The Camels of the Empty Quarter


No mammals have played greater roles in the ascent of trade and commerce than the horse and camel. A deference for the history of human transportation should certainly dictate respect for these long suffering carriers. Horses have been photographers' friends for over 150 years. They have been well photographed in every environment whether it is competitive sport, John Ford's Westerns, Marlboro's advertising campaigns or simply "being". 110 years ago Edward Curtis was one of the most celebrated photographers in the world, largely as a result of his important work with Native Americans and their horses in the Wild West of America.

In comparison, the camel has received less attention from the cameramen - not only are they unlikely to win the aesthetic match off, their homes in Arabia and Sahara are a long way from Hollywood and popular Western culture. Nevertheless, the camel's desert habitat offers an even more untamed, elemental and raw canvas than Curtis and Ford found in Utah and Arizona.
These sand deserts - along with the Amazon, parts of Siberia and the Arctic and Antarctic are the last remaining pockets of true wilderness in the world. But a camel shoot in the Sahara or the Arab Peninsula is logistically not as simple as a film crew going to Monument Valley for a week with a cowboy and a horse.

Probably, as a result, we have been far less spoilt with camel imagery - horses and canyons are all but done but powerful imagery of camels in the desert is at a premium. The desert offers imagery that plays to romanticism - its beauty, grandeur and exoticism can perform a golden alchemy that turns danger and marginal existence into something sexy and visceral. No one presided over this alchemy better than Anthony Minghella in the Oscar winning "The English Patient".

There are some spectacular deserts in the world - with high dunes painted in every colour from fawn to red towering above arid basins. The Namib is in a league of its own and quite astonishing, but to the best of my knowledge, there are no camels in Namibia. However, in the Empty Quarter of the Gulf, on the Saudi border, lies a desert almost as dramatic - the Liwa Desert, and there are a great number of working camels scattered across the dunes. The topography in Liwa is an artist's dream and recently provided the canvas for a section of the recent Star Wars film. If it was good enough for that production team, it seemed sensible to give it a go.

In the spring, the sun rises at about 6.45am in Liwa and sets quickly 11 hours later. Of those 11 hours, only about 2 hours 30 minutes are ideal for filming - the hour between 7.15am and 8.15 am and the 90 minutes before dusk. Dunes lose their unrivaled ability to play with light frustratingly quickly and in my mind, photography in the desert is firstly about playing with light. So during my days in Liwa, less than 10% of the time was spent with the camera in hand - the rest of the time was spent scouting with fixers, talking (via my Egyptian guide) to the camel herdsman or resting at base camp.

My goal was to come home with one high impact picture - one that coupled elegance in an animal not known for elegance, with a sense of place. Camels can have majesty when caught in the right pose - it is simply a question of putting in the time. I also wanted to take an image that carried no risk of being branded a cliché, but this is quite easy to research - just google "camels in the desert".

I employed as much depth of field as possible because I wanted to be clear that this was a union of two subjects, not just a portrait of one. The sand patterns in a pristine desert are art themselves but I needed camels as the focal point of the image. It is difficult to know how visually it could be bettered and "Camel Light" already decorates some homes in the UAE. As with all my fine art images, there is a great deal going on.

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