With the ever-changing landscape of Middle Eastern and North Africa, F Word, in collaboration with Megane Quashie from Femxle First Sessions and Sophie Emmett, wanted to shine a light on how the current times are affecting the youth – voices in countries that are rarely represented in the media. Through outsourcing a variety of creatives from these regions, we have asked for a digital time capsule that we hope will contribute to awareness, education and building bridges.
Beginning our series with 27 year old, Dubai based, Indian photographer, Zeashan Ashraf who discusses the negative effects of the pandemic and how it has highlighted issues within his city, along with the present cultural divide. Ashraf shares where he finds solace and inspiration for his creativity and through his powerful and prominent documentary series titled ‘Strangers on the Street’; we get the opportunity to gaze into Ashraf’s life through his lens.
ZEASHAN ASHRAF / 27 / DUBAI
Hey Zeashan where were you born?
Zeashan Ashraf: I was born in Kerala, India. My parents moved here in the '90s and I grew up here. I moved out a decade ago to study in India and then worked for an NGO there. I've been back in the UAE since 2018.
What are the biggest challenges you’re facing with current world issues?
Z.A: Honestly, the biggest challenge I’m facing right now is being forced to be away from the people I love. It’s not even the pandemic that’s keeping us apart - although it’s certainly made a tough situation worse. We’re separated because none of our respective countries are truly safe enough for each other - whether that’s because of our ethnicity, religion, or the way we look.
How would you describe the mood of your city?
Z.A: I love people-watching here. I love trying to guess where someone is coming from and where they’re headed. Everyone here is a hustler in some way or the other, I love that about this place. For so many people it’s a pit stop on your journey to some place else. It can often be a pit stop to make some money and then go back to your ‘real home’. The waiting period is different for each of us - it can tire you out too. Everyone is trying to survive.
How does your city inspire you to be creative?
Z.A: When I found my purpose, my calling in life, I got to look at this place in a different lens. I understood this city’s purpose in helping me reach where I needed to be. Once I had that, I knew how I could make the most out of this place. I spend a lot of time at Sharjah Art Foundation, Alserkal Avenue, and Fikra Designs. These spaces, all unique in their own way, help nourish my soul and inspire me to make my own art. Someone I met at Alserkal’s art road trips (and ended up becoming a close friend) introduced me to shooting on film and told me about Gulf Photo Plus which sells a lot of interesting kinds of film. Turns out there’s a wonderful analogue photography community here and everyone wants to help each other, which is nice. Every other weekend, I’ll either be at Rolla Square Park or Sheikh Zayed Road with my camera finding interesting pools of light and asking strangers to let me take their portraits.
What is one misconception about your city?
Z.A: I feel like there is a lot of resistance here when it comes to interacting with people outside your culture. I get it, the city’s a hard place for so many of us. With so many people quite literally from different corners across the world, it’s easy to quickly find your own group of people and stay within that bubble. I know this is especially true when it comes to the south Indian community. Add class divides and pre-existing biases into the mix, and you can live your entire life here never getting too close to someone from another community. Everyone’s got their own misconception about someone else, and it makes me sad to think how two people walking past each other could potentially be best friends with shared unique interests but would never know because they never tried to say hi. (They could even be each other’s soulmates.)
If you had to create a digital time capsule to describe yourself, your city in 2020, what would it be? (colour, material, quote, song, memory)
Z.A: I know that I have a finite time here in this city and don’t see myself staying too long. That’s why I’ve got my camera with me wherever I go. I want to document the people who were here in the city at the same time. These are just fleeting moments of course, the photos can’t tell you their stories. No one has the time to chat after (and neither do I, to be honest). But I can show you what these protagonists looked like, what they were wearing that day. Maybe you can guess where they’re coming from, and where they’re headed.
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