Dubbed by Western magazines as a “skyline on crack”, Dubai, the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, is known for its luxury shopping malls, extravagant entertainment, and towering skyscrapers. It is the city that Ben Soedira, a Glasgow-based photographer, calls home, but in his memory, the metropolis is markedly different to the sparkling skylines we know today.
25-year-old Soedira, who moved to the UK to study when he was 18, was born and raised in Dubai and witnessed its rapid development over the course of his upbringing. These changes have altered the landscape to the extent that it is unrecognisable to the place he remembers growing up in — a concept he describes as “urban amnesia”. Paired with the disorientation of being born and raised somewhere different to his parents — his mother is British and his father Dutch-Indonesian — Soedira decided to explore what constitutes home via the medium of photography.
Foreign Sands was developed during Soedira’s final year of studying fine art photography at the Glasgow School of Art and forms part of a touring group exhibition titled The Place I Call Home. Following showcases at Derby’s FORMAT festival and Cardiff’s Ffotogallery in 2019, it is currently on show at Summerhall in Edinburgh, Scotland, with upcoming openings in Saudi Arabia, Sharjah, and London.
The title, Foreign Sands, takes inspiration from the fact that despite being in the heart of a desert, Dubai is built on imported sand, from countries including China, Germany, and the UK. The city’s large population of expats, who account for almost 90 per cent of the population, also played a part. “The city is completely built up on foreign elements,” says the photographer.
Dubai is home to 148 skyscrapers, and 25 per cent of the world’s cranes, but, in Foreign Sands, glass structure’s are barely visible. Shot mostly in one of the oldest parts of Dubai, the Satwa district, the work is characterised by dusty tones, whether it be in the form of buildings, fabric, skin or sand. “I often talk about these objects as being symbols of feelings I have towards Dubai, or memories, or metaphors that I have towards the city,” explains Soedira. “I always associated this colour palette with home, because in terms of landscape and colour, Dubai is so different from where I am now in the UK.”
“I was trying to replicate Dubai’s desert through the city itself, as a kind of reaction to the landscape,” he continues, explaining how the landscape of Dubai is reflected in how the city functions: the constant urban development echoes the shifting sand dunes. Part of the process was trying to incorporate that into his photographs, for instance, in images of fabric blowing in the wind.
“It was not only about me questioning my identity, but the city of Dubai itself,” says Soedira, whose parents have recently decided to leave Dubai. “It’s quite strange because there is no other reason why I would go back there. I go there because it’s home.” In some ways, Foreign Sands feels like an interpretation of the intangible elements of what Soedira associates with home, and although the city of Dubai will continue to change, there is comfort in the fact that his memories of it will last, crystallised in his images.
Foreign Sands by Ben Soedira is currently on show at Summerhall in Edinburgh, Scotland, as part of a touring group exhibition titled The Place I Call Home.