INTERVIEW BY PETER DRENNAN Photographs by Rabee Younes
His Excellency Sheikh Sultan Bin Ahmed Al Qasimi juggles many jobs. Husband. Father of four. Humanitarian ambassador of The Big Heart Foundation. Chairman of Tilal Properties and of Arada Developments. Deputy Chairman of the Sharjah Oil Council. Chairman of Sharjah Media Council under which sits the Sharjah Government Media Bureau, which organises the acclaimed Xposure International Photography Festival in Sharjah, the starting point for our wide-ranging conversation.
Peter Drennan: The third edition of the Xposure International Photography Festival in November brought together some of the medium’s most celebrated craftspeople, including war photographer Sir Don McCullin, National Geographic’s Kathy Moran and Refik Anadol. What were the stand-out moments for you?
His Excellency Sheikh Sultan Bin Ahmed Al Qasimi: Xposure is something everyone can relate to and participate in because it’s visual, you’re not just sitting and listening to somebody talk about something. Or if you are, you’re doing it with images, which is a very easy way to assimilate information. Having different kinds of photographers—landscape, portrait, war photographers, different sub-sectors of photography—helps people to choose what they want. It gives the event a more general feeling, texture and a lot of topics to talk about. We talked about the environment last year, for example, and each photographer could bring something to that. Whichever subject we address, photography in every field can relate to it.
Photojournalist David Burnett surprised the audience by showing photos of his family. His message: After 50 years of documenting revolutions and breaking news, he had not captured precious moments in his own life. Photography, he said, is about memory. What did you make of that?
I do feel that. Ever since people started taking pictures and photography was in the hands of everyone, most of the moments you remember are captured in photos. Your memory is now linked to the pictures you have taken. It’s not like in the past where you have different memories of different moments in your life. Now you have memories framed by those pictures and that helps to remind you of things. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing! What David talked about was interesting, especially since he was showing pictures of his own family. He said that when he went out to take pictures of events, he didn’t ask the subjects’ names, but that he wished he had.
It humanises the people you’re capturing.
Exactly. Sometimes you take the perfect picture, but sometimes you think, “I wish I had done it another way, or took more information so that I can better relate to it or connect it to people.” So yes, I liked it, it was like a window into his life.
When did you first get interested in photography?
When I was younger I used to carry a camera with me everywhere, but I was just doing it for fun, I wasn’t really thinking about the art of photography. I wasn’t even thinking how to take the pictures, I just liked something and took a picture of it.
Tell me about an image that has affected you.
A lot have. I travel a lot and I like taking pictures of landscapes. I always look at landscape pictures and I can think of several that people have taken which are different to what you or I might take. You might go to a place and see everyone standing in one place taking pictures and then there’s this one photographer in another place taking a different view and his picture turns out to be better. There was a photo by a Mexican photographer, Sergio Tapiro Velasco, of a volcano erupting, with lightning in the smoke above. Everybody said it was Photoshopped but he said it was just one click. Some images make you think about how to take pictures.
At Xposure you talked about Mustafa Hassouna’s iconic image of the shirtless Palestinian protester in Gaza. It was an incredible photo and it went viral.
Yes, I used that image because it’s strong and it has meaning. At the same time, I was talking about it because it spread. We wanted to know why it had spread that fast. Was it because of the message it carried or because of the composition? We started talking about why a picture would become so popular.
Kathy Moran said photography’s special power comes from its universality. Not everyone can paint or sculpt, but most people can take a photograph. With photographs, you don’t need words because images tell the story. Is that universality at the heart of its appeal?
Photography, like I said, appeals to the eyes, whether it’s a good picture or a bad one. Talking to somebody, you might not get all the information. Sight and smell are the closest to memories. Everybody can take pictures, but there are certain pictures that stick in the mind. At the beginning when not everybody could take pictures, every picture was important and you would keep them all. Even for us, when we research Sharjah, we always look at the old pictures. We don’t care if it’s good or bad but if it’s in the 1950s or the 1960s, it’s a picture we have to have. Now it’s more about quality and the art of the picture than just archiving them. It’s getting easier to take pictures but it’s getting harder to get noticed with them.
In an age when we are all photographers, are you surprised at the success of Xposure?
We did expect it to be a good event but we didn’t expect the huge numbers of people wanting more. I knew that a lot of people in the UAE love photography, whether they’re into photography as an art or they just like to take pictures for Instagram. I knew that people would come to the event, but I didn’t think so many would sit and listen to photographers talk about their experiences, their photos, the different equipment they used. In the first year, I thought that people would come just to see the photos, to enjoy it as an exhibition or a place to interact with other photographers, but I was surprised by the number who came to attend the talks and to talk directly with their photography heroes. The workshops are full long before the opening day.
What have you learnt at the workshops?
I have learnt a lot from the photographers. Actually, I learnt a lot last year when I was sitting with David Doubilet (a celebrated underwater photographer known primarily for his work with National Geographic). He asked me how I took pictures, I told him that I use the manual settings and I experiment. He said, “Why do you use manual? We don’t do that. I use the aperture settings.” So I said that’s clever, you don’t need to do all the work if the camera can do part of it for you. You only use manual if you need to use manual, you only use AV if you need to use it. You only use every single setting if you need to. So yes, I did learn something new last year. Every year interacting with the photographers gives me new ideas, new things I can implement.
Last November, you opened a 100-bed hospital for the Rohingya at the world’s largest refugee camp in Kutupalong, Bangladesh. Why were you compelled to be part of this project?
First of all, I’m committed because I’m an ambassador of The Big Heart Foundation. On a personal level I always thought that it was something I would love to do, so when the opportunity came to work with the Foundation, I didn’t want to accept that and then sit and wait for an event to happen to do it. This was also an opportunity for me to shed light on something like that and to use my position to talk about it. Since I’m in media, I can influence more people.
You met personally with families living in the camp and heard their stories. What struck you most about that visit?
Beyond the hospital itself, we spoke to some of the refugees in the camp. It was interesting. We would ask them what was missing from the camp. While many said they had the basic things they needed, a hospital was one of the things they wanted. There are several hospitals in the camp but not in this area and that was important for them, especially for emergencies, when you need to get to a hospital now.
You have been to other camps, Zaatari in Jordan for example. How was this visit different?
In Bangladesh, it was very scattered. People are everywhere in basic camps. People do interact, but mostly with their own families and their close neighbours, maybe because of the geography of the area. Zaatari is a huge camp, it’s like a city. People are interacting. They have a business area—they call it the “Champs-Élysées”—where they buy and sell and get to know one another. So it was full of life, even though it’s a camp. People adapt to their situation, no matter how bad it is, and they learn to survive.
You also worked with Malala Yousafzai to open a school for girls in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. That must be an incredible project to be part of.
It is. It’s also a project by The Big Heart Foundation. I was just there to do their work and yes, it was interesting meeting her, listening to her story and contributing to that project. She gets a lot of exposure but when you meet her in person she’s very humble.
What is the proudest moment in your career?
Sharjah Government Media Bureau is one of the things that I’m most proud of having established. Mainly because we started it from scratch. When I was working with the tourism board, we started thinking about how to talk about Sharjah, to help people understand what Sharjah is, and that’s when we decided to establish a media centre. We started from a small office with five people working for us and I think most of them are still there. We started hiring from the universities directly, without any prior experience. It taught us you don’t have to follow everyone else, you can do something by yourself.
How challenging is it to balance the demands of a portfolio like yours with a family life?
If you have the right team working for you then it doesn’t get harder—you only have to plan strategies and sometimes get into details, but you don’t have to be there 24 hours. For example, with Xposure last year and the International Government Communication Forum as well, I used to get into the little details: who’s coming and where are they staying, who’s going to the airport to pick them up, what are they talking about, what are the subjects that we are going to consider, how’s the design of the place, budgets, everything. Last year, I didn’t get into any of that. You have a team that you trust and they know exactly what you want or what His Highness wants. That’s how it’s supposed to be. You just have to trust the people who work with you and take it from there.
Every year you travel with a group of friends. The trips are typically challenging, climbing Kilimanjaro, for example. Is it always about testing your physical limits and mental stamina?
Challenging ourselves and doing something that you might never do otherwise. Sometimes doing something challenging and seeing if you can do it or not helps you in other ways too, you learn something. At the time you say “I’ll never do this again,” but a year later you say “I would love to go back and do the same.” At that moment, no, it’s very hard. When you look back at the pictures you think “this is when this happened, this is when that happened.”
Some years ago you said your greatest challenge was to change the popular perception of Sharjah. Is that perception changing?
I do think it’s changing. I think people who looked at Sharjah 10 years ago and again today would see a big, big change, and that big change happened because of all the work that the team did during those past 10 years, whether it’s government communication or the workshops that we do or our personal relationship with heads of government here in Sharjah. I think you see a lot of openness now. I don’t know if it’s mostly us or it’s also partly because of new technology and social media. Social media made people understand that if you don’t talk about it, someone else will. Like we said, everybody is a journalist, everybody has a camera and they can take pictures and say something that you don’t want to say, so it’s better for you to say it than to wait for someone else to say it their way. This is the message that we try to bring to all we talk to. We make them realise that the more you are open to the public and to the media, the more they are accepting.
How does Sharjah differ now from the emirate you grew up in?
For me, it was nice growing up in Sharjah. You got to see different generations. Things have changed, some for the better and some for the worse. I think the interaction between people is less now than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. Now, they’re interacting through devices. They have more friends on devices than they have in real life. But Sharjah is still different than the other emirates. Sharjah is very, very social, and the vision of His Highness is to keep it that way. We try to put families in the same area, we try to have your neighbour be someone close to you, someone you can trust.
Our connection with the Ruler himself is still open. On certain days of the year, you can just go and see him, shake his hand and sit in his majlis. For me, Sharjah has been the best place to grow up in because of that, because of the people and because of the interaction we have here. When I remember friends from school, from work or from different parts of my life, they’re still there and I still communicate with a lot of them. The connection is always there. I think the connection in Sharjah is the best thing about it.