the sharpness and focus against the beautifully blurred background.

5. Depth Control gives you creative sway to adjust the depth of field while composing your shot as well as while editing natively in the Photos app. Make sure to tap “Done” after adjusting the depth of field to see the final bokeh effect.

6. Think about composition: Usually when taking portraits we think about having our subject in the center, which is fine but sometimes it gets boring. Try to use the rule of thirds, where your subject is about a third of the way into the frame. So by having your subject a bit off-center in the frame, you’ll end up with a more interesting portrait.

7. Frame your subject: use your surroundings for adding an artistic touch and framing your subject within the portrait. Think about anything that can surround your subject vertically such as doorway, window, arches.

8. If you change your mind about the lighting effect you chose, you can always modify it later. Just tap Edit on the photo you want, and then move the Lighting dial to the option you prefer.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.