Continuing with our photographer Expats series, I headed over to the Middle East—Dubai to be exact—to catch up with Denmark-based social documentary photographer Clint McLean. Originally from Canada, Clint packed up and moved to the UAE four years ago and hasn’t looked back. Below, we discuss working as a freelance photographer in the Middle East. Enjoy!
– Maria Luci
Where are you from originally?
I’m from Canada, and grew up partly in a small farm town called Harriston, and partly in Toronto.
How would you describe your photographic style?
With my exhibition or personal projects, my work tends to have an anthropological component to it. Often, I’m working on series that span many countries, so there is also a very global element to it. In all my work I try to add context to the single point of view that is so common with many of the places I work. Afghanistan is not only war and poverty, Africa is not only war and poverty, Palestine is not only war and poverty…
How did you end up in the Middle East? Why Dubai?
I was contacted by The National in 2008 asking if I’d be interested in helping to launch their new weekend magazine. The paper was headed by Martin Newland and I knew a couple people who had gone over to work with him. I was working primarily as a freelance photo editor in Canada at that time and was pretty comfortable working for some of the top Canadian titles with some of the best teams. I had been doing that for a while though, and I was pretty open to a move, so the offer came at a good point in my life. I spent three years in Abu Dhabi with the magazine and then online doing web stuff and developing as well as editing the photography blog. About a year ago, I decided I didn’t want to sit in an office anymore, so I left and traveled for a bit through Afghanistan, Palestine and Ethiopia working on various projects. Now I am back to freelancing and based in Dubai.
Were there any challenges in becoming a freelance photographer in the UAE?
The UAE isn’t really set up for freelancers. It’s a really new idea here so obtaining a business license and residency is a painful affair. I have mine through Dubai Media City but it is quite expensive and the process is three months of problems and headaches. I have to renew the license yearly and I am dreading it already.
Are there any language issues?
English is more common than Arabic here. In fact, I’m studying Arabic but it is so hard to learn here because the country operates in English. It is rare to be anywhere that Arabic is essential. Now, if I’m in Yemen or something, that’s a different story…
Have you encountered any culture shocks?
No, not really. I had done a fair bit of travel before I came here and I’m not really phased by things that are different. The toughest thing was showing up to Ramadan in 48 °C heat (118.4 °F) upon arrival and spending a month not being able to eat or drink in public during daytime hours.
How did you start gaining clients?
I’ve been pretty lucky in having clients find me and have been asked to work part-time on some large projects like Art Dubai as a digital media consultant—so for a while I was doing that as well as shooting. I try to have a big project every few months. To be honest, I’m pretty horrible at self-promotion. At the moment I am sending pitches for stories and having some decent success with that—very targeted ideas to very specific magazines. I also send monthly email updates so my name appears in front of people and they don’t forget me, or to let people know there’s a photographer available in Dubai should they need one.
What are some of the photo projects you’ve worked on during your time in the Middle East?
My favorite projects are always my own of course. I’ve been researching fables and traveling to the country of the fable’s origin to stage scenes from it using regular people and props. I really enjoy the process more than the final images.
I also went to Kuwait for the first time to do a job for Géant and recently got to drive a Ferrari for a shoot here in Dubai. Previous to that I was riding backwards on a camel photographing a camel safari, which was a pretty fun day.
Has your photography style changed since moving to the Middle East?
The biggest change has come by being so close to so many amazing places. When I lived in Canada, it was a really long way to get anywhere other than the US. Doing multiple visits for long-term projects wasn’t practical on my budget, but from Dubai, I can get to Kabul for $200 or go to Beirut for the weekend.
What are typical Dubai assignments?
This is a small market so I’m asked to shoot everything from food menus to cars. One day could be corporate, the next day desert.
Do you plan to stay?
I decided when I came here that I wouldn’t leave before I spoke Arabic somewhat fluently. At the rate I am going, it’s going to take a while…. I don’t expect to live here forever, but I don’t have any urge to live in Canada again.
What advice would you give to a photographer moving to the Middle East?
I’d tell them to reconcile what they shoot with what kind of country they want to live in. The Middle East isn’t all the same. For example, if you shoot corporate or advertising stuff, the Gulf States are a much better match for you than Yemen or Lebanon would be, but Yemen and Lebanon have more charm and character.