Prior to a retrospective of the work of Bahrain’s pioneering photograper Abdulla Alkhan, Murray Garrard caught up with the master to celebrate a life spent recording Bahrain’s changing facade
Time Out Bahrain staff
How did you get into photography? I started doing photography as a student. At university there was a photographic club that I was a member of, and they used to send me to take pictures of guests that came to Bahrain. My plan was to study medicine. On one occasion, I was asked to cover an official visit of journalists from Egypt to the then ruler of Bahrain, Sheikh Salman. One of the journalists asked Sheikh Salman, ‘Is this photographer Palestinian?’ There were no native photographers at that time, because no Bahraini would ever accept to work as a photographer; it was considered low level for low people. He replied, ‘No, we depend on our sons.’ From that moment I felt differently about photography. It was then that I decided to become a photographer.
You father was one of Bahrain’s first amateur photographers, right? Did he influence you?
Yes, my father bought this technology from India, which he went to visit. I have my own photographs from 1954 to the present day, and I have those from my father dating back from 1930. I have all his negatives.
Bahrain must have changed a lot in the course of your career. What has been the greatest change? I don’t remember the exact date, but I was asked to photograph a huge desert between Manama and Riffa. I went up and took photographs and didn’t know why they wanted me to photograph it. They said, ‘We are going to build a town called Isa Town.’ Where we are now sitting, this place was empty. Then they asked me to go south of the Bapco refinery to photograph the empty desert. I did so, and then they said, ‘We are going to build Alba here.’ Then they asked me to go south of Hidd. They said, ‘Go and take photographs to show the movement of the tides and the sea. And they built ASRY.’ I followed these changes and recorded them all.
Were these changes positive in your view? Well, you don’t have a choice. Everything changes, and you have to change. But now you don’t see nature, everything is cement and concrete. You don’t enjoy it, but you have no choice. Now Manama looks likes matchboxes built on one another.
Is there a moment in the island’s history that you wish you had captured and didn’t? When Sheikh Salman died, I was asked to take a photograph of the new ruler, Sheikh Isa, as the official photographer. When Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi came to power, I was asked to take a photograph of him. Unfortunately when our king became king, they did not ask me, though I shot his wedding. It was a sad moment for me.
Have the advances in technology affected photography in a positive or negative way? Before there were photographers, now there are no photographers, the camera does everything. Now there are just camera operators. Technology is a good thing for photography, but a bad thing for photographers. Because now you cannot say, ‘I am a photographer,’ because what you can do others can do. But the new technology is very good for the environment, because to process a roll of film you needed to use about 20 gallons of water.
What photo are you most proud of taking? If you had children then you would understand. You cannot say, ‘I like this child best.’ I treat all my negatives with special care.
What makes a great photograph? An event. You cannot say I want to take a nice picture, it comes by itself. In 1957, I had a problem with my camera and I took it to someone to repair it. It was dark when I went to collect it, and the man said, ‘I have repaired it.’ So I loaded it with film and while I was talking to him there was fire in the next building. So I left him and went to take a picture of the fire. When I came to the office to process the film there was still a fault with the camera – he had not fixed it. But this fault was advantageous to me. All of the negatives were overlapping. I took eight photographs, but there were no gaps between them. It created a panorama. And that is one of the best photographs I took, and was the first photograph of mine that was published in the newspaper. So you cannot say, ‘I am going to take a nice picture.’ Pictures form completely by themselves.
A selection of some of the best of Abdulla Alkhan’s photography of Bahrain over the past 55 years will be exhibited at Al Riwaq Art Space February 10-26. For more information, call 17 717 441. Abdulla Alkhan can be contacted at his studio, in which there is also an exhibition gallery, the Bahrain House of Photography: 17 623 071.