Street Photography in the Middle East: Some Observations

A few years back in 2010, I was asked to write an article on Street Photography in the Middle East. After recently reading a 15 August 2016 article entitled "UAE tourists warned not to photograph peopleI decided to re-visit and update my original article, as surely times must’ve changed for the better over the past 6 years? After some further investigations, herewith the 2016 update.

With wide ranging clampdowns on the freedoms of Street Photographers throughout many parts of the world at the time, the intention if the original article was to provide fellow street photographers with some informative guidelines to avoid legal problems when out photographing in the Middle East. At the time I didn’t quote and analyse any official, legal facts on general Middle Eastern policies and laws on Street Photography, but purely shared some of my own experiences and observations that would hopefully help to keep photographers out of unwanted trouble with the law.

Damascus, Syria

Damascus, Syria

It is important to understand that Middle Eastern laws are not generally as clearly defined in “black and white”, as (by example) in the west. New laws, regulations or decrees can seemingly be issued overnight in response to a specific undesirable incident. All shades of grey are usually considered in the implementation of the law, both positive and negative, hence it is advisable to ALWAYS act in such a way that you can be ignored. Overstepping this guideline can result in unpleasant circumstances, such as jail, court, fines and confiscation of your equipment, in that order.

There was a 2010 case in Abu Dhabi (U.A.E.) where a photographer met with exactly such fate when he was arrested for taking photographs of a sunset over a military harbour. If finding yourself in such an unfortunate position, it is always to your benefit to refrain from EVER responding in an agressive or confrontational way. A smile and a friendly, open-minded discussion about the matter can prevent a lot of problems. NEVER swear at, or insult anybody that may be involved, whether an official or just a member of the public. More recently in 2014, a simmilar incedent happened again when another tourist (article), landed himself in prison for a few weeks before being released with a minimum fine of approximately U$140. No image is worth the amount of trouble it can bring upon you. Though I don’t know the particular details surrounding the 2010 case, I’m tempted to think that the photographer probably did not act sensibly in trying to resolve the matter in an amicable way.

The Dhow Packers (Dubai UAE)

The Dhow Packers (Dubai UAE)

A recently updated UK Government Travel Advisory for the UAE supports advice to avoid sensitive government buildings and military installations, as well as advising against photographing people, and more specifically, woman. A general, sensible rule of thumb is to avoid shooting woman without permission, as their privacy is highly respected in Middle Eastern society and can be easily offended. I tend to ignore this advice myself, instead relying on my insticts and circumstancial knowledge honed over many years in the Middle East. Even then, to err on the side of caution, I'd rarely photograph woman in a way that they can be recognised. Some of the more fundamental Muslims may also object to being photographed due to their strong belief that Islam prohibits any captured images of the human being. Despite being just general courtesy anywhere in the world, if anybody objects, stop shooting and move on. At the risk of restating the obvious, any government building, military installations, soldiers, police or any politically sensitive events such as protests are best avoided completely.

The Invisibles (Doha, Qatar)

The Invisibles (Doha, Qatar)

Despite the negative press and warnings, my own experience is that some of the more liberal and open Middle Eastern societies, such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, generally invite and welcome tourism and it feels unlikely that street photography will attract any real problems if adhering to the “rules” and social sensibilities. Cairo can feel unsafe in some areas, but mostly as a result of mild aggression from some men rather than official policies.

From experience, the more “fundamental” countries, such as Saudi Arabia (and to a lesser extent, Kuwait) are very unfriendly towards photographers and my personal advice would be to abstain unless you are a journalist with all the right credentials, permits and back-up from the right places when things do go wrong. Attitutedes haven't changed much over the past few years. At the time of writing the original 2010 article, I packed the latest iPhone 4, which, compared to the current smartphone cameras out there, packed a rather pathetic image quality. With high quality smartphone cameras now in everybody’s pockets, a February 2015 Saudi Gazette article entitled “The downside of street photography in Saudi Arabia” gets pretty much to the point about what all photographers need to understand about photography laws in Saudi Arabia, including its tenuous links to cybercrimes and the protection of woman.

Al Wakra (Qatar)

Al Wakra (Qatar)

Some of my own most memorable and rewarding street photography experiences in the Middle East were in Arab countries outside the Gulf, such as Syria (obviously before the current civil war) and Lebanon. As with many Middle Eastern countries, the most intriguing places for street photography are usually the old, historic parts of cities. Tourists are generally welcomed in such areas, locals are friendly and hospitable, and one is unlikely to run into any uncomfortable situations. The same may not be true when inadvertently venturing off into other areas and you are best advised to do some research before doing so. All of these countries are highly sensitive when it comes to protecting their military and government installations, and as a visitor, it may not be obvious where such sensitive facilities are located. Even worse, you may inadvertently find yourself in an area occupied by an extremist group that may not be in any mood to respond positively to any sensible reasoning.

A Fleeting Glimpse (Al Wakra, Qatar)

A Fleeting Glimpse (Al Wakra, Qatar)

The closest I’ve come to some real trouble was during a business trip to a coastal town called Latakia, in the north of Syria. We were out looking at a beach site for potential development when a wonderful, old Russian military vehicle attracted my attention. In a moment of complete lapse of good judgement, I took a quick snap of it. Suddenly, I was confronted by a number of agitated men who all turned out to be off-duty soldiers ready for some action. I had forgotten that behind some soil embankments behind the vehicle was an entire heavy artillery anti-aircraft installation. At the same time, my business partner was confronted further away and his camera confiscated. The confusion was intense as all shouting was in Arabic, but fortunately one of our entourage (with links to a member of parliament) quickly intervened and managed to neutralise the situation. The rediculous thing about this experience was that moments later, my partner, his camera now returned, clambered up one of the steep embankments only to face a bank of manned anti-aircraft guns, attracting another round of aggressive shouting. It pays to be sensible and aware of your surroundings at all times.

The Middle East contains a wealth of really interesting photography opportunities, unique experiences and wonderfully warm people, which can be a whole article on its own. The key to unlocking all of this potential is to always remain sensitive towards local social, religious and political sensibilities. There is however also a general benefit for photographers in the sense that local legal systems are highly efficient in crime prevention. Petty crime is virtually unheard of in most Middle Eastern societies. Photographers can be sensibly safe in the knowledge that it is unlikely that they will be robbed or assaulted for their equipment. This is true even in some of the most decrepit areas of cities, in the dead of night.

This advice is perhaps much easier to understand if you’ve lived in the Middle East for a number of years and can therefore place it into a broader context of understanding, but for any photographer who wishes to visit, remember the most important rule – ALWAYS act in such a way that you can be ignored. You will be warmly welcomed, respected, and rewarded for doing just that.

-Michiel-