Lamia Gargash: Presence in Absence

The Staircase, Lamia Gargash (2005-6)
I first discovered award-winning Emirati photographer and visual artist, Lamia Gargash's work in a British Council exhibition, My Father's House a few years ago; a travelling exhibition, its first port of call was at Bait al Baranda museum in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman. While I admired the other featured photographers' works, I instantly gravitated towards Lamia's images, which depicted interiors of buildings situated in United Arab Emirates, both inhabited and abandoned. Starkly devoid of people, these were piercing portraits of spaces -- and yet, they are also portraits of the invisible inhabitants occupying those spaces as well, documenting their presence through the way they are somehow present but not seen. I found her images of abandoned buildings and structures particularly haunting and powerful: even in or perhaps, because of their derelict state, they are palimpsests, each layer reverberating with voices, echoes, and stories. Since then, Lamia has extensively explored the subject of dynamics of interiors in UAE, working on a number of projects pertaining to this theme.

What prompted Lamia to document these spaces, notably the interiors? "I love what the camera captures, paying attention to details and using it to record and preserve what intrigues me. Space is a hub for many changes that occur around us; it dictates not only styles and eras but also a way of living. How a room is experienced leaves many stories within its walls. One always looks at the outside word as a sign of progression and expansion but the true essence of change occurs within our own quarters. How one identifies himself within his own room and how he chooses to present his individuality and persona through it is what’s exciting," she remarks.
Red Television, Lamia Gargash, (2009)
Through 'Presence,' she chose to document a culture that was located and reflected by ways of interiors and which was becoming extinct due to modernization and globalization. "When I first started this project, I was studying in UK; coming back home [to UAE], I was more aware of the changes happening and felt the desire to document my old home – and the work developed from there," she recollects. She documented moments of migrations and transition, as people shifted from their old homes to newer ones as well as recording abandoned homes. "I am often asked as to why there are no people present in my photographs. To me, the spaces and interiors not only narrate stories of the lives that existed in them but also give the viewer an insight into our culture: how swiftly things change in our country, the rate at which things are being destroyed and built is probably more obvious in the space we inhabit on a daily basis than merely the exterior urban landscape," she says.

The Brown Bedroom, Lamia Gargash (2005-6)
She also found it challenging to explain to the homes' inhabitants as to what she found so interesting and intriguing in the interiors that warranted them being photographed. "We live in a quiet, conservative society, which admires and respects privacy so taking one’s photographs is quite a challenge enough -- but taking pictures of their private spaces was even more challenging," she mentions, adding that many perceived it an intrusion and invasion of privacy to expose their most intimate spaces, whether it be kitchen, bedroom or even bathroom. "They would question: why would anyone be interested in living quarters? Go photograph the garden or the sunset instead! Initially it was very hard but I gradually found a language by which I was able to communicate my message," she says.

Apart from her photographic meditations upon interiors intertwined with cultural identity, she has embarked upon other projects, which were distinctly different in subject matter and approach -- but also dealing with identity. One such project was the Through the Looking Glass, which Lamia mentions as investigating how we constantly view ourselves in comparison to an ever-elusive standard, prompted by the constant bombardment of media imagery dictating "how we should look." "Minor defects become drastic, resulting in even more drastic measures undertaken to reach that ideal standard of beauty. Our self- perception, and subsequently our identity, becomes indistinct, as if viewing ourselves through a distorted looking glass," she mentions.

In Through the Looking Glass, the photographic series comprises of diptychs, with one panel depicting a portrait of the subject as seen by the world and an opposing panel depicting the subject as seen through their mind’s eye [Above: Lindsay Left and Right, Lamia Gargash (2009)]. While the project's essence will undoubtedly universally resonate with many, it held particular personal significance for Lamia. "In many ways all the portraits I have created for this series are representing my own insecurities. We live in a world that is bombarded with information and supposed accepted norms regarding behavior or physical appearances. I have to admit I am one of those people whose lack of confidence affects me on a daily basis and I was keen on expressing that simple emotion and capture it photographically," she says. Indeed, finding models became a challenge too as she observed that not everyone was keen to present themselves in such a fashion - and it was crucial to have committed participants as it was a very delicate, time/money-consuming project. "I found that women were more receptive and excited about the project than men; they in turn were more reserved," she says.

Family Portrait - Yadee, Lamia Gargash (2010)

Another project that was intensely personal in nature to Lamia was Yadee. "Every project I have documented or created was an outcome of personal melancholy or deep inner reflections," Lamia remarks and the intersection of the intimate and the interiors is nowhere as more apparent than Yadee, which is a tribute to her ailing grandfather and where she journeys into the private realms of his personal space.

"He was such a strong character in my family: a healthy, active, athletic person, who loved life, travelling and being young, he had a severe fall few years back that shifted his whole world," she remarks, saying  that coming to terms with the situation was hard and took a while. "The series of images of my grandfather (who is still alive) merely captures the sad aftermath of the whole situation. It showcases vulnerability, sorrow and isolation. It is almost like being introduced to a whole new family member," she says. The project also seemingly becomes an inward-looking journey, exploring the interiors of her thought-processes. "I am a keen observer: I pay attention to so many details that it overwhelms me and the fact that I find it hard to accept change leaves me lingering in the details, trying to grasp whatever I can through my photographs," she remarks.

For Lamia, the interiors remain a subject that she further wishes to investigate in her future photo projects, remarking that it will be a marriage between  her love of interiors and implementing more of the "self" in her body of work. "I still believe that there is still a lot to investigate in the idea of space and that there is still plenty that it has to offer as creative material. After all, stories take place in every room in every house, building and structure and allowing the spectator to form his own narrative. How space is constructed and how we choose to embed ourselves within it is inspiring for me," she concludes.  

Learn more about Lamia Gargash's work here.