Faces of Dubai: the photographer baring the soul of the emirate

Local photographer Yasir Saeed is breaking ground with his Humans of New York-style images of Dubai residents. In an exclusive Q&A, he tells Vision about the drive behind his ambitious project

What inspired you to start the Faces of Dubai photography project?

Faces of Dubai was born at a time when the emirate, like the rest of the world, was emerging from the economic crisis. Back then, I had a strong desire to express pride over my own association with Dubai, and share the real spirit of this city with the world - illustrated in the faces of its residents and visitors. I am constantly amazed at the emirate’s achievements under the leadership of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. This project is my humble contribution and sincere effort to promote the modern, multicultural and resilient city for what it is: a tolerant, welcoming cultural melting pot with a drive to excel and be at the forefront, among the developed nations of the world.

The aim of the project is to tell the story of Dubai through the eyes and feelings of its residents, establish a platform to collect as many testimonials for the city as possible, and document the perspectives on life in this city through portraits that capture the essence of people, their feelings about the city, and why it is special to them. I am also curious to find out Dubai’s secret: it makes people who come for a visit, thinking that they won’t stay for long, end up never wanting to leave.

What is your association with the emirate? And where does this pride stem from?

I came to Dubai in 2003 as a journalist with a local English newspaper. Three years later, in 2006, I moved to work in the communications team at Dubai World. I was lucky enough to see first-hand how Dubai was starting to emerge on the global map. Being part of the core team that saw Dubai make some of its biggest global projects, and all of the challenges that came with it, was a tremendous experience. I am extremely proud that I had a role, however little, to play in that phase of the emirate’s development.

Why is photography a good medium for showcasing the emirate?

A photograph is a moment frozen in time, offering insight into a lifetime of an individual, a society or a city. It carries a lot of power to show you something and explain its virtues. In the case of my project, I show you the person, and then illustrate what Dubai means to them. It adds believability to the message, because it allows the viewers to explore and make their own decision about the subject.

Take for example any great image from history. To hear someone say that His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, is a very humble person, and is very close to his people can still be regarded as hearsay; but when you see him sitting on the ground with an old man from one of the rural areas of the country … it’s a completely different experience.

Dubai is renowned for its architecture and innovations - why did you feel it was important to focus on people for this project?

Dubai is seeking to become the centre of innovation. Showcasing examples of people of all categories and walks of life who represent the essence of the city that helped them realise their dreams falls in line with the emirate's innovation drive. Dubai’s architecture and innovations are all human achievements. On an individual level, it’s difficult to connect with a building, or an innovative concept. It does give you a wow factor, certainly, but it doesn’t say anything about the abstracts; the emotions and feelings of the people who make these tremendous achievements possible.

What is the most surprising perception of Dubai that you have seen through your photography?

The level of confidence people have in the leadership, and admiration people have for this city is a constant source of surprise. Each of the subjects interviewed for the project have their own unique take on what makes it special to them. But the underlying thought in all of them is the sense of awe they feel, and the sense of achievement and success they have in their own association with Dubai. I don’t think you could have that sort of feeling for any other place in the world. And that’s the biggest surprise.