All images are copyrighted Yumna Al-Arashi, and are being used with permission.
Access isn’t always a guarantee when it comes to documentary projects. For documentary photographer Yumna Al-Arashi, she had to take a roundabout way to get into the labor camps in the United Arab Emirates where migrant workers toiled away day after day. The stark divide between their plight and the rest of society there had a substantial impact on Al-Arashi, and with her camera, she set out to tell their story. Her project attracted VSCO’s attention, and with a grant from the company’s Artist Initiative, she took her project further by photographing the men in a studio setting in the same way she’d take on a fashion shoot.
Phoblographer: After getting access, what was it like being inside the labor camps in the early days of your project, and how did you adapt to that environment?
Yumna: I never truly got legitimate access to the camps, which is what made the project so risky. Me and my fixer had to avoid security, and quickly gain trust with the workers so they’d show us around and keep us at a low profile. Sometimes the workers would not want to speak with us, fearing that I was an undercover government official testing to see how they’d speak about their conditions. Mostly though, they were open to talking to me and telling me their stories, the stories of their current lives and their lives back home.
Phoblographer: How did you develop a rapport with the men working there?
Yumna: I owe all of that to my fixer. Not only was he a worker himself, but he spoke all the languages to help me communicate and gain the trust of the workers.
Phoblographer: One of your photographs is of six men standing in a wide open space. The image is in monochrome, but there are splotches of red paint on its surface. What’s going on there?
Yumna: These men were walking in the desert between camps looking for work. They’re some of the men left behind in the system, at a loss for work and the inability to go home. Contractors often take the passports of men arriving into the country, and once the job is done they’re forgotten about, and don’t have enough money to go home, and due to new laws, have no ability to find new work as their status is considered illegal. The red paint represents the deaths of the men that have been in their situations, either on the job, or at a loss for one.
Phoblographer: In the second installment of your project through the Artist Initiative, you’re looking to blend your documentary project with fashion photography. That is to say, you’ll photograph the laborers like fashion models. What was the impetus behind this decision, and what are you hoping to show?
Yumna: We actually already completed this installment, and are slowly releasing the images. The point was more so to photograph them in a portraiture style in a studio, the same way I’d photograph any of my other subjects. I found so much beauty in these men and wanted to capture this in an atmosphere away from their camps. In a country where fashion and art is praised, I felt this lent more attention to the individuals as real people, rather than the repetitive image of them as workers.
Phoblographer: Have you run into any obstacles in the course of working on this, and if you have, how did you get past them?
Yumna: Yes, absolutely. I’d encountered obstacles at almost every step of the process. From people not wanting to work with me due to the subject matter, the fear of not being allowed into the country, to the police questioning me for hours during my last visit. As far as overcoming my obstacles, I’ll just say: sometimes a little white lie, shooting on film to conceal anything that’d get you in trouble, and some sweet talking can go a really long way.
Phoblographer: How have you divvied your time between working on this project and your other professional obligations?
Yumna: This project has been a huge commitment of my time. I took a lot of time away from other projects to work on this and now that I’ve completed the photographic aspect of it, I’m putting together the final works. I try my best to take a little bit of time every day to complete this while I’m also working on other projects.
Phoblographer: Big projects like this one can be formative experiences. What have you learned about yourself as a photographer in the process?
Yumna: I’ve learned so much in this process. I’ve learned that timing is everything. Patience is necessary. True commitment yields results.
Phoblographer: If you could give one piece of advice to someone looking to start a documentary photo project, what would that piece of advice be?
Yumna: Do your research! I think that’s the most important piece of advice for a any documentary project!
For more of Yumna’s work, check out her website.