Photo Essay
5 April 2021

Precarious Existence

Mohamed Somji

The Magnum Foundation commissioned these images of Dubai residents hit hardest by the pandemic

Photo essay | Mohamed Somji | 5 April 2021

Last September, the Magnum Foundation commissioned me to produce a body of work that looked at the impact of the pandemic on Dubai’s population. I encountered a number of people across different nationalities and socio-economic classes who had been severely impacted by the situation.

It goes without saying that most of those adversely affected were already on the margins of society pre-Covid. The onset of the virus exacerbated their precarity. Since part of this project was going to be syndicated by the Washington Post, I was also mindful of showing a cross-section of Dubai’s population rather than just confining the story to the worst affected. Despite potentially being compelling, such imagery, devoid of context and nuance, reinforces the clichés associated with Dubai and the Gulf at large.

This photo essay presents the images that were not selected for the Washington Post piece. In subsequent contributions to this website over the coming months, I will present new images featuring the same people I had initially profiled, providing an update of their progress.

Deira Park

A public park in Deira became a refuge to a number of people who found themselves stranded when the city went into lockdown and air travel was halted. Many were on visit visas looking for work, with already limited resources. As these resources dwindled, they took to this park for shelter, and to earn money washing cars.

Davinder Singh

Davinder Singh lost his job at the height of the pandemic and turned to Bhangra, a popular dance form in his native Punjab. During lockdown and after, he would have regular meet-ups to record TikTok videos, offer Zoom classes, and, as the city opened up, started teaching Bhangra weekly in a dance studio.

Mohamed Somji is a photographer, curator and director of Gulf Photo Plus, the Gulf’s center for photography.
expression
Visual Hunger
Artist Sondos Azzam explores the underbelly of our gastronomic longings
culture
In Her Country
A series of portraits attempting to examine the relationship between a woman and her practice
culture
Spoons Out of Water
What is sacred to the dining table is reduced to its form and colour in this photo series by Sondos Azzam
culture
Fruit Scans
A photo series that challenges our perception of food by distorting the familiar
expression
Abandoned: When a Crisis Allows Nature Back In
Series of photographs documenting the impacts of continual human manipulation of the UAE's natural landscapes
culture
Roaming
How our urban environment shapes nature and our individual activities within these spaces
expression
Precarious Existence
The Magnum Foundation commissioned these images of Dubai residents hit hardest by the pandemic
culture
A Force To Reckon With: Manal Aldowayan
A conversation with one of Saudi Arabia's most significant artists about her evolving methodologies, the shifting significance of her work, and the thought behind her practice
culture
Architecture Meets Nature: While We Wait
A conversation with award-winning designers Yousef and Elias Anastas about their latest installation piece, While We Wait.
culture
Alserkal Avenue | The First Decade (Part 2)
A conversation with the creative visionaries and cultural entrepreneurs who have partnered with Alserkal Avenue over the past decade.
culture
Alserkal Avenue | The First Decade (Part 1)
A conversation with the creative visionaries and cultural entrepreneurs who have partnered with Alserkal Avenue over the past decade.
culture
Turning The Spotlight On UAE-Based Emerging Artists
A conversation with UAE Unlimited Executive Director Shobha Shamdsani
culture
Humanity as Refuge II
A conversation with Fabric(ated) Fractures curator Diana Campbell Betancourt and participating artists
culture
Humanity as Refuge I
A conversation with Fabric(ated) Fractures curator Diana Campbell Betancourt and participating artists
culture
Hassan Hajjaj: Carte Blanche
Fari Bradley in conversation with Hassan Hajjaj prior to his show at Paris’s Maison Européenne de la Photographie
culture
Soothing the Soothsayers
A conversation with arts writer Kevin Jones, curator of the Foretold Now summer programme
opinion
What is the role of the artist in society?
In the context of shifting definitions surrounding the role that the artist plays in nation building and place-making, Stephen Hobbs (Director of Johannesburg’s The Trinity Session) and Laila Binbrek (Coordinating Director of the National Pavilion UAE la Biennale di Venezia) unpack insights that reflect on current trends and possible futures.
expression
Alserkal Insider | Nightjar Coffee Roasters with Leon Surynt
We went to Nightjar for coffee but found Leon.
culture
Cultures in Conversation | Never Be Lost: Learn to Read the Stars
The cultural imagination of the celestial and how important systems of knowledge have been passed down through literature, memory, and oral narratives, continuing to hold meaning as we imagine space futures.
culture
Cultures in Conversation | Climate change in the classroom, living room, street and beyond
We live at the epicentre of an ecological catastrophe with unimaginable consequences.
expression
Concrete Closed Sessions: Danabelle Gutierrez and Charlie119
Filipino poet Danabelle Gutierrez collaborates with all-sibling band Charlie119 on an improvisational performance of poetry.
culture
Concrete Closed Sessions: Inam & Friends
A musical gathering around Qawwali music
culture
Safina Radio Project: Venice
From 6-8 May 2015, Alserkal created an itinerant space on the waterways of Venice
culture
"Under": A Video Documentation
Under is Hale Tenger’s first major public work in Dubai commissioned by Alserkal, guest curated by Mari Spirito of Protocinema
culture
While We Wait
An immersive installation by Bethlehem-based architects about the cultural claim over nature in Palestine
culture
Adapt to Survive: Notes from the Future
Curator Dr. Cliff Lauson and artist Youmna Chlala discuss the need of adaptation for survival
culture
Noria: Circulation Of People In Systems
Investigating how societies influence and mould us through systems of social politics, particularly in South Korea
culture
When the Band Comes Marching In
A work by Block Universe, supported by Alserkal, questions the power structures of the Venice Biennale
culture
Curriculum II
The follow-up to 2020's Introductory Curriculum for Reparations revealed
culture
Echo Holdings x Synthanatos
This edition of Echo Holdings, artist Isaac Sullivan’s context-shifting series of hybrid live sets and collaborative lecture performances, features vocals by independent researcher Dana Dawud and takes up a machinic sense of the psychoanalytic death drive. Here, an uncanny ambiguity between recorded and live speech, and a seemingly infinite field of images within images, produces an ecstatic blurring of presence and asynchrony as we negotiate a sonic palette alternately sparkling and ragged.
culture
Dayanita Singh in Conversation
Dayanita Singh discusses her body of work with curator Nada Raza
culture
Happy National Day
Happy National Day to our home, the UAE! Marking its Jubilee with 50 years of incredible achievements, and looking towards the next 50, we commissioned artist Bayan Dahdah to create a piece to mark this momentous occasion.
culture
Hair Mapping Body; Body Mapping Land
Hair Mapping Body; Body Mapping Land, an exhibition at ICD Brookfield Place from 10 November to 19 December 2021, Programmed by Alserkal Advisory
expression
Cultures in Conversation Blog
Reflections on Cultures in Conversation, a programme Commissioned by Expo2020 and programmed by Alserkal that consists of ten theme weeks of events and interventions that challenge the typical ‘talks’ format.
culture
Rewilding the Kitchen | Mastic Fizz by Salma Serry
Curator and artist Nahla Al Tabbaa converses with filmmaker and interdisciplinary foodways researcher Salma Serry about Mastic and its connections to UAE's history
style
Who Owns Yoga?
The warrior poses and sun salutations practiced in yoga studios around the world aren’t mentioned in any ancient yoga text. If that disconnect is a direct result of colonial influences, should we feel anxious about the authenticity of our modern yoga practices?
expression
The Tower by Wilf Speller
Compiled entirely out of footage appropriated from luxury real estate advertisements
culture
The Suffering Body
Part two of a curatorial narrative around the absent, suffering and technological body in contemporary works by GCC-based artists
expression
August Observations
Personal archives are fraught sites filled with memories and stories that drag us into the past. How does a writer respond to a letter he receives years after it is written? The result is an exploration of the gaps and elisions laid bare by forgotten memories and unspoken sentiments.
culture
Rewilding the Kitchen | Recipe No. 1 | Barri by Namliyeh
Curator and artist Nahla Al Tabbaa savours unlearning traditional food narratives with ethnobotanists Namliyeh
culture
The Wedding Project
An online / offline audiovisual trail of celebratory wedding music
culture
Cultures in Conversation at Expo 2020
Shaping New Thinking on Burning Issues - Programmed by Alserkal, commissioned by Expo 2020 Dubai, Cultures in Conversation challenges the conventional talks programme with artist interventions, immersive experiences, and new thinking on critical challenges
culture
On Emirati Women
An insight into the practices of Emirati women challenging notions within their professional fields
culture
The Alserkal Ecology Reader | Three Lectures on Architecture and Landscape in the Gulf
The Alserkal Ecology Reader is a compilation of three lectures held in 2018 and 2019 in relation to Civil Architecture’s residency at Alserkal Arts Foundation. These three lectures form a summary of on-going issues in the discipline and are intended to be a loose primer for architects in the Gulf.
culture
The Absent Body
Mapping disembodiment and performativity among GCC artists
expression
Three Conversation Pieces III
As India continues to find its bearings amidst COVID tumult, Aveek Sen explores how his own conversations have become at once more vital, yet oddly unfamiliar
culture
An Incomplete History of UAE Cinemas, Part 2
In Part 2 of her Incomplete History, Mezaina explores the rise of the multiplex model, film festivals, and the creation of alternative viewing spaces in the 2000s.
opinion
Design as a Wrapper
Designer and educator Zena Adhami explores the dangers of assumptions when designing for communities
expression
Three Conversation Pieces II
As India continues to find its bearings amidst COVID tumult, Aveek Sen explores how his own conversations have become at once more vital, yet oddly unfamiliar
opinion
Engaging Audiences
Muscat-based artist Majeda Alhinai considers how viewers become part of artworks
expression
Three Conversation Pieces I
As India continues to find its bearings amidst COVID tumult, Aveek Sen explores how his own conversations have become at once more vital, yet oddly unfamiliar
expression
Every day I wake up and...
A chronicle of daily conversations with artists Sandi Hilal
culture
Ways of Seeing
Palestinian artist Samia Halaby's approach to painting reveals her precise complex process, astute peripheral sensibilities, and why abstraction is the only movement left unexploited.
expression
An Introductory Curriculum for Reparations
An informational response by our community on the Black Lives Matter Movement
culture
The Africa Connection
As the global art world shines a light on Africa, Rebecca Anne Proctor writes on the growing dialogue between the Middle East and Africa
culture
Chaos, Love, and Enigmas
Malaysian artist Hasanul Isyraf Idris tackles his homeland’s multiculturalism through densely populated compositions that engage episodic memory, manifested by mythological through to Sci-Fi imagery
culture
The First Collectors
The role of the artist in relation to collecting is reconsidered
culture
Q&A: Hale Tenger And Mari Spirito
'Under' is Hale Tenger's first major commission in almost a decade, on view at The Yard in 2018
culture
Re-Examining The Role Of The Museum In Society
The 2017 CiMAM Annual Conference brought together museum professionals from around the world to re-evaluate the public functions of museums.
culture
Living Under The Net
Hale Tenger's 'Under' asks us what beliefs we accept without question and what our potential could be without such self-imposed restrictions.
culture
Slippery Modernism
A review of Building Bauhaus, Jean-Paul Najar Foundation’s tribute to the German art school’s centenary – with a regional twist.
culture
A Modern History
Nancy Lorenz’s exhibition 'Silver Moon' at Leila Heller Gallery presents a complex craft-meets-contemporary body of work that references Japanese tradition and Abstract Expressionism
culture
Is This Tomorrow?
Whitechapel Gallery curator Lydia Yee explores the works of five pairings of artists and architects
culture
The Making of a Ruin
A public art commission by the artist collective METASITU welcomed visitors to a post-apocalyptic ruin
culture
Hydrogen Helium
A sound installation first realised in a residency at Alserkal Arts Foundation
culture
The Fabric of Fractures
Exploring ‘sensitive spaces' that challenge ideas of nation, state, and territory
culture
Fabric(ated) Fractures
A collaboration with Samdani Art Foundation, challenging ideas of nation, state, and territory
culture
How Will We Return?
Dialogues between cultural practitioners & scholars from the Alserkal Arts Foundation network
culture
Collaborative Co-existence
A six-week series screenings, workshops, performances, and exhibitions around the theme of maintenance
culture
Connecting Syria to the World
Director Shireen Atassi expands on Atassi Foundation efforts
culture
Mohamed Melehi And The Casablanca Art School Archives
Works by major figure in postcolonial Moroccan art showcased at Concrete
opinion
Will the Fashion Industry Ever Truly Be Sustainable?
Founder of clothing brand One and Four speaks about sustainable practices
opinion
Why Institutions Now
What contemporary arts institutions might become in the future
expression
A Letter
Micro-fiction by Amrita Shergar to inaugurate alserkal.online's new showcase for creative writing
culture
Connecting Cultures Through Contemporary Art
Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi shares her thoughts on curating the second edition of the Lahore Biennale
culture
One-on-One with Nabila Abdel Nabi
A conversation with Nabila Abdel Nabi, Tate Modern's first MENA curator
culture
Mystical Warriors
The works in Reza Derakshani’s latest show at Leila Heller Gallery reveal the mystical connections between the artist’s time in Russia, and the forgotten tales and symbolism of his Iranian heritage
culture
Is This Tomorrow? Art vs Architecture
Architecture and arts writers experience the show from their own perspectives
style
At the Confluence of Art and Industry
Architect, designer, and writer Edwin Heathcote reflects on Concrete’s significance
culture
Poetry In Motion
Nujoom Al Ghanem fuses poetry and filmmaking for 'Passages', a reflection on the universal experience of displacement and alienation. The Emirati poet and director speaks to Melissa Gronlund about her solo presentation for the National Pavilion UAE at the 58th Venice Biennale
opinion
The Lighthouse Podcast x Vilma Jurkute
Alserkal's Executive Director Vilma Jurkute sat down with Hashem Montasser, creator of The Lighthouse Podcast, to share her experience in developing Alserkal Avenue as the leading arts & culture district in the region.
culture
Cape Town: A New Capital for Art
The eighth edition of Investec Cape Town Art Fair took place in February against an uneasy socio-economic backdrop — concluding in solid sales, and a newfound zeal for multiculturalism.
culture
METASITU in conversation with Ghada Yaiche
Artist collective in discussion with an architect on urban and ruin
expression
Drone Go Chasing Waterfalls
Thoughts on Stephanie Comilang’s film Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to Me, Paradise)
culture
An Incomplete History of UAE Cinemas, Part 1
In Part 1, Dubai-based writer Mezaina examines independent cinemas pre-multiplex days
culture
The Overseas Filipino Artist
Fresh insights on Filipino artists in Dubai through the lens of Sa Tahanan Collective founder
culture
An Artistic Meditation
On Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim’s practice, about the mind, its subconscious and space.