Insightful pictures of well-known international figureheads
After spending 23 years as a photojournalist, there are few people left on Syrian photographer Ammar Abd Rabbo’s portrait to-do list. The 46-year-old long-time French resident has snapped celebrities such as Michael Jackson, and his work has been featured in the globe’s biggest news publications, including Time magazine. But he admits his most memorable assignments were those conducted in more challenging arenas. ‘The stand-outs have been covering the war in Iraq in Baghdad in 2003, and the funeral of the late King Hussein of Jordan in 1999,’ says Rabbo.
His latest exhibition runs at Ayyam Gallery until Thursday July 12, featuring rare photographs of the world’s most loved and hated international leaders. ‘I’d like people who come to the show to have a different view on leaders, but also realise that any event – even the most boring handshake – can be seen from a different, less immediate, more artistic angle,’ he says. Here, he reveals the stories behind his images.
Muammar Gaddafi Photographed: ‘At the 40th anniversary of Gaddafi’s presidency in Tripoli on September 1 2009.’
Memorable anecdotes? ‘There was a very thick bullet-proof glass in front of Gaddafi. The best way to avoid [taking photos through] the glass – and its weird foggy effect – was to sneak to the extremity of the stage and use a very long lens. I had to act very quickly before I was kicked out by the always-nervous security.’
What story does this image tell? ‘I’ve seen or heard people at the exhibition saying, “I hate this guy, and this photo shows how ridiculous he was,” while others say, “I love this guy, and this photo shows how great he was.” I think it says “this is Gaddafi”, and in a wider idea it shows how a dictator looks: all perfect in a tailored light blue military uniform. But it also says “comedy lookalike”.’
Queen Elizabeth II Photographed: ‘Windsor Castle in the UK, November 19 2004.’
Memorable anecdotes? ‘The Queen was waiting for French president Jacques Chirac, who was a bit late, so she was looking at the door to check how late he was. I thought the attitude and the position of the Queen’s body was interesting.’
What story does this image tell? ‘The Queen may be pictured on stamps, but she’s still like any other host who is anxious if a guest is late.’
Saddam Hussein Photographed: ‘Next to a railway station in Baghdad, Iraq on February 11 2003, before the Iraq war.’
Memorable anecdotes? ‘I was touring the Iraqi capital to take some photos, and I saw this worker cleaning a poster. At that time you couldn’t tour Iraq without a minder or a guide from the state police, who would tell you what you could and couldn’t shoot. But I was lucky enough to have a photographer minder, who would allow me to shoot almost anything I wanted. I liked the disparity, the gap between the cleaner and the leader’s image, as if it could sum up the symbolic place of the leader in many citizens’ lives.’
What story does this image tell? ‘I showed this image to some nine-year old Syrian school students during a presentation photography class. Some of them said, “He cleans the image because he likes his chief and wants the picture to be clean,” while another child said, “Come on, he cleans it because he has no choice – the cleaner probably hates him.” That’s quite an interesting and insightful observation from these young kids.’
The Lowdown Exhibition: ‘Follow the Leader’ until July 12 at Ayyam Gallery, Podium Level, Gate Village 3, DIFC (04 439 2395). Artist: Ammar Abd Rabbo Price of works: Dhs18,364 to Dhs25,709.