Thanks to Canon Middle East, I had the great pleasure of spending a day with ten media creatives from a range of publications and blogs. We were hosting a full day program centred around the theme of Urban Exploration. The video below is a great summary of the energy of the day.
Urban Exploration means different things to different people. We spoke about this at length during the class room session, particularly in terms of access and location. My definition is this… urban relates to the urban environment and culture and exploration relates to the intention of discovery and being open minded about the outcome. Together, Urban Exploration means hitting the streets in a rich and dynamic place to randomly wonder and tell stories with photographs.
Exploring is all about spending time on the street, either on foot or on a bike. Strap on a backpack and hit the road. I’m a big fan of fstop gear bags for three reasons; they’re super comfy, they’re not immediately recognisable as photo gear bags (thereby allowing you to blend into a crowd) and they provide easy access to kit. Trying to stay unnoticed is key. Depending on where you are in the world, that could mean looking like a local or a tourist. Ditch the tripod, travel light and keep your camera in your pack (lens mounted) until you really need it. Walking around with your camera around your neck would be a definite no no and simply draw attention to yourself.
Beat sunrise and shoot well beyond midnight. Remember the unexpected stories come from the out-of-the-ordinary. Every city bustles with energy 24hrs a day. Think bakeries, fish markets, bus stations, entertainment areas, ports… they all run around the clock and each one tells a story regardless of the time of day. If travel time is an issue, just book a room in a cool neighbourhood. I booked a heritage hotel along the Dubai Creek once to fully immerse myself in three days of exploring Deira and Bur Dubai. A truly amazing experience.
Heba showing off her latest collection of Canon gear…
With regards to access, my advice is to be bold. Ask for forgiveness rather than permission. From experience, I know that if you ask the question re whether its ok to enter somewhere to take a photograph, you’ll spend ages waiting for someone to respond, which eventually turns out to be “Problem Sir, not allowed. No photo”. This particularly applies in this part of the world. So just find a way, walk with confidence like you know where you’re going and keep moving forward.
At some point, we hit the grey area of trespassing and going somewhere (truly) off limits. My point of view is that there are certainly things that would be damn stupid to enter. I’m talking military camps, Skeikh Mohammed’s private palaces, the safe of the central bank, the ladies section of mosques etc. These are absolute no no’s. And then there are other places where I guess you’re not suppose to tread but, if you get caught, a bit of sweet talk might be all you need to get away with it. Think container complexes at the harbour, old ruins, building rooftops and abandoned warehouses. Accessing these would just amount to a little harmless mischief. Both lists can go on and will differ for everyone. It all depends on your own comfort level. For me, it’s important that I’m not doing anyone harm, not damaging anything and not doing anything super illegal. Common sense really.
Jessie standing in as model for magic hour demo shot
To get the max out of your time, do your homework first to see what the area has on offer. A simple google search will have tons of images. Coffee table books are a great source of inspiration as are searches on a good image bank like Getty Images or Arabian Eye. Get a detailed map to plan a rough route. I find the ‘sun scout’ app super helpful to see how the sun travels at precise times of the day. So have a wishlist but don’t get too hung up on it. Be open to change. Take a left turn when you planned a right, just because the light looks better or you feel there might be a good story at the other end of the street. Follow your intuition. Listen to your gut. I’ve discovered the best places on random explorations. Remember what Tolkien said. ‘Not All Who Wander Are Lost.’ Don’t be disappointed if your wishlist isn’t met. Instead, celebrate the lucky and unexpected encounters. Embrace the unseen.
Urban Exploring is only partly about taking photographs. It’s also about meeting interesting people and having unexpected conversations. It’s about having roadside food, whether a schwarma from a roadside vendor or some tea in a crowded joint. It’s about the mindset of choice and freedom and not chasing someone elses wishlist. It’s about the adventurer and explorer that lives in all of us. It’s quality ME time and that’s so valuable. Leave your phone at home… don’t be disturbed by ringing, buzzing or vibrating.
Finally, it’s about getting out there. Don’t be an armchair dreamer. Get out, do it and experience it. Explore first, brag later.
A big shout-out and appreciation to Canon Middle East for the opportunity to spend the day with such an amazing crowd. There is something super rewarding about sharing passion and trade with those keen to learn. Also many thanks to SanDisk and f stop gear for spicing up the media kit with valuable products. The crew at Clarke and Romero did a fab job in putting the behind the scenes video together.