It's Not a Camera, It's a Visa

Of all of the things that I have learned from McNally, I think this is the one has stuck with me the most: Cameras open doors to new experiences and friendships. Or as Joe likes to say, "It's not a camera, it's a visa."

A few years ago my camera allowed me to meet two people who would go on to become good friends. Fast forward to last Sunday, when the three of us found ourselves 8,000 miles from home, meeting new people with our cameras all over again.

I first met Dave Kile and Erik Couse when they responded to a tweeted invitation to assist on this shoot for Since then we have become good friends as we have worked on all sorts of projects together. And this year they both decided to bail from work for a bit and travel to Dubai to attend Gulf Photo Plus.

Having been a teacher at GPP for five years, I very much enjoy the event. But even more so I enjoy meeting the people who travel to GPP from all over the world. In a climate where so many of the messages we receive about other cultures can be tinged with fear and/or mistrust, I have found no better antidote than spending time in other countries and making good friends.

I enjoyed watching Dave and Erik hang out with Emiratis, Saudis, Iranians, Afghans and others as they got their first person-to-person experiences in an Islamic country. And the news reports coming out of Syria feel much closer to home now that I learned that the family of one of my GPP friends escaped from Homs, the epicenter of the Syrian uprising.

A week or so into our trip everyone was pretty well acclimated to both the new desert climate and culture, so we thought it would be cool to have a more immersive day trip. So Dave, Erik and I hopped into a taxi for a 100+ MPH trip to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque an hour away in Abu Dhabi.

It is a beautiful (and somewhat intimidating) place to visit for the first time. The scale of the building is something you have to see in person to appreciate. And as far as the local Islamic culture, this is pretty much the center of gravity. Our guides arrived and divided the group into smaller groups for a more individualized experience.

In a country where the western guidebooks warn you not to photograph traditionally dressed Emiratis without prior permission, you tend to form preconceptions. Having befriended several students over the years here, those are pretty much gone for me. But walking into a serious and significant building like this, you are still curious what the folks are gonna be like.

So we did not really know what to expect, but we certainly did not expect Majed Al-Zubaidi. He was joking and not taking himself (or us) too seriously from word one, as were his colleagues. We immediately realized that our expected dry and academic tour was actually going be as fun as it was informative.

Throughout the afternoon we learned many interesting things. Majed was very knowledgeable both about Islam in general and this mosque in particular. But also got into the inter-religious stuff -- what was the same, different, etc. between Islam and Christianity. He had us laughing the whole time. He was as culturally self-aware as he was funny, and it made for a fantastic experience.

That experience got better when the other staff members started edging us out of the mosque as evening prayers were set to begin in a few minutes. Majed had realized we were all avid photographers, and had sensed our conflict between listening to him and wanting to shoot everything we saw from the best possible angle. So he decided to accompany us and backtrack all of the way through the tour, letting us photograph at will.

When we got back to the courtyard, mix light was starting to happen. I showed Majed some of my photos as thanks for the extra attention, and asked if we might photograph him. After all, I had mix light at a stunning mosque, a cool subject, a couple of SB-800s and my two favorite assistants with me. He was cool with it.

Without modifiers to use, Dave quickly grabbed one of the white plastic bags in which you carry your removed shoes. Not perfect, but it would do in a pinch. (FWIW, this isn't the first time I have lit someone with garbage bags.)

So I subdued the ambient by a stop and a half or so to make a more saturated environment. Then we filled with an on-camera flash for detail and keyed with a slaved SB-800 in a plastic bag for shape. Two lights, that is my mantra -- one for shape, another for detail. It was quick and easy work -- especially with Erik as my VAL. He's tall, and knows just where to go with the light.

Here's a pull-back:

Without the light, we would have had to expose for Majed and let the ambient fall where it may, as in this ambient-only pullback shot by Dave:

But the light basically gave us total control over the ambient palette. I tried to make pictures with a range of expressions in the short amount of time we had. And as photographers, it is important to remember that we have so much power to portray people in whatever way we want -- even if we do not consciously realize it.

You want the intimidating, traditionally dressed Arab man in an exotic, Islamic environment? That's easy enough:

And while that's a very easy photo to do -- and probably feeds into the preconceptions of some in the west -- that's totally not Majed. This is much closer to the mark:

He was the perfect host and ambassador, be it international, cultural, religious or just person-to-person. Frankly, I'd love to duplicate the experience for every person I know. But the best I can do is to write about it and hope that moves the needle just a tiny bit. (Besides, I'm thinking Majed would get pretty tired if he had to do all of that work in person.)

As we were finishing with his brief portrait session, mix light for the building was entering the sweet spot. Majed must have seen us all getting facial tics as we realized the photos we were starting to miss. So he just turned us loose in the courtyard to shoot our way back to the main entrance.

We shot until well after the light was useable. It was hard to stop making pictures as long as your eyes deceived you into thinking the mix light was still good, even if the useable moment had long passed for our cameras.

All in all it was a bucket-list type of experience for three people on so many levels, made possible by a small hand-held machine that had opened a series of doors over the span of several years and many miles.

Like McNally says, "It's not a camera, it's a visa."


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Blogger Scott Free said...

Not only are you an incredible teacher dave, but an amazing writer and one of world photographys most amazing intellectual voices, both as a photographer and a human being who happens to own a camera. The film generation had ansell adams and cartier-bresson, the internet generation has guys like you and Mcnally. Thankyou once again for the amazing work you do and the inspiration you provide!

March 19, 2012 12:16 AM  
Blogger Jay said...

You moved my needle, DH. Very good for my subconscious and unfair biases and preconceptions. Thank you!

Oh, great photos, as well, as always. :)

March 19, 2012 12:24 AM  
Blogger Bernhard A S said...

Language is formed by the culture of people speaking it. So I am always curious when I experience new places to get to know the words that do not even exist in German or English.

Mashalla David!

(I am happy that something good happened to you)

March 19, 2012 12:29 AM  
Blogger Painting Queen said...

Wow! Love hearing about such a human experience topped off with incredible photography! Thank you for sharing such a beautiful event!

March 19, 2012 12:39 AM  
Blogger Nionyn said...

Great post!
Far too much to compliment in detail, but really enjoyed your write-up, the sentiments behind it and the photos.
Majed's a pretty cool guy, eh? :-)

March 19, 2012 1:29 AM  
Blogger aljOoker said...

your post just perfect.

March 19, 2012 1:38 AM  
Blogger ChristineB said...

EXCELLENT post. Moving the needle and bridging those gaps in cultural understanding with humor and thoughtful dialogue really resonates with me so thank you for shining such an elegant light on your experience. I just moved to Dubai (rode on that nutty Flashbus extravaganza at GPP) and now this post has me completely inspired to hop in a cab to Abu Dhabi!!! Wow - you're like the Energizer Bunny of Inspiration! lol.

March 19, 2012 1:46 AM  
Blogger Edward Carlile Photography said...

Love that image of Majed with his arms open and his smile wide.

March 19, 2012 2:07 AM  
Blogger fotosiamo said...

David, you are my hero. Simply amazing photographs and one that is full of humanity. I am glad that you can portray Majed for he his, and not what we Westerners would think he is.

Our photos are our visas and we are the ambassadors.

March 19, 2012 2:47 AM  
Blogger kierinm said...

This is an awesome write up of your experience. I love the idea that the camera is a visa, i never thought of expressing it that way. I also see the camera as tool to break the ice and discover new worlds.

Have a nice day ; )

March 19, 2012 3:53 AM  
Blogger El Che said...


greetings from Saudi. Happy to see you're enjoying the region. Some pretty cool photos here.

I was already pretty impressed with the cross-cultural work you mentioned during the GPP class I took with you but this post is a big big public boost with hopefully a wider impact.

Best, Cesar

March 19, 2012 4:32 AM  
Blogger John Mathieu said...

Excellent post, thanks David. A few years back I had the opportunity to be in Dubai three times six months, and I brought my camera with me each time. My shooting experience was much like you described; somewhat apprehensive the first time, more relaxed the second time, and totally at ease the third. The people were gracious, friendly and very welcoming. Even in and around mosques, I only encountered warm smiles and great subjects. A terrific experience!

March 19, 2012 5:09 AM  
Blogger Andor said...

How true! It is indeed perfect tool to make friends too, or even just to 'break ice' sometimes when you got a camera in your neck - especially if you can make such awesome pictures of them!

March 19, 2012 5:53 AM  
Blogger Bob Kidd said...

I enjoyed reading this post as much as viewing your photographs at the end. It felt like I was walking through the mosque with you.

March 19, 2012 6:37 AM  
Blogger GrumpyOldMan said...

Those are some seriously gorgeous shots Mr Hobby.

The architecture and decoration is gorgeous.
Just beautiful.

And you bring it out in such a flattering manner.
I have not seen all that much of your work, but these are my very favourites of all your work I've seen.

Thank you so much for sharing.

(this might be a double post - I'm not sure if my first attempt got past the captcha)

March 19, 2012 6:49 AM  
Blogger Puggle said...

Wow! Exellent post. Wish I could have been there to experience this with all of you!

March 19, 2012 8:38 AM  
Blogger Jorge Rodriguez said...

Great post. So, when are you coming to Cambodia?

March 19, 2012 8:56 AM  
Blogger Mindy McAdams said...

Thanks for writing this, David. I really enjoyed reading it, and I'm filled with envy of your great experience. Majed sounds very cool.

March 19, 2012 9:34 AM  
Blogger Sheri Johnson said...

beautiful images and I love the story

March 19, 2012 9:40 AM  
Blogger John LeJeune said...

"In a climate where so many of the messages we receive about other cultures can be tinged with fear and/or mistrust, I have found no better antidote than spending time in other countries and making good friends."

Let's hope many more take the medicine.

March 19, 2012 9:41 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

In such a high key environment, like the ambient only BTS, it would have been interesting to see how you would use flash to brighten everything and make a high key type image. It looked like the perfect opportunity to do something different than your normal.

March 19, 2012 10:10 AM  
Blogger Prelo said...

Another outstanding offering.
My only comment would be this - I would hope that at some point you find a way to take your family along. Immersing the kids in foreign culture is hands down better that reading about it. Let them learn and spread their take on the world.

March 19, 2012 10:17 AM  
Blogger UzAiR said...

Great post and wonderful pics.

It was awesome to see the real you at GPP. :)

March 19, 2012 10:19 AM  
Blogger John said...

Awesome post!

First off, love the pics of the mosque, they are almost surreal. My favorite part of this post though is the one of your guide with his arms spread and a big smile on his face.

I think your post is a great example of how people all over the world are more similar than most people think.

Since you guys have been going there, I have been foaming at the mouth to be able to travel there some day ...preferably, before they make a building that touches the moon! :)

March 19, 2012 10:21 AM  
Blogger Tom Meyer said...

A valuable post on so many levels. Shared to my FB page.

March 19, 2012 10:43 AM  
Blogger Liz Kaye said...

Excellent post David.

March 19, 2012 10:52 AM  
Blogger Brent Nitschke said...

This is making me want to attend GPP even more than before. What a great experience.

David - between flights, hotels, etc. what should someone "budget" money-wise for GPP? Just wanna know how many Chipotle burritos I have to forgo to make it.

All the best,
Brent Nitschke

March 19, 2012 11:28 AM  
Blogger HeroFoto said...

Yup, you're right ... MONEY buys you access ... money let's you travel, money buys your gear, money, money, money ... you cannot compete in this industry w/o MONEY ... show up at the Indy500 with a Yugo and dollar store tool box and see if they'll let you compete ...

March 19, 2012 1:27 PM  
Blogger gerald.d said...

For those interested in exploring this amazing building in more detail:

March 19, 2012 1:58 PM  
Blogger piedmont said...

You are Joe are starting to sound like each other. I'm sure McNally would apologize for that (as well he should) but it's a fact that you guys have definately learned from each other. It's very cool to see you quote him and then see Joe turn around and quote you. (Y'all need to get a room.) I'm not so sure I wouldn't read you guys even if I wasn't a photographer. :-)

March 19, 2012 2:22 PM  
Blogger Justin B. said...

Great post!

March 19, 2012 2:29 PM  
Blogger As Seen by Janine said...

Moved to tears of joy by this one David... Your photos are beautiful, but the story magnificently affirms my beliefs in humanity. :-)

March 19, 2012 2:44 PM  
Blogger Rod Read said...

I showed up at surf berbere in Morocco a couple weeks ago with a waterproof housing on my SLR.
It's a solid ice breaker.
Barack (our Guide / Yogi / Hero / Comic Genius) now uses
as his facebook
but this one ...
show's his mythical status

March 19, 2012 4:08 PM  
Blogger Michael said...


One of those reminded me of this classic shot of the rapper Nas by Jonathan Mannion:

March 19, 2012 8:39 PM  
Blogger Edge Photography said...

Last week I did an interview for lenszine magazine and one of the interviewers questions was what I liked best about photography.

My answer was access; access to people and places I would otherwise never have the chance to visit and interact with.

I wish I had thought of saying the simpler answer, my camera is a visa or passport.

Love it!

March 19, 2012 8:51 PM  
Blogger Karen Lenz said...

Great post, Mr. Hobby. Next time I'm over there I will make it a point to get out to the mosque. I wanted to go this time around, but there's only so many hours in the day!

The photograph of your new friend turned out beautifully!

March 19, 2012 10:06 PM  
Blogger Karen Lenz said...

Of all the words that come out of McNally's mouth, at least you're only repeating the more 'insightful' ones.

(jk, of course. The man is a living legend and so are you.)

Beautiful photograph and a beautiful story to go with. I really should check out this little 'blog' of yours more often! ;o)

Talk soon!

March 19, 2012 10:08 PM  
Blogger lecycliste said...

This is what photography is supposed to be about. Communicating a cultural treasure, a signature (or scrawled) event, an endangered feathered creature, a bridge to someone unknown - that's just what you8 did.

The scowl picture shows one possible side of ALL of us, as does the happy portrait. Your pictures show we are all people with similar thoughts and important beliefs - and through the symbol of the expansive mosque and your host's giving gracious access to it, room for all those beliefs.

The technical excellence of the photography becomes invisible - I see the thought and intent beneath more clearly.

Thanks for sharing excellent work.

Mark Bohrer
Saratoga, California

March 19, 2012 11:16 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Truly amazing post, David. What a writer and photographer. You achieved your goal; my needle moved a bit for sure. Such an inspiration you are to photography, writing, telling a story, and teaching.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.


March 20, 2012 2:48 PM  
Blogger Justin said...


"And as photographers, it is important to remember that we have so much power to portray people in whatever way we want -- even if we do not consciously realize it."

you inspire all of us to be better photographers & more importantly, people!

Thank you

March 20, 2012 5:50 PM  
Blogger Albert Wong said...

Wow! Amazing photos and post. Thank you for sharing your experience with us all.

March 21, 2012 6:59 PM  
Blogger Kevin O'Connell said...

David, this is yet another example of why I check your blog daily. You regularly remind us that it isn't always about technique and equipment. The relationships we form and the distances we can bridge through photography are much more important. Thanks again.

March 21, 2012 8:36 PM  
Blogger Chris Stewart said...

My needle moved. Thank you DH!

March 22, 2012 2:25 AM  
Blogger David Wilkinson said...

Thirty years ago, as a high school shooter, my mantra was "It's not a camera, it's my hall pass."

March 22, 2012 7:18 AM  

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