Belgian photographer Nick Hannes has been pursuing independent documentary projects for over a decade. His travels (and curiosity) have taken him across the 15 former Soviet Republics as well as all around the Mediterranean Sea, and yet his latest work focuses on a completely different part of the world: the city of Dubai.

In the series, titled “Bread and Circuses,” he focuses on leisure and consumerism in one of the capitals of extravagant consumption. Through his camera, he focuses on the bizarre peculiarities of this unique city—his hope is to tell a more universal story about humanity’s relationship to pleasure and entertainment.

LensCulture managing editor Alexander Strecker reached out to Hannes to find out more about his project and Hannes’ process. Below is an edited transcript of their exchange:

LC: How do you approach a big project like “Bread & Circuses”? Research is key, I imagine. Access must play a big role as well. Can you say more about these “invisible” parts of the work? How you go about them?

NH: Indeed, it all starts with research: I look at news articles, books (about Dubai but also more generally about urbanization, philosophy, and related topics), the work of other photographers, and a smattering of corporate and governmental websites, blogs, and YouTube posts from travelers. All of this is necessary to get to know and understand the subject; it also helps me to define my own photographic approach.

For “Bread and Circuses,” I decided to focus predominantly on consumerism, the entertainment industry and the hedonistic lifestyle Dubai is known for. This choice lead me automatically to look at the wealthier parts of the expat community as well as the ways that visitors and tourists interact with the city; they are the ones who visit the theme parks, malls, nightclubs, beaches, and hotels with the highest frequency.

Global Village, Dubai, January 2017. Global Village is a family entertainment destination, with a shopping experience at 32 pavilions representing more than 75 countries. Major landmark buildings from the whole world—Eiffel Tower, Colosseum etc.—have been reconstructed here. © Nick Hannes

After making a list of all the places I might want to visit, I spent months contacting the right people—PR managers, staff and so on—and following up on my communications in order to set a date for my shoots. This was (unexpectedly) very hard and time-consuming.

As I discovered, Dubai is not the kind of place where you can just walk into a hotel or a mall and start making photographs. If you do so, you will immediately be stopped by security personnel. Even with the right permissions, it was sometimes hard to work. Often a PR person would accompany me during the shoot. They are not very familiar with the concept of documentary photography. I told them that I do this work because I like it; that nobody asked me to come; that I pay my own travel expenses. These are all largely foreign concepts in Dubai.

In a society where everything is PR and marketing, it can be hard to explain the value of documentary practice.

Of course, there are photographers living in the city. Most of them work on commercial shoots. When requesting a shooting permit, I was often asked to give the names of my crew members and a list of all the equipment, lighting and cables I would be using. It’s as if they expected me to come with a truck full of gear. My answer: I’m coming alone, I have one camera, one tripod…

LC: How did you learn the steps of this preparation process? I feel like it is not necessarily taught in school or written about in guides to photography…

NH: It came gradually, over the years. My previous books (Red Journey and Mediterranean: The Continuity of Man) were easier in terms of logistics and permits. In those cases, the photographs were the result of concentrated lingering. Only when I had to deal with official institutions (the UN or the army, for example) was I forced to reach out in advance and organize permissions. In most cases, I just researched the locations to see if there was anything interesting to photograph.

In both cases, I had geographical limitations that guided me: the 15 former USSR republics for Red Journey or the coastline of the Mediterranean for The Continuity of Man. Dubai was less about geographical constraints than practical ones. But there is one advantage to the logistical obstacles that make shooting in Dubai so hard—not many other photographers are willing to work with so many constraints! But I learned that if you persevere through these difficult circumstances, you can end up with a unique body of work.

Full moon yoga session, Dubai, September 2016. Yoga at Fairmont The Palm Hotel and Resort in Dubai. The hotel is located on the world’s largest man-made island, shaped in the form of a palm tree. © Nick Hannes

LC: You’ve been working as a photographer for about two decades. How has your style evolved over time?

NH: When I worked as a photojournalist, I tried to make photographs with a clear message. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I spent a lot of time in the Kurdish areas of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. I wanted to denounce human rights violations and discrimination with my work. Back then, I was more an activist with a camera. Later on, I learned that nuance and subtle content were a far more interesting and efficient way to address people.

In Red Journey, the first book I released about a decade ago, I turned from a photojournalist into a documentary photographer. I lost my urge to hunt for the latest news and started to focus on the specific areas and subjects that I found interesting.

On a visual and photographic level, Red Journey was more anecdotal, with a good number of photographs depicting funny and weird situations. With Mediterranean, my work became more critical towards our world—more engaged, maybe. Without being moralistic and pretending that I have the solution, I wanted to express some concerns I have towards the world we are living in. So perhaps I’m back to activism, in a way. But unlike my first pictures from 20 years ago, I now try to create more layered photographs—images that are more open to interpretation.

LC: Do you have a favorite story behind one of the photographs in the series? Something that is not so obvious from the elements in the frame…

NH: Yes, I particularly enjoy the story behind this picture of a Santa Claus in a gated living area. For more than a week, I was staying with people I had met in a gated compound. It was January, and the Christmas decorations were still hanging. Every morning when I left the compound to start photographing, the inflatable Santa Claus bid me a good day.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, January 8, 2017. Gated residential development Meydan Heights Villas © Nick Hannes

Life is strange inside these compounds. Everything seems so perfect—too perfect, I would say. It felt like being in a parallel world that is completely cut off from the world outside. It was like being in a bubble, inside the bigger bubble that is Dubai. A double bubble…

LC: Once you begin photographing somewhere, you’ve described that you enter into a “state of visual concentration.” I imagine it’s a bit hard to talk about, but can you say more about what this means and how you reach this place?

NH: When I am in a state of visual concentration, it means that I am prepared to react immediately to anything interesting that could happen around me. My state of mind is key: I need to feel peace and have the self-confidence to push the button whenever it’s needed. It’s not possible to reach this state of concentration when I don’t feel well or when people around me react in a hostile manner.

Also: being alone is very important. I need this complete freedom to go where and when I want, to continue shooting as long as I want. Whenever there is somebody waiting for me, I feel limited.

In addition, when I am shooting, I don’t talk a lot with people because it distracts me from my visual observations. Some small talk can help to break the ice, but no long discussions.

Chillout Ice Lounge, Dubai, January 2016. Saudi tourists have a hot chocolate at the Chillout Ice Lounge, the first ice lounge in the Middle East. It features ice sculptures, ice seating and tables—all at subzero temperatures. © Nick Hannes

LC: There is some level of detachment in your work—you’ve written that your aim is make more “universal imagery.” How do you stay sensitive to the moment while also creating some distance?

NH: As I mentioned, I was a photojournalist until 2006. During my year-long round trip through the former USSR, I organically took a step back from events and started to “improvise,” photographing whatever I found interesting. I often went out without assignments or expectations from others. Many of my images were the result of loitering and allowing coincidences to happen. I would almost call it “hunting for coincidences,” which I know sounds a bit contradictory…

In my process, I am always aware of the content of what I am shooting. My photographs deal with key social and political issues—migration, urbanization, ecology, society—but in a metaphorical manner.

The series “Bread and Circuses” is about more than Dubai alone. It’s about a certain evolution in society. Dubai is the case-study, the starkest example of it.

The project deals with the general human condition marked by the contrasts and paradoxes of our time. The same was true of my work about the Mediterranean: a picture of refugees in Athens became a picture of the universal idea of refugees. It’s not about individuals but rather tendencies and evolutions worldwide.

LC: To conclude, let’s focus on the frame itself: what makes an image strong for you?

NH: A good photograph is surprising and confusing, but also attractive to look at. It raises questions rather than gives answers. It asks the viewer to think further about what he/she sees in the picture—to use his/her own knowledge and imagination in order to fill in the story.

A good photograph has strong content that goes beyond stereotypes. I try to avoid overused visual strategies like girls with balloons, boys with guns pointed at the camera, a view through a broken window, a visual interaction between an advertisement billboard and a passer-by…

My best photographs have a theatrical feel: as if the people in the frame took up the perfect position to build the tableau. Sometimes I am asked whether I stage my photographs (I don’t). But I consider this a compliment because it means that people are confused by what they see. Having said this, I have nothing against staging photographs (as long as you don’t lie about it); it just doesn’t fit my way of working.

Besides the content, I pay a lot of attention to the technical aspect of my photographs: well-balanced compositions, large depth-of-field, low ISO values, fill-in flash when necessary. These are just as important as being reactive to the moment—they help bring the frame to life.

—Nick Hannes, interviewed by Alexander Strecker

Editors’ note: Hannes’ work was selected as a Series Winner in the Documentary Category of the Magnum Photography Awards 2017. Discover more inspiring work from all 41 of the winners, finalists, jurors’ picks and student spotlights.