Saudi artist Abdullah Alhumaid puts Riyadh street life in the frame 

Experimental film photographer Abdullah Alhumaid has produced a piece of work called “Rats of Bat’ha,” a project capturing daily life in a Riyadh neighborhood. (Supplied/Abdullah Alhumaid)
Short Url
Updated 30 October 2020

Saudi artist Abdullah Alhumaid puts Riyadh street life in the frame 

  • Abdullah Alhumaid drives film photography’s revival at the crest of a wave of creative potential in the Kingdom
  • The experimental film photographer’s ‘Rats of Bat’ha’ project captures daily life in one Riyadh neighborhood

DUBAI: Experimental film photographer Abdullah Alhumaid is not your average 25-year-old Saudi. His creative journey, which began unexpectedly on the streets of Beirut, has flourished, resulting in “Rats of Bat’ha,” a project capturing daily life in a Riyadh neighborhood.

In the age of smartphones and Instagram filters, old-fashioned film photography is a dying art — limited by a finite roll of film and the patience required to develop it. But Alhumaid’s eye-opening work could provide the flash of inspiration needed for a wider comeback.

“The experimental experience started at the beginning of 2018 when I was going for a quick trip to Beirut,” Alhumaid told Arab News. “Two hours before my flight, I met a friend who had a film camera, which I had never operated. I borrowed it for the trip to experiment and to see how it goes.”

What stuck with Alhumaid after his trip were interactions with Beiruti locals who became his photographic subjects. While convincing them to shed their inhibitions and pose for portraits, he too was coaxed out of his comfort zone. Something had clicked.

“It was surprisingly beautiful, given I’d never operated a camera before, especially a film one, which was not at the top of my list,” he said. “The interactions were breathtaking — I allowed myself to interfere with people’s daily lives and tried to put them on the spot.”

Although many of his subjects were hesitant at first, the process of persuading them was central to Alhumaid’s experience, from careful first impressions to the questions he posed to put them at ease.

“It’s not about nagging, because that’s not comfortable,” he said. “I got to interact with different types of people, including homeless people, and got to know their stories. It’s about connecting in a human way. And when you open up to them, that gives you a worthwhile experience that you wouldn’t normally think of.”

Unfortunately, his first roll of film was damaged, erasing his earliest work. His second shoot, however, proved far more successful thanks to some valuable tips from an experienced Beirut photographer who took him under his wing.




Although many of his subjects were hesitant at first, the process of persuading them was central to Alhumaid’s experience. (Supplied/Abdullah Alhumaid)

The end result is Alhumaid’s signature style of moody city snapshots, many of them employing the sharp dualities of light and shadow, while others mesh urban straight lines with a blur of motion. The dated quality of film lends the images a hue of nostalgia.

“What I love about the film camera is that you’re not attached to the results,” he said. “You don’t see results immediately, so you’re not distracted by the tool; rather you’re inspired to be in the moment and to place your focus on the interaction.

“You only get 36 images, so you’ll be pickier and more aware of what you shoot because you don’t want to waste your whole film on one subject.”

In the age of digital photography, where pictures can be captured, cropped, retouched and deleted faster than you can say cheese, it is surprising to see old film cameras making a comeback in modern Saudi Arabia.

However, there are now very few stores in the Kingdom fitted with darkrooms to develop rolls of film — just one in all of Riyadh in fact. As a result, Alhumaid is on the lookout for like-minded shutterbugs who want to rebuild the industry.

Al-Bat’ha is one of the oldest commercial districts of downtown Riyadh — increasingly diverse and always buzzing. In October 2018, after returning from Beirut, Alhumaid made this distinctive neighborhood his source of inspiration.

“It is unfortunately left behind, and now only expats live there,” Alhumaid said. “It used to be the downtown of Riyadh. Going there and seeing the contrast we live in, in terms of bubbles we create for ourselves, was mesmerizing — the simplicity, the colors, the fruits, the expats, and how they were shocked at how we were taking photos of them. It was lovely to touch base with the city.”

It was here Alhumaid framed the idea for “Rats of Bat’ha.” And in case you were wondering, he and his shoot team are the eponymous rats, weaving through the urban maze with rodent-like curiosity, he says.

“Al-Bat’ha is the street that pushed me again to take this passion forward and keep it as a funnel feeding itself with simplicity,” he told Arab News. “I didn’t want to plan anything; I wanted everything to be spontaneous and take it everywhere.”

And that he did. From Japan, Portugal, Versailles in France, and everywhere else his photography has taken him, Alhumaid has tried to connect with local street life by capturing people on film. In the process, he said he has evolved.




From Japan, Portugal, Versailles in France, and everywhere else his photography has taken him, Alhumaid has tried to connect with local street life by capturing people on film. (Supplied/Abdullah Alhumaid)

Born and raised in Riyadh in a conservative household of academics and consultants, Alhumaid feels blessed to have grown up without technology. “They forbid it, not just because of religion, but because of how much it consumes you,” he said of his parents.

“And I’m grateful for that, because they allowed us the space to create, to generate ideas and to work with what you have so it reflects your intellect.”

As such, his five siblings ended up in fashion design, psychology, French literature, law and medicine. “It’s derived from not having a TV,” he said. “These elements played a role.”

After a six-month stint playing for Al-Shabab football club, Alhumaid’s interest turned to Riyadh’s art scene, which was burgeoning in 2013. There he met a whole new community. After working in Dubai for a short period with Careem Wallet, he moved back to Saudi Arabia in July 2019 and enrolled at the Misk Art Institute, in collaboration with the palace of Versailles.

“We went to Versailles for five weeks and it was unbelievable,” he said. “I worked in the cultural development department, where we did this program to attract Saudi tourists to Versailles, given that the smallest number of visitors come from the Middle East and the GCC.”




Alhumaid is continuing to build his photography portfolio and someday hopes to feature his work in local and international exhibitions. (Supplied/Abdullah Alhumaid)

After completing his program, he worked in the brand team of the Al-Musafer travel agency in the Kingdom for seven months, before an opportunity with the content team at the Saudi Tourism Authority presented itself.

“We work with international agencies from New York and London in terms of development and content creation. I’m only six months in and I’m just ecstatic,” Alhumaid said.

“It’s beautiful, because we see the country opening up and people changing their behavior and their misconceptions. We, as a society, have so much to offer.”

In the meantime, Alhumaid is continuing to build his photography portfolio and someday hopes to feature his work in local and international exhibitions. Luckily for him, a great wave of creative potential is cresting in Saudi Arabia, bringing with it whole new industries in art, music and film.

“Some people started their own production houses, studying abroad and coming back to the country,” Alhumaid said. “Saudi Arabia is booming now more than ever — tourists have started visiting and that’s how you learn from each other, by being exposed.

“It doesn’t help anyone to be divided. And that’s how we move forward, as the bad apples start changing their behavior.”

---------------------

Twitter: @CalineMalek


Saudi T20 task force coordinators in action and thinking big

Updated 30 October 2020

Saudi T20 task force coordinators in action and thinking big

  • Saudi Arabia holds the presidency of the G20 this year, and the group’s annual summit is due to be held in Riyadh in November
  • Think 20 (T20) is one of its independent engagement groups

RIYADH: This year, 11 workers at two Saudi research centers, backed by an army of researchers, took on the daunting challenge of delivering results that meet the high expectations for the G20’s “ideas bank” — and their work is almost done.

Saudi Arabia holds the presidency of the G20 this year, and the group’s annual summit is due to be held in Riyadh in November.

The Think 20 (T20) is one of its independent engagement groups, led by organizations from the host country, which focus on different sections and sectors of society. Considered the G20’s intellectual backbone, it connects and collaborates with think tanks from around the world to develop fact-based policy briefs that contain recommendations for ways to tackle a number of important global issues.

This year’s T20 is jointly led by the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC) and the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS).

It has adopted some key policy recommendations developed last year, when Japan held the presidency, and developed new ones designed to address the latest global developments and issues.

The success of this year’s T20 can, to a large extent, be attributed to the months of dedication and hard work by 11 task force coordinators, and the army of colleagues who backed them up every step of the way.

PUBLICATIONS

The T20 published 146 policy recommendations this year, compared with 104 last year. All of them were produced by a team of researchers who worked for more than a year to develop concise and fact-based recommendations.

To achieve this, the T20 set up 11 task forces. Each of them was led by a researcher, affiliated with KAPSARC or KFCRIS, who coordinated the work of authors and co-authors and the lead co-chairs, among other tasks.

Many of the coordinators were handed responsibility for task forces covering issues that were initially unfamiliar to them, but showed great initiative and took control of the work flow in a highly professional manner. Adding to the challenge, many of the people they were working with were relatively young, with limited experience in their fields.

“It wasn’t easy for us, to have a team of juniors participate with us,” said Turki Al-Shuwaier, one of two T20 deputy sherpas. “But we believed in them. Our recruitment was very carefully done, based on character and attitude and the nature of their ambition, which helped a lot.”

Each member displayed the initiative that was needed to create change, he added, and worked very hard to achieve their goals, even when faced with initial problems due to lack of experience.

“Communication was done the right way and we were able to solve our problems quickly that way, building a strong link with them via continually updated tools, weekly communiques and so on,” said Al-Shuwaier.

“Maybe if we’d had a team of seniors we would not have had to put in so much effort, but it has been worth it because we loved to do it.”

SELECTION PROCESS

When speaking to the 11 task force coordinators about their work, it becomes clear that the emphasis placed on good communication was a key to the success of the endeavor. They worked across time zones to connect with hundreds of authors and co-authors of the proposed policy briefs, assembling a first-class team that not only investigated the issues, but provided cohesive, universal and adaptable recommendations.

The rigor and relevance of the research are important factors in the development of effective policy briefs, said the T20’s other deputy sherpa, Brian Efird. Coordinators, policy and research experts, action-team members and other participants from KAPSARC and KFCRIS collectively managed more than 700 researchers and more than 100 think tanks worldwide, he added.

The 11 coordinators have their own areas of specialist expertise, but the focus of the task force each was assigned to was unfamiliar to them. This did not hinder them, however. With the help of task force lead co-chairs, each coordinator rose to the occasion, overcoming communication problems, linguistic issues and other challenges along the way.

Emere Hatipoglu, a research fellow at KAPSARC and a member of the T20 action team, said that most of the hard work was done by the junior members. With help from the action team, he added, the coordinators reviewed many proposals to “up the quality of the peer reviews.”

COVID-19

When the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak had become a pandemic in March, the T20 coordinators rose to the additional challenges this created by working with their authors to ensure the effects and implications of the pandemic were reflected in the proposed policy briefs, so that they would fully meet the expectations of the T20 secretariat.

The coordinators described the rapidly evolving situation they found themselves in as challenging, hectic, dire and, ultimately, fruitful. Ensuring that their work took into account the effects of the COVID-19 crisis proved to be an invigorating experience that encouraged them to push their own limits and learn new skills to meet the demands placed upon them.

The number of proposals they came up with grew along the way, and a series of online meetings were organized while many nations, including Saudi Arabia, were in lockdown.

As one coordinator said: “Give a researcher a task and you can be sure they’ll get the job done in the most efficient way.”

Still, the coordinators often found themselves faced with problems they could never have imagined before the pandemic. Simply getting in touch with their authors was suddenly a challenge, as some were infected by the virus and others found themselves stuck in COVID-19 hotspots in Europe.

The coordinators were obligated to be sensitive and help their team members in whatever ways they could, while also trying to ensure the work continued to push forward.

“Transitioning from physical events to virtual ones was a sign of maturity,” said Efird. “To manage this huge process by rewriting the plan in the middle of (the pandemic was) nice to see.”

DELIVERABLES

With the help of their policy and research teams, the coordinators were able to arrange discussions covering a wide range of topics, coach authors throughout the process and ensure that the proposed policy briefs delivered long and short-term solutions. Eventually each task force settled on a final list of recommendations, ahead of the T20 Summit on Oct. 31 and Nov 1.

Because the coordinators are also researchers, they had the general skills they needed to select speakers for webinars, choose abstracts and carry out the other tasks required of them. As one coordinator put it: “I spoke the same language as the authors of the policy briefs.”

Faris Al-Sulayman, a KFCRIS research fellow and member of the T20’s Policy and Research Committee said: “A set of criteria was established from the very beginning. Each topic was relevant to the task force themes and went through a rigorous process.

“The team effort made it easier and more concise. Even as we became used to working remotely, it served as beneficial to the process.”

The coordinators were able to systematically address all problems that arose, thanks to the expertise they had developed working at KAPSARC and KFCRIS, according Anvita Arora and Axel Pierru, who are also members of the Policy and Research Committee. The coordinators were able to get the best out of the authors by ensuring that the process was as enriching as possible for all the researchers, they added.

“Five to 10 years down the road, you’ll see that the Saudi T20 served as a critical juncture in how the T20 works,” Hatipoğlu said.