The legend goes that you’d come to Dubai, the city of eternal sunshine and endless possibilities according to some, the city of sin and people living in a bubble according to others, for 2 or 3 years, and then you move on somewhere else. In May 2012 I quit my job as a senior tender project manager in Moscow, packed my bag (I only had one suitcase), and took a flight EK0132 to the hot and humid land of the UAE. It was May 18, 2012.
Monday 18th of June, I started a job as Editorial Assistant and Office Manager in Savoir Flair Magazine. I guess, I was lucky, and the market was different back then, but without that job I probably would never have become a photographer as my full-time job. Now, I have always been a person with the camera, at every party, at every opportunity when out there, I was taking photos, and my first salary earned in Moscow, I spent to buy a “proper” DSLR, and then a lens, and then another one. It is an expensive hobby in the end. And of course, having arrived to Dubai, I was taking photos of it all the time, because it’s pretty, what can I say?
By another strike of luck, one day in the office my boss asked if anyone could go and take photos of behind the scenes of a photoshoot for a Saudi designer Razan Alazzouni (I guess the Saudis were always a key to my success haha), and I did, and since that day I got to be the editorial features photographer.
However, back then I never told anyone I was a photographer, I just said that yeah, I take photos sometimes, and I get some money out of it, but I’m not a real photographer… anyone is a photographer, right? It just felt like being a fraud and exciting people too much for nothing, as I was a shy person and a total introvert, I didn’t even talk to anyone much at work.
My photos of Dubai gained quite some traction on Flickr, and Getty Images got in touch with me, asking if I’d like to sell certain ones on their platform. In 2013 my picture of Burj Khalifa ended up in the World Book Of Guinness Records, and I had thousands of people adding my photos to their favourites, and still I thought, whatever, just got lucky to be in the right place at the right time to capture the moment.
My relationship with Dubai was controversial at that point, as a typical expat, I went out a lot, mostly mingled with foreigners, and looked forward to escape the sandpit for any foreign land opportunity. I saved all my money to either spend on new camera equipment or traveling. I remember, I was even sort of scared of the Emiratis back then, and thought that they must haven been annoyed to have so many of us here, not following their ways of living, not dressing properly and living our sinful lifestyles… so I avoided them at all costs.
In 2013 in May as well, I happened to capture the photo that became so famous, that you probably can put it on my gravestone, and say that it was me, who took it. I don’t know if I will ever have another photograph that is loved by so many people (doesn’t reflect in likes on instagram but reflects in sales for sure), but yeah, it is what it is.
In 2014 I had a chance to go photograph the event organized by Chanel (which was also in May), it was an awfully hot and humid day and I almost passed out, literally had to sit down on the sand at some point because my head was spinning and I couldn’t see anything due to heat… but in the end, it was unforgettable. I stood 3 meters away from the fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld, and took photos of him with the Burj Khalifa in the background… how cool is that?
In 2015 I started taking some classes at GPP, for using the studio lights and a master class with Lindsay Adler on fashion photography,
it was great fun to meet like-minded people at those events because at this point I still didn’t even have any other photographer friends. Working my job as an office assistant was getting difficult, as I was out taking photos for the magazine most of my time, and it caused a few conflicts in the office. I never really felt that I belonged there, but it was a comfortable job, and I am grateful for all the opportunities it brought me.
2016 was a turning point year, I guess, as I participated in a competition to win a photography trip sponsored by Instagram for its 5th anniversary, and somehow I won. I went to Iceland in March 2016, and just before I was to leave, I was also offered a full-time photography job in a studio for very decent money. It all felt like a dream. I traveled so much that year, and the coming year, living the jet-setter life that many imagine to be the norm for cities like Dubai or New York, I worked hard and learned a lot. Photographing people every day turned me into an extroverted introvert, because if you have to invade people’s private space in need for a photo, you got to learn how to make them comfortable about it. In November 2016 I met people from Bahri, The National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia, for the first time, and somehow we got stuck together until now.
I remember my visa took quite a while to process, so I couldn’t travel for Eid that summer, and I was on the verge of being depressed cause I was stuck in Dubai. I still went around the city and took photos on those days, but I felt like a prisoner. One day I went to Al Soufou beach, and got beached in the sand with my corvette, and as a thought: “Oh God, there is no one I can call to help me as everyone is traveling at the moment”, a bunch of cheerful Arabs came to rescue me without me even asking them to do so. They just pulled my car out and vanished into the thin air as if they were never there, I barely had a chance to thank them.
In 2017 we had a fantastic photo week with GPP, where I met Benjamin Von Wong, befriended Zach Arias, and really started surrounding myself with photographers of all kinds. Almost agreed to be photographed naked by Zach in my shower, but then I realized my husband won’t be thrilled about it, so it never happened. I went to Iceland once again, and California, and Norway, and New York, and Mauritius. Life was fast-paced, exciting, full of different projects and opportunities. I shot a campaign for Vacheron Constantine, that ended up being an exhibition in Dubai Mall. My name wasn’t on the images, but the fact remains.
2018 was a year when my travel dreams interfered with me keeping my job, as I wanted to go to Iceland one week before Ramadan, and my boss told me that if left, that would be the end of my employment, but I went anyway. I was feeling very low, and he made me feel so bad about my love for nature and landscape photography, that after leaving the office that day I deleted like 100 photos from my instagram feed and didn’t want to even look in the direction of the camera for a while. But life goes on. He told me that nobody would want to work with me if I wasn’t a part of the studio, that I wasn’t good enough, had no particular skills, and best of luck in general. It hurt, but I thought to myself, I’d give it a shot, let’s see if indeed nobody wants to work with me, I can always go back to the office to make coffees and buy toilet paper for everyone needs.
However, comes 2019 and I am still shooting every event for Bahri, I started documenting a lot of art, I even had few of my landscape photos exhibited in Tashkeel, and sold one of them as well. With more free time, I had a chance to explore the UAE a bit more, and started to fall in love with our rigid landscapes, open-hearted people, the dark shadows and dusty alleyways. My lust for traveling got replaced for the curiosity of what else was there in here that I hadn’t seen yet. And every time I would get on the plane now, I just couldn’t wait to come back and drive back on Sheikh Zayed road full of lights, bringing me home. I started learning Emirati Arabic, and being friends with Emiratis and Saudis, tapping into their culture at any opportunity, because if you want to discover these lands, they will give you the keys to it.
I went to Russia last time in December 2019, and I haven’t been there since. My last travel before corona hit us on the head was to Riyadh in January 2020, and although there are many reasons to hate Riyadh, I loved my time there. You just can’t go to KSA and not have some adventure stories to tell, and I live for the stories.
2020 was an interesting year of self-discovery, never-ending spring, dreadful summer, hopeful autumn and adventurous winter. I started writing again, composing poetry, discovered I can draw a bit and do all kinds of arts and crafts. When I had no work, the creativity literally dripped from my fingers and I started seeing things in new lights and shapes. I had so many fantastic conversations over the internet during this time. It was a curse but it was a blessing at the same time. I still don’t know if I ever had corona, I never really felt like I did.
2021 was like an extension to 2020, but almost every day I felt blessed being here, in the UAE. I thought it would be a good idea to work part-time with a media agency to have more work, but in the end it left me so drained and demotivated, that I just know that creating content for brands that are not close to my heart is not something I should be doing. I learned that my true passion is actually documenting events, rather than creating fake images of things and experiences to sell. I can pour my heart out to capture fleeing moments of existence, but I don’t want to create images of fake joy to sell out. Yeah, but it’s the latter ones that pay better… yeah, but they leave your heart empty.
When the restrictions eased a bunch, I had a chance to shoot the opening of Dubai Ain, and had a ride on the wheel among the few very first lucky visitors.
I also shot the new 50 dirhams banknote for media campaign for which I had to go to the central bank of the UAE. I spent a proper month of my life at EXPO 2020, shot a campaign for Careem x Hala Taxi, documented the Dubai Watch Week 2021.
2022 started strong, lots of events, had a chance to go to Riyadh for the World Defense Show, and then two weeks later I went to Taif to smell the roses and eat too much of all kinds of Saudi food.
We also started a photography collective with like-minded individuals, where we meet and shoot whatever, drink coffee and discuss gear. Started with 3 people, now we are a whole bunch. Eric Kim says don’t ever be a part of the collective if you want to stretch your creativity, but to be fair exchanging ideas and advice so far has only led to interesting things.
So here we are, May 18, 2022, 10 years later, 10 years wiser? I am not sure, but I am definitely up to living carpe diem, do anything that makes you feel alive and more crazy adventures. Will you find me here in 2032? Who knows, time will tell.
Take care of yourselves
And live with passion
2 thoughts on “10 Years in Dubai – A Retrospect.”