In a new book, Ryan Debolski captures the connections that form among migrant labourers seeking respite on the sandy beaches of Oman
Oman’s landscape sparkles. Golden sand envelops endless desert, vertiginous cliffs plunge into turquoise sea, and beaches curl and bend along the winding coastline. These are the landscapes that Ryan Debolski felt compelled to capture when he relocated to the Arab state, however, it was the huddles of men congregating along the shore who ultimately drew him in. Clusters of bodies sweating, swimming, and conversing beneath the burning sun. “Naturally, I am an introvert,” reflects Debolski who moved to Oman’s capital Muscat upon receiving a Fulbright fellowship to pursue the project, which culminated in his latest photobook, Like. “It took a lot for me to build up the courage. I observed for a while, and, eventually, had the courage to approach a group and have a conversation: there was a mutual curiosity because I was also on the beach and had a camera.”
The men were migrant labourers who compose a considerable portion of Oman’s population, hailing from countries in Asia and Africa; significantly, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The beach provided a refuge — a respite from the scorching heat, relentless work, and claustrophobic living conditions. As Jason Koxvold, an artist founder of independent imprint Gnomic Book (publisher of Like), articulates in the essay that accompanies the publication: “In this regard, the beach offers one of the few settings in which these men can find agency in anything other than a commodity.”
“The beach offers one of the few settings in which these men can find agency in anything other than a commodity”
Debolski’s subjects frolic — they cavort amid rolling waves, and move onshore: sketching the sand, courting a snake escaping the surf, playing, fighting, relaxing. More introspective shots feature — a moment gazing out to sea, or meditatively into the camera. So too do images intimating at the lives from which these men seek momentary respite: a mechanical arm nuzzles a nest of rocks, unsullied tarmac winds through the desert, an avalanche of rubble emerges from the back of a lorry.
It is on the beach that these men forge connections and at leisure, they defy an environment, which would render them inhuman: cogs in a relentless machine of labour. Debolski too defies the dehumanisation of these men. His photographs are not those we associate with migrant workers, rather, he depicts his subjects in a manner redolent of the visual language of glossy, fashion magazines. Whatsapp messages accompany the uncaptioned images: revealing Debolski’s exchanges with his subjects that intimate at the deep yet transient connections formed, and, in the words of Koxvold, that “the workers are aware of their exploitation, and entertain ideas of moving to other work sites or countries where their work might be better compensated”.
Together, image and text provide an insight into the experiences of these men, beyond the poor working conditions, which have come to define them in the public imagination. Like ends with an almost empty Coca-Cola bottle discarded on the sand. The label reads ‘BFF’ (Best Friends Forever): an emblem of migrant workers’ in Oman — disposable labour to their employers; significant individuals to one another.
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.