As a lifestyle and travel photographer, each project is a balance of professionalism and fun, where part of the assignment is finding the joy that makes the location a unique destination. When London-based Tom Parker was hired by the wealthiest city in the world to aid their family-fun campaign, that balance was thrown into epic proportions with a team of 130 people, nearly 25 locations, and 150 hero shots.
With two decades of experience under his belt, Tom welcomed the challenge to zoom in on a new city, seeking the cultural epicenters that bring millions every year. His images take us on an enticing tour of Abu Dhabi, that would enchant anyone to spend their summer exploring, adventuring, and above all relaxing on the Persian Gulf.
I am first and foremost a location and people photographer and what I do best is sell beautiful places. This was my first time working with Abu Dhabi Tourism Board, and hopefully not my last, as it was a fantastic project to get your teeth into.
The UAE (United Arab Emirates) is comprised of seven Emirates (a state that is governed by an Emir), with the most famous being Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is the capital city and seat of government, yet this destination is truly a hub of art, religion, and family amusement.
I first traveled to the UAE eight years ago and I’ve traveled quite extensively in the Middle East. However, my first time here, I was just shooting at the Jumeirah Hotel so I didn’t really see much of the country. This time, I spent 6 weeks traveling around Abu Dhabi and it’s much more varied than most people would assume.
As with most tourism boards, the images were intended to draw vacationers by changing their perception of the city from a place of politics and industry to one of culture and fun. This summer they launched their Kids Go Free campaign, in which one can access hotels, amusement parks, and many other deals when traveling with a child.
We wanted to do this by giving a different impression of the country from the one that most people have of it – something of a rebrand. I think most people don’t know that much about Abu Dhabi in terms of the variety of things to do. Abu Dhabi Tourism focuses on being the Middle East’s center for culture and environment and of course families.
Many commercial photographers know that agency representation can be the key to unlocking bigger projects with global clients. Tom was originally approached by the advertising agency Prophet, who found him through his London agent Lucid Rep.
There was a two-month bidding process that involved multiple rounds of briefs, treatments, meetings, and back-and-forth on budget. I found out I was actually up against 24 different photographers.
Yet where Tom feels he stands apart is his breadth of experience, with his portfolio spanning 90 countries over 20 years. His expansive knowledge has given him the skills to work with people regardless of cultural differences and has taught him how to make the most of difficult working conditions.
I’ve worked on massive jobs with big teams right down to me shooting solo – both of which I love. I know how to shoot quickly and efficiently, and with a large team, it’s all about getting on with people. I also love directing as it’s a really involved process and requires a totally different skillset to observational photography.
Even before the contracts were signed Tom was heavily involved in the creative process and pre-planning, which aligned with other commercial projects he’s worked on.
Pre-planning was a deeply collaborative process between the clients, the creative agency, and my team. Ensuring a healthy relationship between all of these is the most crucial thing to making a shoot work. As the photographer it was great because I wasn’t just shooting somebody else’s vision, the client had great faith in my opinions and experience.
Once I’d been chosen, the treatments and art direction became more in-depth. We had to come up with different scenarios for each model group, as there were up to 7 – all from different parts of the world – at each of the 23 locations. Meaning there were around 150 hero shots in total.
The shoot was originally scheduled for March, but because of the complexities and scale, it was pushed back to June and then once more to August. Tom needed to know as much about the locations as possible before landing in the UAE. They arranged for a local team to be on the ground scouting, sending images back, and researching what other images had been shot at those locations.
When my team arrived in mid-August we had to recce 23 locations in 7 days directly before the shoot started, which was pretty exhausting because some of the locations were hours away from Abu Dhabi city itself.
The many destinations on their list included the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and the House of Artisans, along with countless beaches, theme parks, and hotel resorts.
We also traveled with our video team. It’s particularly important for production as they are bringing huge facilities and logistics to each. They had to get to each location around 3 am and then with a time-staggered transport schedule for the rest of the team.
Tom and his team landed at Abu Dhabi International Airport at one of the hottest times of the year, when temperatures range from 100℉ – 120℉ (38℃ – 54℃). To compensate for any health risks, the team would opt to shoot the first few hours of every morning and then break until the heat cooled off a bit in the afternoon. Additionally, they traveled with a medic who ensured that no one would suffer from heat stroke or dehydration.
The production team tried to schedule it so we had at least two hours off somewhere air-conditioned between the morning and the afternoon shoot. By the end of it, I was quite accustomed to the heat which was generally more dry than humid. What was most surprising was that none of the equipment broke down in the heat.
Another consideration that was taken into account was how the campaign would approach cultural sensitivity, especially in religious spaces. Tom feels that in every shoot, one should always be aware of and respect the social and cultural dynamics of that location.
Obviously in the UAE, it’s something you have to take into consideration, however, it’s probably not as strict as you think it might be. If you go anywhere in the world every country has its own cultural considerations and you just fit in, so it was never really an issue, but it’s always something to be aware of whether you shooting a huge production or just traveling solo.
One thing that also enabled general cultural awareness was the fact that the team was comprised of individuals from 20 different countries. So everyone worked with each together, learning from their differences, and making the most of the long days.
The main challenge was time – there were so many shots in so many locations. There’s a lot of tenacity required for a shoot of this length and scale, it was very physical physically and mentally taxing.
To combat the hours spent on set, Tom worked to establish a “hard-working but humorous” environment, as he puts it. He knows that positive energy in a shoot starts with the photographer.
It’s really my job as the director of the shoot, to create the right kind of energy, particularly when days are long. It’s a top-down environment so if I am relaxed then everyone else will be in a space where they can do their job to the best of their abilities. I think one of the key things on a shoot is to try and stay calm when things don’t go to plan because they often don’t. You can’t control the world.
With this philosophy as a guide, Tom tries to build a degree of flexibility into every shoot, so he and the team can be reactive to any disruptions or changes in the schedule. Plus alleviating stress on the timeline and shot list will help keep the spirits high for the talent, especially the younger ones.
I haven’t done such a complex shoot in terms of crew size, locations, and length of shoot – it was a real test of endurance. I think what I’ve learned is that you have to keep the momentum going amongst the team and that’s my responsibility. And on a 5-week shoot, nobody is ever going to be at best 100% of the time, so it’s about support and encouragement all around. I also really reinforced that there is only so much you can plan!
After so many years of practice, Tom credits his adaptability on set as the catalyst for his best work. In this, he balances the client’s needs with capturing the organic moments that make lifestyle photography feel like an extension of life itself.
I think the skill of the photographer is to try and live in the moment a little, to see what is looking best at that particular moment in time, rather than being too rigid and sticking to something that’s been predefined before the shoot. I will always shoot what the client wants but I will also come up with something a little different to give them a choice.
See more of Tom’s work on his website.
Read more about Tom on our Published blog.