The father of Middle Eastern photography

Vision talks to the daughter of Noor Ali Rashid, the royal photographer to His Highness Sheikh Zayed and one of the founders of photojournalism in the Middle East

Shamsa Noor Ali Rashid made a pact with her father during their last phone conversation to take care of his photographs. She did not see him again before he died but has, in the four years since, thrown all her energies and resources into fulfilling his wishes. “I was completely and absolutely committed to delivering that last promise,” she says. “How often do you get the opportunity of achieving something so important?”

It was quite a task bringing together and making sense of the million photographs piled up in his three homes. “My father was a typical artist: passionate, creative, but not the most organised,” she says.

An exhibition last year at Sharjah Art Museum was the first public airing of Rashid’s work, bringing together 238 images, all from the first three decades of his practice from the late 1940s to 1970s. Displayed by theme, they offered an insight into the legacy of what is quite possibly the largest single photographer archive in the world.

Any of us who have spent time in the United Arab Emirates will have seen Noor Ali Rashid’s (1929-2010) images. Born in Gwadar, Oman, and sent to school in India, Rashid is heralded as the father of photo-journalism in the region and his 60-year career produced the most iconic images of the young country.

His Highness Sheikh Zayed
Noor Ali Rashid is dunked in the snow by His Highness Sheikh Zayed on a trip to Lebanon in the 1970s

As official royal photographer, he was unique in having privileged access to key moments in the nation’s early history. His daughter credited this to his personality: “He was a very social man, audacious, loved people, extremely funny, curious, very driven.”

With no professional training, soon after buying his first camera in 1948 Rashid was covering all the major events in Karachi for Vision and Dawn newspapers as a photojournalist. His father was not supportive of this career choice, sending him to Dubai in 1958 to set up a business. But Rashid took his camera with him, arriving days before the accession ceremony for His Highness Sheikh Rashid, which he captured. He then laid the path for a lifetime of immortalising ground-breaking moments in the history of the country. He also travelled widely, to 35 countries. The exhibition shares a beautiful series of images of a bullfight in Spain, women in Moroccan national dress, London in the 1960s.

His subjects included a vast array of world leaders and celebrities, from Indira Gandhi to Ava Gardner.

Shamsa Noor Ali Rashid encourages a comparison of her father’s oeuvre with that of celebrated photojournalists from the first Magnum era, his contemporaries. She wants to research into this at a US university. She feels Henri Cartier-Bresson’s output is the closest to her father’s, ranging from street photography to celebrities and major historical events.

na’ashat Eid Dubai
A girl dances the na’ashat at Eid, Dubai, 1960s

Rashid never covered war or nudity. Nor was he part of a creative community – he lived and worked in an artistic vacuum, self-motivated and self-taught. “His camera was a natural extension of who he was,” she reminisces. “I never remember him leaving the house with it.”

His photographs are documents of life – they capture the narrative of historic occasions such as the raising the first flag of the Emirates in 1971 (“I knew I was capturing history,” he said); tragedies such as a horrific accident in 1968 when a dhow carrying pilgrims caught fire and sank just off the Dubai coastline; the first oil pipes, water systems, lights, telephones, and cars crossing Al Maktoum Bridge; children in a tug of war; girls performing the na’ashat dance; an old souk vendor puffing on a shisha pipe.

His works reveal a sense of humour, an eye for the unusual, but most importantly a quest to portray beauty in all forms, an admiration of progress and a passion for photography. He worked in an impromptu manner but his compositions are often complex, using framing devices, shadows and cropping to bring several layers of meaning to each image. He loved technology and trying out new things. Egalitarian in his approach to life, he gave his daughters tremendous freedom to travel and be educated, and in his life he went full circle, experimenting with a digital camera in his eighties.

As we look ahead to Expo 2020, the next generation should look at Noor Ali Rashid’s life’s achievements and be inspired.