Six cities on the Arabian Peninsula — Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait City, Manama, Riyadh — represent the emergence of the new “global cities” as primary nodes in the 21st century global economic network. Photographer/researcher Michele Nastasi sees these cities as places of passage for cultures and people, and fertile ground for exploring concepts of urban living and global identity, among many other topics.
Nastasi says, “Arabia is historically a mythical place of the Western imagination, a place of exchange with the East. But in recent decades, cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha have appeared as new worlds, new global epicenters made possible by a condition of hyper-mobility of people, goods, finances and images. These cities are mostly populated (and physically built) by immigrants from around the world, and today represent a living laboratory in which the local identity aspirations are confronted with Western models, and the traditions and cultures of origin of the inhabitants.”
To discuss more of his findings, and the role photography plays in his research, Nastasi spoke with LensCulture editor-in-chief, Jim Casper. Here is an edited version of their conversation.
Jim Casper: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you’re doing with photography in the Arab Peninsula?
Michele Nastasi: Yes. So, how can I start? Well, mostly I do architectural photography. I have a background in design and I also have a PhD in art history. As I work as a photographer on architecture, I reflect about how architecture is represented and how photographers are crafting a world of images that can be very abstract and deceptive.
So in my work I always try to represent architecture not as a sculptural object, not as an abstraction — which is many times the idea of the architect — but I try to show architecture as a piece of a more complex reality.
I started working on the Arabian Peninsula because of research that I was doing on spectacular and iconic contemporary architecture in different places in the world—New York, Paris, Bilbao, and Abu Dhabi. It is research I’ve been doing with a scholar, a professor of urban studies, Davide Ponzini.
JC: Oh, and you published a book together, Starchitecture.
MN: Yes. So my idea is to show architecture within the environment, within the city, with the people, with the users. I try to show the reality as it appears to the eyes of a passerby. It sounds so easy, but it’s not at all. Because the process of abstracting architecture from what it really is … it’s something that is very layered in our culture.
So it’s something I’m trying to deconstruct. And of course when you work in places like Abu Dhabi or Dubai, where the architecture is really, how can I say, exuberant, you’re faced with this same array of problems but in a more extreme way.
Usually photographers tend to represent these buildings inside of the skyline as abstract objects, or they tend to undertake a kind of photography that goes towards the sublime. It’s like the old paintings, where you have a small man against big architecture or a vast landscape. I try to avoid this kind of imagery, and to represent these places as real places where there is real life going on, where there are people, and where there are themes of everyday life.
JC: It’s interesting, too, because when I look at pictures like yours that show pedestrians or people in the street and the buildings as the background or the context, it seems to me that often the people on the street might never enter those buildings. That those buildings would never be part of their experience except from the outside, except from being kind of a small person on the street against this really big, modern, hyper-iconic abstraction, as you say. So what’s your sense of that?
MN: Well, there are a lot of spatial issues related to how contemporary cities are developing. And of course in societies like the ones of the Arab countries this is an important theme, because several parts of their culture call for some separation, different grades of separation. Man from woman, or Muslim and non-Muslims, the locals and the immigrants, et cetera. So this is a big issue.
Also an important aspect of my research is about the city itself, so how the building relates to the other parts of the city, to the surroundings. In Italy we use a lot this word contesto… that is, context. Which is not only the physical context or the historical context, but it’s also the social context and the general environment of the city, where environment is not about being green or ecological but about a more complex system of things.
JC: It seems like we’re experiencing a very quick burst of hyper-modern super big architecture happening in the six cities that you’ve photographed in the Arabian Peninsula. So why is this burst happening now? As a researcher you must have some idea of why these cities are growing as they are and growing so rapidly and also with these very noticeable, remarkable pieces of architecture that are right next to each other. So why are we experiencing this phenomenon?
MN: Well, I’m not sure I can fully answer your question, because it’s a very complicated question. I’ve been working with other people from other disciplines, through an international initiative “Learning from Gulf Cities”. We all ask ourselves, what’s going on here. And why. Why do people want to build these kind of cities? What I can tell you is that the cities exist in different ways, because of course some of them have a longer history, some are really brand new. There are some big differences. But in general, and this is the main idea of my photographs, these are places of the temporary landing of things. And of transfer. So people and things come and go.
This is possible because for the past few decades, we have been living in a global world, really global world, where people, where ideas, where finances, money, images, cultural models travel very fast through the world. And of course over there they have a lot of money coming from the oil, and they can import whatever they need. So it’s a unique condition. It’s something completely new, and they want to be part of the so-called world-class cities. They express their chosen identity, and the power that they have, through the construction of cities.
So, again, it’s a very complicated issue. But the idea I’ve been trying to show in the photographs is of being in a place where people arrive and they have certain experiences and they spend some time, sometimes it’s a whole life, and then they go somewhere else.
These cities are places where immigrants from many different origins go for various reasons. The immigrant populations include Europeans, North Americans, Australians, and as well as people from Southeast Asia, rich and poor. In places like Dubai, almost 90% of the population is made up of immigrants.
JC: 90%. Wow.
MN: Yeah. So this is something completely new and different compared with Europe, where immigration is a big issue. It’s like a social experiment that is happening for the first time.
JC: So those 90% must live very different lives than the people who work in the buildings that we’re seeing. Then my question is, if it’s 90% immigrants, the people who are walking around on the streets are different from the people who are working in those buildings. Or certainly different from the people who build the buildings.
JC: What I got from looking at your pictures was that it seemed like there were two different worlds. The worlds of the street and the worlds of these hyper-modern, glitzy skyscrapers that seemed almost like from science fiction. Is that your feeling too, that there are at least two realities happening in that city?
MN: I think there are many realities. And some of them are very difficult to document for a European male photographer. For example, it would be very difficult for me to access any private space, like inside the homes of the locals. So I wouldn’t say that there are only these two worlds. But of course these two worlds exist and are very visible. You can walk in the streets, or ride in a taxi and talk with the driver. And you can go into the malls or into the big skyscrapers, big hotels — all those designed “public” spaces.
These are places that usually are in the mind of the people, in the common imagery — they have an image that is a promotional image. So when we think of places like Dubai or Doha, we think of flamboyant architecture, skyscrapers, skylines, and the contrast of a city that comes out of the desert from scratch in the turn of a couple of years. This is an imagery which is very easy. You can find it anywhere if you just do an image search for “Dubai” on Google or on Booking.com it will be like that.
But of course it’s not only like that. I mean, if you go to these places you will experience at all times a different reality. You just need to make a little effort and see it. It’s like starting to know a totally different geography from what we are used to thinking of in Europe, or in the West.
Sometimes it is hard to understand that. But I think it’s interesting and important, because these places are now new global centers. They are places where global themes, finance and politics are now concentrated. So they’re starting to have an important role in the world.
And I think it’s important to start thinking of these places not just as places that are like colonies of the West, but as new models that are becoming a reference for a lot of people. After almost 10 years of work and reflections on these places, I sometimes think that I am just starting to understand some of which is going on.
I mean, the geopolitics are getting more and more related to these places. They are not anymore at the periphery of the world. They’re very central. And you see it from the city, from the space, from the architecture. I mean, it is there. You can go and see.
JC: So when I look at those buildings sometimes I think of them as facades and almost like branding exercises. And I wonder if they might even be empty buildings, but we’re meant to be impressed by their immensity. Do you think that they’re really filled with people working? Or they’re just waiting to be filled?
MN: There are many that are empty. This kind of boom is also a new phase for these places. They are facing different phases of development, and they have built a lot of office space, but for example they still have problems with a shortage of housing. Some of my colleagues say that there are a lot of buildings that are vacant because they were built in order to, well, build a city, to capitalize some money that can be very volatile into something more structured. For example, I have visited buildings in Doha that were empty. It takes some time to fill them, floor by floor, with people.
So I guess it’s something that can take a lot of time. And the impression is always of places that are gigantic. I mean, it’s often overscaled. There is a desire to express a kind of grandeur, you know? A new image with a global identity.
JC: You’ve set my mind to really wondering about this ratio of 90% immigrants to 10% local people, and what it means to be in a city and whose city is it. What I like about your work and also talking with you is that it makes me wonder about things that I haven’t thought about before.
MN: Well, I’m glad to hear that. Of course, for me photographing is not just the research of a good beautiful image. I mean, images must be good and appealing, because if they aren’t it’s difficult to reach people. But the main goal of my work is not doing decoration with beautiful objects.
JC: No. Your images have a lot of information and a lot of layers. They’re very complicated.
MN: I like the fact that in complex pictures different people can find different things that they are interested to see. For me this is like going to the center of what photography is. It’s a language, it’s an art. It’s also a tool. It’s a text, let’s say. And when your work is deep into something, it can have a lot of different meanings. The more you show it to the people the more it gets more meaning. I mean, for me this is very important, very stimulating. It’s what I want to do with photography.
“Arabian Transfer” is on show for the first time at the 2019 edition of Festival Fotografia Europea in Reggio Emilia, Italy.