When scientists first discovered neon in 1898, they knew there was something extra-ordinary within its distinctive red glow. They named their newborn gas neon after the Greek word for ‘new’ and quickly put it on the market. After being rejected by homeowners who took offence to its devilish glow, neon eventually found a place for its eye-catching self in commercial America; within the tubes of advertising slogans, strip clubs and dive bars that continue to pepper the landscape to this day.
While neon continues to play out its twitching career across a jaded USA, in Saudi Arabia, the inert gas is considered as both a symbol of status and luck, says photographer Celine Stella.
“The neon shapes and objects photographed here first caught my attention when we were driving through the desert at night a couple of summers ago. It was pitch dark and suddenly these kiosks appeared like balls of light in the middle of nowhere. The colours shining in the dark were beautiful, but alien. The contrast between the light and what was all around them – a vast, dark emptiness – made me smile.”
The route Stella took with her camera through Jeddah – a port city that pilgrims use as a thoroughfare to Mecca – was completed over five nights in a car with a local driver.
“I was lucky, because I was there during Ramadan; when the families would all get together for the meal at the end of a day’s fasting, I could go off and shoot. Obviously, everyone’s with their families at that time, which meant I had the place to myself to shoot.”
“We still had to work very quickly though – Saudi’s a huge place, and there’s a lot of distance to cover between locations. I was lucky in that Nawaf, my driver was fantastic – he really helped with getting me around, but even so we didn’t have time to set up tripods, lighting, exposures etc. It was just a case of pulling up the car, leaning out the window, and shooting what we could with what was available. It’s easier to do that there as the environmental factors – the light, the scale of the buildings, the contrast with the black desert skies – make for a very strong visual scene in a way that maybe not everywhere does.”
Stella’s photo diary casts a neon rainbow across a landscape more commonly cast in muted tones. Printed in a limited edition black book by NO UFOS, these electric entities float up on the page like jelly fish; green, yellow, orange, blue and white. But on second glance they reveal something really rather ordinary.
Illuminating shop fronts, telegraph poles, ice cream vans, construction sites or kiosks, these are the dayglo colours you would not normally associate with the desert and certainly not with Saudi.
“I liked the fact that these objects only appear at night when they’re switched on to draw people’s attention. Contrary to what we’re often shown, not everything out here – in a desert, in an ‘empty space’ – has to be dark. There was a really joyful side to it.”
There is a sense of humble excess in these colourful contraptions, too. Crossed wires, bright bulbs and dangling cartoon characters reflect a childlike luxury. A culture of electricity that exists far from the American way of light.
“Later on, talking with a Saudi friend, she explained to me how important it is that, just a hundred years ago, there wasn’t any electricity here. A lot of Saudi people really like bright, neon light as it is a sign of luxury and modernity. This is why we find it everywhere in Jeddah; not just out in the surrounding desert, but in people’s houses and businesses. It feels like a status symbol or a lucky charm.”
And then there’s the one of the big white tooth?
“Yes! I wasn’t actually looking for that one. We just happened to see it on the way as we were driving to the next location so I jumped out and shot it. A lot of things in Saudi are on an odd scale – because of the layout of the cities and the desert, you often see things from a very long way away, so signage has to be very bold. It’s one of the reasons why the food trucks and shops I photographed in the desert are covered in neon in the first place, so drivers can see them from a long way out. But I love that kind of light aesthetically, and I love shooting the objects and signs of a place.”
NOUR is published as a limited edition book by NOUFOS and is also available from KK Outlet and the ICA.
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