Ola Allouz

  • WordsAmira Asad
  • PhotographyOlaa Allouz

Ola Allouz realised she was a photographer in 2006 while at Hajj with her family. It was her relative Najat Makki, UAE’s celebrated painter, who picked up on her natural knack for capturing moments, despite only shooting with a low-res phone camera and small Canon at the time. Twelve years on, Ola has taken the hobby and built it into her full-time job. Shooting with both film and digital, today she stays busy spearheading photography workshops, leading photo-walks around the UAE and has exhibited everywhere from inner Mongolia to Oman.

Amira Asad: Your photos can be very intimate, spacialy. You often navigate space thats are considerably conservative, such as the medina in Saudi Arabia and Nizwa souq in Oman. How do you get this sort of access and make people feel comfortable?

Ola Allouz: It’s important to just be yourself and not to be stressed. A lot of people feel nervous about photographing people in the streets, but for me if someone says no, I don’t shoot that person. If I’m spatially close to a person, I’ll smile and try to talk to them first. I remember in 2007 there was an Emirati woman who was selling some stuff in Heritage Village and when she saw my camera, she was upset. I put it to the side, talked to her and she ended up inviting my sister and I for tea. You have to build a connection with a person if you want to take their pictures – even if you don’t take their picture. You have to build that impression that it’s not about taking the photo and go. When we left she ended up asking me to take her photo.

AA: Emiratis are the subjects of a lot of your photos, as well as capturing everyday life in the UAE. What is your response to UAE transplants who claim that there is no “real culture” here?

OA: I think people who say this are not interested in knowing the truth or history here. There are still a lot of older places and areas in Dubai, and if they try harder they will find them. Go to the Al Ras area in Deira or take a water taxi ride. I have photography walks and with them I have a lot of activities to help educate them. Whenever I choose a location, I keep in mind that many of these people are new to Dubai so I try not to make it just about photography and educate them in the process.

AA: Can you tell me a little more about the photo walks you organize?

OA: It started with an account I made on Instagram called FotoUAE. I’d been going on other photo walks here before, but I had ideas I couldn’t pursue with other groups because I wasn’t the one guiding. We mostly focus on visiting areas in old Dubai, like Al Ras. We’ve been to the heart of Sharjah and the old areas in Fujairah. When I started my walks, I noticed a lot of Emiratis and Arabs coming, not only foreigners. I was happy to see a lot of abayas. In 2015 and 2016 when I’d join other walks with a friend, we’d be the only two abayas on those walks.

AA: What’s an upcoming project you are working on?

OA: I’ve been working on a project about group iftars in Ramadan, which I’ve documented for two years. I look for iftars happening in public spaces, parking lots in Dubai and Sharjah. I went to Bahrain for two days just to capture iftar photos. For me it’s not easy to go to mosques because I cant enter the mens area, thought sometimes I’ll take photos through the window. Men have tried to tell me I could come inside before but I’ve always said no out of respect for the space.

AA: One of my favorite parts about being a writer is sometimes forming these fast, intense connections with the people I interview. Have you made any memorable connections with people you’ve photographed?

OA: Sometimes when I look at the photo I took, I feel like person in the image is a friend. There’s just this connection. I’ve taken photos in Dubai and seen the same person again and I’ll approach them and say hi. There’s an Emirati guy I saw in Deira who was taking the water taxi and I kept taking pictures of him. He was wearing this red, and not any red, ghutra. Maybe eight months later I saw him in the same area so I went to say hi, he was waiting for a water taxi so I asked if he needed help – he didn’t know me but because he was in my photos I knew him. It made it easier for me to talk to him because I built that connection.

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