I’ll be Your Mirror: An Interview with Annie Sakkab – Shea Chang

I first met Annie Sakkab while working with her on the Projections – Ghosts of Dubai exhibition at Toronto Image Works Gallery in 2012. Annie was one of the first relevant female documentary photographers to show at Toronto Image Works Gallery in its 25 years of exhibitions. Our collaboration in that space signified an important shift in an institution whose role had previously contributed to a male-dominated documentary photographic community. Through assisting with editing her images and coordinating her show, I had the opportunity to see Annie’s uniquely humble, passionate and adept approach to documentary photography first hand. Even though we had many discussions about that specific project, I never had the chance to delve deeper into discussing her practice or experiences in Dubai, so I welcomed the chance to interview her here.

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Annie Sakkab, ProjectionsGhosts of Dubai’s Boom, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.

Shea Chang: Describe the beginning of your career as a documentarian/ photographer.

Annie Sakkab: I feel that I’ve always been a ‘documentarian,’ if you will, ever since my brother got me my first camera for my 16th birthday, and before that, an artist and painter. I’ve always wanted to record what’s around me, and always wanted to remember the things I’ve seen or done. So, over the years, I’ve taken rolls and rolls of photos. They weren’t necessarily great, in fact far from it, but they were pictures that I was happy with and enjoyed looking at. Anyway, I’ve never really thought of photography as a ‘documentary’ practice. I’ve always thought of it as a form of art. Until 2008, when a huge photo festival was taking place in Dubai, where I was living at the time, and where I decided to take a documentary workshop with photographer Jack Picone.

That workshop opened my eyes and was a turning point for me. I decided then that this was what I wanted to do. Jack Picone was an amazing teacher, I learned so much from him. It was for that workshop that I started my project Projections, a body of work that raises awareness about the state of the migrant construction laborers in the United Arab Emirates, and for the first time I tasted the pleasure of taking pictures of real and important issues.

For the next two years I decided to put my camera away and just read tons of photography magazines both technical and theoretical. I couldn’t just go out and start to shoot before really understanding what it takes to be a documentary photographer. So when I moved to Toronto later in 2008, it was the perfect opportunity for me to change my career. I did loads of workshops and seminars, I was trying to absorb as much as possible before I even venture out and start doing my own projects.

Another turning point for me was when I did my second documentary workshop with photographer Donald Webber in 2009. I enjoyed every bit of it and realized that this was my passion – to tell stories that matter to me, and bring awareness to issues that people may not know about. I was heavily influenced by Don’s journey and at that point, I decided that I wanted to return to Dubai and continue my project with the laborers. From there on, I started thinking seriously about the type of projects I wanted to work on, but at the same time, not forgetting that I’m still learning, and so my primary focus since then has been developing myself as a documentary photographer and at the same time enjoying the process of building my portfolio.

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Annie Sakkab, ProjectionsGhosts of Dubai’s Boom, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

SC: What influenced your decision to make Toronto your place of practice?

AS: Canada has always been a place to immigrate to in times of economic instability for anyone living the Middle East. For me, apart from wanting to be in a place where I can grow as an individual, I also wanted a place to grow as an artist, and Canada gives you that platform to grow and interact.

SC: Recently, you co-curated a feature exhibition for Scotiabank CONTACT photography festival Dislocations, which featured several Canadian artists’ perspectives on cultural dislocation. What are your personal perspectives on and approaches to these issues?

AS: Cultural dislocation can mean a lot of things. It can directly relate to moving from one place to another, crossing borders. It can include what a person considers to be a home and how that relates to migrating and the things taken or left behind. These kinds of cultural dislocation were expressed by most artists who exhibited in Dislocations. But cultural dislocation can also mean when someone’s environment changes so dramatically that a person can become culturally dislocated without moving at all. If you take the example of what’s happening now in the Middle East, the political and cultural climate is changing so rapidly in such a short time that people are already feeling the effect of cultural dislocation in their own homeland.

Cultural dislocation can thus become more about how we feel being grounded in one place over the other, and how we assert our identity, beliefs, gender and sexuality and define our cultural, physical and personal borders. This is an issue that I personally feel attached to and certainly would like to explore more, whether it means I have to go back and live in the Middle East, I’m not sure, but I will certainly try and do that.

SC: What are your thoughts about the way the Middle East is perceived by westerners? What role do you see visual culture having in the way we see ourselves, and how others see us?

AS: Well, answering how westerners see the Middle East is such a broad and complicated question, it would take a lot more to answer. But in any case, it depends really on how they see the region in terms of religion, society or politics. Unfortunately most people consider ‘Arabic’ to be ‘Islamic’ and it’s not, because the Middle East is made up of all sorts of beliefs. Second, most don’t even know that the Middle East is quite a vast region – it encompasses the Persian Gulf, part of Asia and Egypt – so the way Iran is perceived for example is completely different from the way Palestinians or Egyptians are perceived. In any case, there is a common denominator here, and that is Arabs and Middle Easterners in general are always misrepresented in the media. And of course, visual culture is an important practice to bring awareness to the diversity and complexity of that region culturally and politically. Nowadays though, with the web, hopefully that perception is changing and more and more artists and filmmakers are able to share their work with the world and really change the way westerners perceive that part of the world.

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Annie Sakkab, ProjectionsGhosts of Dubai’s Boom, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

SC: How did you find the social and artistic climate there compared to Canada?

AS: Toronto has been pivotal in shaping my photographic approach and self-expression. I’m growing and learning every day and I’m constantly involved in dialogue with other artists and photographers. This is what I feel I would miss if I was back in the Middle East. The simple fact that I have access to amazing photographers who I can share ideas with and who can review my portfolio is quite amazing. And to be given the opportunity to exhibit my work and freely share the issues I care about is something that I cannot take lightly.

SC: While living in the socio-political climate of the Middle East, what was your experience of being a female documentary photographer?

AS: Well it’s not easy. Self-expression and individuality are very hard to realize. Women are constantly striving to have their voices heard, and in a broader sense, self-expression for everyone is an everyday struggle. With the current political events it’s quite amazing and very encouraging to see how women are getting more and more involved and are not afraid to fight back and speak out. And even though there is some sort of newfound free expression since the start of the revolution, it’s no way near where it should be.

Going back to my laborers project, at the time, a photography magazine based in Lebanon tried to pick up my work and publish it. But when they realized what the project was really about and knowing that this magazine is distributed in the UAE, they decided to drop it and sent a pathetic letter of apology. This is just a simple example of what it means to be a photographer in places like Dubai specifically and in the Middle East generally, let alone being a female photographer.

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Annie Sakkab, ProjectionsGhosts of Dubai’s Boom, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

SC: The worker camps are comprised of only men. When you came into the camps with your videographer Celia Peterson, did you experience challenging attitudes about being there as women?

AS: When I went the first time in 2008, yes. Big time. First of all, I knew I could not go alone, and second, I couldn’t speak their language, so it was very important to go with a male friend who was able to communicate with the laborers. To find the right camp was not easy either. My first point was to find someone to talk to. A friend at the time suggested that I go hang out at the mosque where the laborers pray and wash at 4am. So off I went and ended up talking to this one guy who suggested I meet him back at 7am to take me to one of the camps.

The first camp he took me to, I literally had to run for my life. I don’t think the guys there had seen a woman in years and suddenly I found myself surrounded by hundreds of workers. The second one was much better, I ended up talking to the manager and he agreed to let me photograph. At first everyone was perplexed as to why a woman was in the camp, and second why was I taking pictures of them and why was it important for me to take those pictures. It took a couple of days to feel comfortable and after talking and interacting with the laborers, I was able to move freely and take pictures from 5am to 6pm every day. The laborers had the opportunity to not only express their harsh realities to an outsider but also had the opportunity to have their situation documented and recorded.

The second time I went with videographer Celia Peterson in 2010. To my surprise, the remaining 35 workers recognized me and I felt at home, bearing in mind the camp used to be a home for 6000 workers. So I was able to sit and chat to everyone, talk about their journey and what has happened to them in the past two years. It was a very critical time for everyone then as Dubai was going through an economic depression, which impacted the lives of the laborers tremendously.

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Annie Sakkab, ProjectionsGhosts of Dubai’s Boom, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

SC: What drew you towards your involvement with the worker camps in Dubai?

AS: This is a difficult question to answer. I get a lump in my throat every time I think about it. It goes back to the first day I arrived in Dubai back in 2001. I was in the car with my relatives going back to their house, when I suddenly saw a metal bus, with no windows, in probably 50-degree heat, and only eyes peeking out of tiny square openings. I was transfixed looking at their eyes, all I could see was sadness and desperation peeking through, looking back at me. It was like a slow-motion movie, my eyes were fixed on them and theirs on mine, and for few seconds, emotions of anger, confusion and disbelief whirled through my mind and heart. I just couldn’t believe that these humans were being treated like animals, deprived of basic human rights, freedom and dignity.

Luckily, with the involvement of few human rights organizations, and after years of campaigning, workers are now able to go to work on air conditioned buses. Not to say that this is enough: normally a construction company will have one, maximum two buses per camp, where thousands of laborers have to wait for hours starting as early as 3am for the one bus to go back and forth to transport them to work. At least this was how it was when I was there. Also, after living in Dubai for many years I realized this is an important issue requiring awareness. Throughout the eight years that I lived there, I felt constantly angry at how the construction companies (with the help of the government) were able to get away with modern-day slavery, discrimination and ill treatment of thousands of laborers coming in and out of the country on a daily basis. So when the opportunity came to work on a documentary project, naturally this was my first choice.

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Annie Sakkab, ProjectionsGhosts of Dubai’s Boom, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.

SC: At what point in your career did you decide to focus on human rights, social and identity issues? Did you find your experience in Dubai and the Projections – Ghosts of Dubai project pivotal to your practice?

AS: Projections was a project where I felt I had something important to say and it was the first one where I actively and publicly went out and did something about an issue I feel passionate about. But my focus on human rights, migration and identity issues comes from a background as an artist born and raised in Jordan with Palestinian roots. I grew up in an environment where stories of migration and dislocation are part of my family’s history and an everyday struggle towards finding our identity as Palestinians living at a home away from home. As an art student in the UK in the early nineties, I was struggling to assert my identity as an Arab student living in the UK, and my feelings then of cultural and political dislocation were apparent in all my work that I developed over the course of my art education.

Right after the UK though, I went back home and of course work and career got in the way. Even though I had stopped painting, my longing to get back into art never really went away. This is when I did Projections, and around that time too I went through a personal tragedy. I felt that I needed to get back into something that would give some sort of meaning to my life and decided then to drop my design practice and focus on issues that were important to me. From that aspect, I would say Projections was a project that was important in getting me back on course again, and so photography became another medium to express myself and a natural development for my art practice from painting to photography.

SC: In Projections, what I found most unique about your approach to documentation was that you documented the subjects witnessing themselves along with their old friends, their situation, and time that had passed. Is that reflection/projection approach something that you felt was imperative to that specific project, or is that something that you carry through in other work?

AS: The idea of projections and self-reflection came quite naturally to this project. When I went back to the camp in 2010, I was expecting to see all of the 6000 laborers. I went back specifically to project their images and to show them what I did two years prior. But when I realized the camp was being demolished and only 35 men were left, I immediately decided that this was a much bigger project. It became more about loss and memory, a reflection of a life they’d once had, about a falling economy that was built on the backbone of these fragile men whose lives did not matter to anyone. They were ghosts, forgotten men who came and left unnoticed.

For us as viewers, and for me as an artist, it created an interesting narrative around the art of ‘looking.’ These images question what we consider home and acknowledge our own privileged background and how we would feel if we were situated in their environment. We are able to ‘look’ and take photos but also are able to leave. For the workers, they are looking at us and acknowledge that privilege that we have, and at the same time, looking at photos of people that are looking at them who are not there anymore. I think that would be a challenging but interesting concept to follow through in other future projects.

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Annie Sakkab, ProjectionsGhosts of Dubai’s Boom, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

Annie Sakkab is a documentary photographer who lives in Toronto. Born in Jordan, she has worked and resided in London, Rome, Dubai and Amman. Her documentary practice investigates socio-cultural issues and questions of identity, and seeks to raise awareness on experiences of exile, uprooting, and displacement among marginalized groups. An honours graduate in Fine Art and Graphic Design, Sakkab’s photographs have been exhibited in Canada as well as abroad. Her work Non-spaces (1993) is part of the collection of the National Gallery in Amman, Jordan. Her recent series, Projections –  Ghosts of Dubai’s Boom  (2010), was exhibited in a featured group exhibition in the 2013 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto, Ontario. www.anniesakkab.com

Shea Chang is a Toronto based artist/ designer and curator. Born in Vancouver, she studied fine art at Langara College and completed her undergraduate studies in illustration at Ontario College of Art and Design University. Her editorial illustrations have appeared in numerous publications in North America and her illustrated children’s book Tarentelle was a finalist in the 2011 Governor Generals Awards. She now maintains a cross-disciplinary creative practice through illustration commissions and exhibiting personal work while serving as curator at Toronto Image Works Gallery and instructor at OCAD University. Shea’s work can be found on her website: www.sheachang.com