My business in Chicago was doing pretty well. Things were expanding organically at a good pace and I was certainly not short on travel and portfolio ideas. Many of my Chicago-based architectural clients were setting up shop in Dubai. With the world’s latest and greatest buildings under construction and a large expanse of desert, there were seemingly no bounds or lack of vision or funding.
My client Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was on the forefront of development in the Emirates. They were constructing the tallest building in the world, later to be known as the Burj Khalifa. I had several other clients with large-scale projects underway and wanted to connect with them on site and pitch shooting their ventures both in a documentary style while under development, as well as upon completion.
To say it was hot in the desert would be an obvious understatement. The sun felt like a blowtorch singeing my skin.
Carrying equipment in the heat exacerbated the sensation and I was unsure if my compact flash cards would survive inside the camera. It was extremely uncomfortable to be outside even for short periods at a time. Furthermore, the city had a haze over it at all times, which made getting a clear shot difficult at best.
I felt in some ways deserted by the desert.
I couldn’t quite find what I was looking for and the shooting prospects were a lot less than I anticipated. The interiors lacked integrity or a clear vision and it felt like the city was trying to find its voice in design, which was largely derivative.
The most rewarding part of the trip was hanging out in a British and South African expat community. I stayed at a beautiful, boutiquey, Philippe Starck-esque styled guesthouse and got the lowdown on what it is like to live and work in Dubai as an expat.
I was surprised at how intimidating the laws were for women. If you went in for a medical physical and it turned out you were pregnant and unmarried, you’d go to jail. Expat women in long-term relationships but not married were so afraid of getting pregnant that they abstained from sex.
Most were there in hopes of a big payout, hedging their bets in the financial industry, with the prospects of that happening seemingly further away each day. I met an Englishman in finance who was dead broke, but went to the extremes of borrowing his friend’s Porsche for dates and business meetings and pretending to live in an upscale hotel to foster the illusion of wealth.
Upon returning home, I met again with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in the Chicago office and was hired to shoot a permanent installation for an exhibition titled “At The Top,” located on the top-floor viewing deck of the Burj Khalifa.
In the end, I was happy with the documentary shots I had created and the ability to contribute to the viewing deck gallery, without having to return to the UAE desert. I felt like the opportunity and energy around new business was waning and it was time to turn a new leaf in terms of travel and location shooting.
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