Project Development

Week One:

Having decided on an exploration of liminality in the UAE – a look at borders both political (between emirates and with other countries), geographical (shoreline and where the mountains meet the desert), cultural (East meets West) and sociological (different areas and styles of living, exploring where mankind stops and the desert begins), I managed to take a trip down to the border between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. This is interesting in that there was an actual war between the two emirates in the late 1940s over border territories and now the only way to tell that you have crossed the border is that the streetlights on the Sheikh Zayed Road (the main road connecting 6 of the 7 emirates) change shape.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Another possible border would be the fact that Dubai is a coastal city, extending along a strip of land between the desert and the sea. This leads, particularly at this time of year, to dense sea fogs.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m not altogether convinced by this being a ‘border’ as such, but it certainly suggests liminality, which may be another refinement of the central concept.


Week Two:

A busy week at work, but managed to get into the Mall of the Emirates to look for ideas of cultural borders. I don’t think that the fact that the mall has a ski-slope and penguins in the middle of the desert could count as a border, but it is right on my doorstep if I do decide to look at that.

The only cultural border that was immediately visible was in, appropriately enough, Borders, the bookshop, where the magazine rack has a clear delineation between Arabic and English-language magazines, even though many of the magazines are themselves the same.R0032487.jpg


Week Three:

International Day at school gave me plenty of possibilities for looking at how different cultures co-exist in the UAE as it celebrated the many different nationalities that make up the international school in which I work. P1090793

P1090813Though I’m happy with several of the shots I got there, I am still not persuaded that they will form a coherent part of what I am trying to do. They have people in them, for a start. But it is good to have the possibility should the project go in that direction.


Week Four:

A trip to Azerbaijan meant I could have a look at how borders might be represented in Dubai Airport. Although I got many good shots in Baku, with the project being UAE based, I am only here concerned with those taken at the airport.IMG_3351I really like this shot, showing the idea that something as theoretically mighty as a national border, one that requires much paperwork to pass, is entirely notional – not much more in actuality than a few stickers on the floor and a booth made of MDF. The only problem here is that I honestly cannot remember which end of the trip that I took this photograph – it may possibly be in Azerbaijan…

Two shots that I did get in Azerbaijan that it may be possible to replicate in the UAE show the idea of the border between inside and outside – the shot of a Baku coffee shop through the window on Valentine’s DayR0032356

And another that shows how people flock to borders – in this case the corniche in Baku, but that may be worth investigating in Kite Beach or La Mer in Dubai, the corniche in Abu Dhabi or at any of the inland desert adventure parks on the other side.R0032362


Week Five:

A trip to Discovery Gardens and inland from there yielded a few shots of the liminal area between the end of the city and the start of the desert where Dubai keeps all of its infrastructure – industry, desalination plants, power stations etc. There is a clear visual divide between the glossy skyscrapers that most people picture when they imagine Dubai and the messy business of keeping them all running.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAgain, this seems to lend itself more to the idea of liminality than borders, or perhaps that is purely semantic.

I also managed a trip down to Jumeirah Public Beach after school to have a look at how that could represent a physical/geographical border, and found that the beach was divided into different zones – giving borders both geographical and man-made.IMG_0050

Even better, I found that there is a divide on the beach between the public beach and the VIP beach attached to the Burj Al Arab hotel.IMG_0032I particularly like the abstract nature of this latter shot, as well as the composition. And, as Michelle pointed out, the reflections in the sand work well with the reflections in the tiles on the previous airport border shot.


Week Six:

A massive weekend of photography! I drove ten hours and 600km to visit, among other places, the border between the UAE and Oman and the Tropic of Cancer. I have many shots with which I am happy, though I know I need to whittle them down or will otherwise end up with too many shots of fences running through the desert.

I got several shots of the camel fence that runs alongside the road separating the part of the desert tamed by mankind from the Rub’ Al Khali – the Empty Quarter – the desert that encompasses much of the Arabian Peninsula, this one being my favourite.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I also found several areas where human settlements suddenly stop to make way for geographical borders, be they deserts:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


The border between Oman and the UAE runs for many hundreds of kilometers through the desert. In some places, there are farms and other settlements on the green, irrigated Emirati side which are a stark contrast to arid desert on the other. This contrast, however, proved impossible to photograph without a drone. And although I did have a drone with me, taking photographs of a border fence with another country didn’t seem like a particularly good idea…

However, there were many areas where the fence ran through otherwise featureless desert, which, for me, made an even better point – this is a notional (political) border, made physical by the addition of a fence, but it is clear that there is no difference between what lies on each side.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There doesn’t seem much to separate here.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The last shot was taken from the ramparts of a small fortress, presumably built since the border was established properly in 1999. The fence itself was started in 2002. There is precious little information available about how much of the border is actually fenced (I drove over 100km and it was unbroken) or about the fort. I couldn’t even find the name of the thing!DSC01540

The final border I found was the main reason for the trip – the Tropic of Cancer. Not having much of a background in geography, I have to presume that this would represent a notional, mathematical (?) border.DSC01523


Week Seven:

A trip to the border with Sharjah this week. Another line between emirates, another war, this time fought in the 1930s. In this case, so the story goes, Dubai and Sharjah had antiquated weapons and a limited amount of ammunition, so one side would fire a cannon salvo at the other, who would then collect the cannonballs and fire them back. Furthermore, at that time, the area was used for the Imperial Airways (the embryonic British Airways) clipper from the UK to Australia. Dubai Creek was the only sheltered strip of water where the flying boat could touch down and Sharjah Fort was the only place the passengers could refuel whilst the plane was doing the same. Consequently, the war, as it was, stopped for a couple of hours every afternoon, and resumed when the Short Empire had safely departed. How much of this story is true, I don’t know, but I like it anyway.

My visit to the border coincided with a triathlon that had closed off most of the roads. However, I managed to find many examples of the border, though none with signs. The Dubai-Sharjah border is notorious for terrible traffic as there are only a few roads that actually link up between the two emirates. Consequently, there are several places where two roads run side by side with iron pillars between them and no way for vehicles (even the Toyota Landcruisers and Mercedes G-Wagens much beloved out here) to cross.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I also tried using a macro lens to underline that there is no actual difference from one side to the other.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThough I don’t think it works very well.

I did find a fence that seemed to run along the line that Google Maps said was the border.DSC01637

And at one point there was a car park on either side of the fence, meaning cars with Sharjah/Dubai number plates could face each other and yet would have to drive several kilometres to be able to park side by side.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And there was also the fact that the border runs down the middle of the Mamzar Beach bay:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I also decided to look at interior borders this week. I have read a lot of the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell’s work, and have always been interested in his ideas of liminal spaces – entire places designed specifically to change the psychology of the initiate. These range from the caves and sweat-lodges used in ceremonies to initiate adulthood in males of different tribes to the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages where the use of stained glass, incense and even echoes from high, vaulted ceilings would combine to transform all the senses. Working in a school, it is now de rigueur to have a sign on the door of classrooms along the lines of:IMG_0170Which is a liminal border too, of sorts.

Another convention widely used, this time a social convention of the Middle East, is to have separate waiting areas for male and female customers. Or, in the case of this doctor’s surgery, male and female patients:IMG_3594The thing here being that, very often, there are no signs and it is taken as common knowledge that one area is for women and children only.

Another internal barrier that is essential to understanding this part of the world is the doorway into shopping malls. I am not a big fan of shopping malls, and I have not been to many malls outside the UAE since moving here nine years ago, so I have no idea whether this is current practice elsewhere, but car parks are shielded off (also, another opportunity for advertising). Furthermore, malls have a kind of airlock – two sets of sliding doors with an atrium (usually for toilets, cash machines and ‘lesser’ businesses like shoe repair and car window tinting) to ensure that the heat outside doesn’t impact the air conditioned interior. Even further furthermore, these atriums (atria?) are usually perfumed, and each mall has its own signature perfume.IMG_0198

Overall, I am not sure how effective these ‘internal’ photographs are, and whether or not they are too different from what else I have been trying to do to be able to integrate as part of this specific project, or whether to develop the idea and use it as part of a broader project.


Week Eight:

A dawn trip to the Dubai Water Canal and the Jumeriah Pearl this week. Dubai Creek is the centre upon which the city was founded as a pearl diving village way back when. It has been the commercial heart of the city up until relatively recently and is still the port from which hundreds of traditional dhows set sail to Iran and India and Pakistan. It is, however, a creek – a saltwater inlet. It may once have been a river mouth, but running water from the Hajar Mountains has long, long since dried up. Recently, and incrementally, the creek has been extended – and a few months ago, the Dubai Water Canal (as opposed to the Dubai Root Canal?) opened up and extended the extension of the creek back to the sea, thus effectively turning part of Old Dubai into an island.

I thought about how rivers very frequently form both geographical and political borders, and having looked at the geographical borders of mountains, desert and sea, wanted to see if this newly opened canal could be considered a border.DSC01569Although I am pleased with the shot, I’m not currently entirely convinced by the rhetoric and will need to investigate the ideas of borders further to see if this can really be a part of the project, or whether I am just shoehorning it in.

There is also, in this area, a liminality between the famously developed skyline and the parts that are still catching up (as many people have said, Dubai will be lovely, when it is finished)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I also visited the Jumeriah Pearl – one of the many man-made islands along Dubai’s coastline. This one is nascent and largely undeveloped, and also delineates the border between fashionable Jumeriah and the industrial sprawl of Port Rashid shipping port and dry docks. Although I got several good skyline shots of Downtown Dubai from here, not many would fit the project. As a mostly undeveloped area, in the early morning, it is still used by the lower-paid workers to supplement their income by fishing and collecting shellfish, which could show a liminality between cultures, socioeconomic groups and traditions.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are also a fair few people that use the area as a picturesque and free camping and picnic spot.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The final shot I got on this outing is one I really, really like. It fits the project – it shows the idea of borders extending out to sea – the three stage maritime border that the ship is heading through. I also feel that it fits the desaturated, almost gentle aesthetic that I have been pursuing over this and also the last unit.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am not 100% certain about the ripple in the immediate foreground, though this may suggest three stages: (implied) land, the light-pole and the ship heading into international waters.


Week Nine:

Big, big change this week – I have decided to return to Europe, and most likely the UK, in July. This means that my overarching idea of a UAE based book with a different focus for each chapter is no longer viable and my final project will need reconsidering. It also means that I can extend my project for this unit beyond the borders of the UAE and use the shots from Azerbaijan (and not worry too much about the location of the airport border shot) and use shots from this term before I returned to the UAE such as this shot of the border between habitable and dangerously radioactive taken in the Chernobyl Forbidden Zone:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It also means that my two week Easter trip to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland could be rich with possibility.

I have an ongoing personal series of photographs set in airports – the ability to move beyond Dubai’s two airports meant that I could add to both that series and this project. I really liked the idea previously of the shopping mall automatic doors with the advert on them opening. So when I saw a similar shot in Tallinn airport with my trust pocket camera in hand…IMG_0243Sadly, I found out afterwards, that a 1-inch sensor inadvertently set to ISO 10,000 might not produce the sharpest shots. I do still like it though.

Despite Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius all being (to differing degrees) walled and gated cities, thus theoretically perfect for the project, I found it hard to produce anything that wasn’t either a tourist/postcard shot:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Or just not very interesting such as this shot of Vilnius’s Gates of Dawn (there was no piper – I looked)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In Tallinn, I spent half a day looking for a music-related car-park barrier (that’s a border, right?) that I half-remembered from a previous visit – it turned out to be the barrier for the Tallinn Opera House:DSC01724Though I still think this is one of the best things ever, I’m not sure it fits my project.

I did toy with the idea of ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ being either a border or a liminality:IMG_0292

And the idea of bus and train stations being liminal in the same way that airports are:IMG_0329




But I am not sure I am convinced. Similarly with this shot of pavement markers in Tallinn:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

However, the bus journey between Riga and Vilnius did produce this shot, which I think works perfectly with my ideas – I was using Google Maps to identify the exact point at which the non-stop bus crossed from one country to the next. A few moments before we reached the border, I lost connection, so this is a shot of where I thought the border might be. In the absence of any identifying signs, this could or could not be the border. This underlines the idea that national borders are entirely notional (the signpost visible there, incidentally, was for a supermarket and not a declaration of nationhood or anything):OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next stage of the trip – from Gdansk through Poland by car, promised much. My main focus initially was a trip to the Hel peninsula north of Gdansk. As well as affording me far too many Facebook puns (I have shots of the road to Hel, the gates of Hel, a Hel cat and many, many more), this is seen as the starting point of Poland and (to Poles) the starting point of Europe. It is also a spit of land that extends far out into the freezing (literally at this point – it was a cold day in Hel, and parts of Hel froze over) seas that almost surrounded it. Liminal for sure.

The one shot I really liked from Hel was taken from the plaque that states that this is the starting point of Poland, and is of Hel beach, and is of a spit of sand that almost replicates the spit of land that is Hel itself.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlthough this shot has people in it (gasp!) I think it sums up perfectly what I am trying to look for – this is a border and there are no two ways about it.

Returning to Gdansk, I stopped off in Sopot, which has Europe’s longest wooden pier. This, for me, is perfect liminality – people are not happy with not being allowed past the physical, geographical border of the shoreline, so they use engineering to go a little bit further. The Victorian equivalent of Dubai’s man-made islands. Although this is liminal rather than a border, it shows I need to really think hard about my central idea.


The rest of the trip to Poland produced (as well as superb food and beer) several more walled cities that were difficult to reduce to a photograph, and the original walls of the Warsaw ghetto.DSC02235

Iconic? Yes. Visually interesting? Not with my level of ability.

Although Wroclaw didn’t give me much in terms of this project, there was one thing that made me smile, especially I had been reading Ways of Seeing just a few weeks before…29790313_10160306555115038_7532732995079196925_n

Although the trip finished in Krakow, and the Auschwitz-Birkenau tour would have offered many possibilities, it is a tour I have done before and not one I would wish to repeat, and I am not sure about using something like that as part of something else when it should be an entirety to itself.

The final shot I managed, which I do rather like, was taken from the window of the plane at Katowice airport:IMG_4175Very much both a border and a liminality.


Week Ten:

This week I took a trip to the northern border of the UAE. In the middle of Wadi Bih (a vast, (usually) dry canyon) there is a border post with Oman. I was hoping that this might show a confluence of both geographical and political borders, with the customs and passport control confined by a steep-sided valley. As it happened, the road, a rocky, barely passable path, did not disappoint, but the border itself was not much to look at:


Whilst in the area, I also visited Jebel Jais, at 1,934m the tallest mountain in the UAE (a border of sorts, right?).  Whilst as the top (at least, whilst in the car park as close to the top as road-building has managed thus far) I took many beautiful shots of the mountains (as well as one of the current end of the road)P4180133.jpg

However, while processing, I found that the problem with photographing mountains formed from sedimentary rocks, particularly on hazy days, is that they don’t look that impressive. Though the road itself is, admittedly, something else.DSC02286DSC02277DSC02305-PanoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Returning home from this area took me past two places I though might be worth a look. The first, Jazirat Al Hamra, on the edge of the city and emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, is a village that was deserted en masse (for political/tribal reasons) in 1968 and has been left to slowly decay. I thought that this could represent a border/liminality between past and present, or living and dead. It is a strange place – completely empty, slowly falling apart, and yet within sight of the new, super-luxury hotel developments with which RAK hopes to rebrand itself as an upmarket holiday destination. I got a few shots with which I am relatively happy; however, I am far from sure that they truly fit in with my project, despite my slightly clumsy attempt to use old doorways and windows to suggest borders.DSC02354DSC02338

The second place I thought might work was the salt-flats along the shore between Ras al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain: the perfect geographical liminality. However, although this works in practice, there was little to actually see.DSC02372

Apparently there are incredible salt flats near Al Sila’a in the Abu Dhabi emirate. However, this is close to the Saudi border, nearly 500km away and too far right now. And even there, so many hours later, there is nothing to say there would be anything to actually see…


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