Digital cameras – much like mobile phones – have become modern must-have accessories, owned by a huge proportion of the Western population. But for many of the photographers whose works feature in the new ‘Inside Sajja – A Labor of Light’ exhibition, simply turning a camera on was a novelty just a few months ago.
‘I gave the labourers at a Sharjah camp some basic point-and-shoot cameras that friends had donated,’ explains Karen Dias, a 24-year-old Indian and former Dubai resident, who came up with the idea for the Labor of Light project. A documentary photographer herself, she approached non-profit organisation Adopt-a-Camp, which oversees humanitarian work at camps around the UAE, seeking advice on how to put her idea into practice.
Of her motivation and the project’s premise, she explains: ‘I’ve done photojournalism, and I’ve always thought there’s a problem with the fact that as a journalist you end up going into a story you don’t understand: you don’t speak the language, you don’t go through the motions they do, and then you come back hoping to get a story from it. So I thought: What if I put the cameras in the hands of these men and get them to tell their own story?’
After speaking to Adopt-a-Camp founder Saher Shaikh, Dias was introduced to a group of around 20 men at the Sajja camp, which houses the group of abandoned labourers supported by the organisation, which provides everything from basic necessities to new employment opportunities and emotional support.
At first, as with anything, there were a few teething problems. ‘I had to show them how to use the cameras, because a lot of them had never owned a camera before – some had never used one. I showed them how to use the zoom, the settings, how to charge them and I told them what kind of pictures they should take.’ Returning two weeks later, Dias discovered a stack of posed portraits. ‘I think they were excited because they’d never used a camera before, but there was no way we could use them in an exhibition because it was just a bunch of posed photos,’ she laughs. ‘I gave them a little more direction, encouraged them to shoot what was around them, and there were some nice shots the second time around.’
‘I was really only expecting them to be in focus,’ she says, admitting to her own reservations about the project’s viability. ‘But if you didn’t know the story behind the exhibition, you’d think the images were captured by professional photographers. A lot of people will come because it’s a charity exhibition and we’re trying to raise money for a good cause, but there’s some really good work up on the walls, which is what an art exhibition should be about.’
If you see something you like, original prints are priced at Dhs400 each, while postcards of the works on display can be bought – whether as a memento or simply to support a good cause – for Dhs20. All proceeds from sales will be shared equally between the 20 men who took part.
‘In the beginning they didn’t really understand why I was there or what I was doing. It’s a bit strange to be issued with a camera like that – they didn’t really understand why it would mean anything – but I think they enjoyed taking pictures on their own and of themselves, because they’d never had the opportunity to do that before. They went to the studio and printed them out themselves.
Now when they go back home they will have these pictures, to illustrate the memory of living in this country.’
As for those all-too-easily discarded old cameras stuffed away in a box at home, Dias would be grateful if you’d consider giving them a new home by donating them at the gallery. Your trash could end up being a far bigger treasure than you imagine.
‘Inside Sajja – A Labour of Light’ runs until February 29. Entry is free. Sun-Thu 10am-6pm. Gulf Photo Plus, Street 8, Al Serkal Avenue, Al Quoz (04 380 8545).