Dubai photographer Tanya Rex's global 'Quaranteen' project unites pandemic youth

Artist lets us in on why she set up her most ambitious initiative to date


David Light

Published: Sun 13 Jun 2021, 12:43 PM

Last updated: Sun 13 Jun 2021, 12:47 PM

What were your first thoughts when the pandemic struck? Were you a stay-home hibernator or a pro-active project manager? Tanya Rex, a Dubai-based photographer, found that her work slowed over night at the beginning. Like many others, she desperately wanted to find purpose in the months that lay ahead, so set up The Developing Story, an initiative aimed at encouraging creativity through her chosen medium. The Quaranteen Project was subsequently born where Rex sent 30 disposable cameras to 30 teenagers across the world and asked them to diary their stay-home experience. With the pictures now received and catagorised the results are raw, unedited and moving realities of what the virus’ impact has looked like in the eyes of young people across the world.

What made you come up with this idea?

The Quaranteen Project is my overpowering need to connect with others. I have to be honest that I thought the pandemic was all quite exciting and inspiring for the first few days when celebrities were letting us “into their homes” for private concerts, friends were sharing ideas and recipes, we were having Zoom parties on Thursday nights and everyone was in it for the greater good for about two weeks. Then the grim reality hit and I realised that this wasn’t a passing situation. A sense of unease and solitude fell on my head. Even though I had my wonderful family around me and I was able to connect with friends through technology, I felt completely disconnected. While I was falling asleep one night, I had this idea that even if I couldn’t travel, my camera still could. The Quaranteen Project started to form in my head and I had the basic idea formulated by the time I woke up the next morning.

How did you choose the teenagers who made it into the project?

I initially started to find teenagers through friends and family. Luckily, having lived in Dubai for 17 years, and with so many people coming and going, my acquaintances are spread all over the globe. A couple of people jumped at the idea of helping and others had no interest at all. It wasn’t as easy as I thought to get others to believe in my idea.

I then contacted a friend who ran a charity in Abu Dhabi and she put me in touch with a wonderful photographer, David Malana, who had travelled extensively teaching teens how to use a camera. He put me in touch with a few of his students. A friend told me about a refugee camp in Sudan that she had discovered through a charity called The Idris Foundation, that she followed on Instagram, so I contacted the founder and he came on board to figure out how to get a camera to Sudan. These are just a couple of examples of how my search progressed.

What was the most surprising result returned to you and was the general standard as high as you expected?

I think the most surprising result came out of Afghanistan. This was partly because the images were so beautiful and also because this was one of the first rolls of film that I had developed so the excitement at the story that was told through these images far exceeded what I had expected to feel. I also had no idea how life in Afghanistan looked and only had a reference from Hollywood movies and TV series. I had made a point in the original brief that I sent to everyone that cultural considerations in each area needed to be respected and so I was eager to see how the teens were going to interpret this and work around it if they lived in more conservative regions.

The thought and effort that went into the images was so heartwarming to see and I felt an immediate connection with the photographer, Nargis. In general the images were great, just because they were so real and raw and nothing could dim the honesty that they showed. Even the images that came from teens who had never studied photography, and so were often underexposed or seemed mundane, were amazing. There were technical issues with some of the rolls of film and so we weren’t able to use everyone’s images.

Why did you choose disposable film cameras as opposed to asking for digital submissions?

I felt like digital was too easy. It is a wonderful medium to use in a commercial setting, but it is also too easy to edit and skew in the direction that people want you to see. By using film cameras, the photographers weren’t able to edit anything. And by choosing teenagers as my age demographic, I was hoping that many of them had never used a film camera and so this could be a new experience for them that pushed them out of their comfort zone.

I shot a roll of film and, even though I do this for a living, I found it really difficult to shoot without having any control over my exposure and selfies were suddenly the most difficult thing in the world. A few of the people I spoke to when finding my candidates were not interested in doing the project if they weren’t able to edit their images, so I am truly grateful to those who participated and trusted me to tell their story.

What do you hope to do with the images? Will you be holding an exhibition?

I am hoping to hold at least one exhibition in Dubai once the restrictions ease a little. If I am able to hold other exhibitions in other countries, that would be a bonus. I am currently putting all the images together in a coffee table book that I would love to sell with the profits going to the charities that helped me.

What do you think people can learn from the pictures and what have they taught you?

When I sent out the cameras, I also sent a questionnaire to get to know more about the level of lockdown/quarantine in each country at the time and to find out how others were affected. The most common theme was that people missed hugging others.

It made me realise that no matter where we live, what we do and how much we own, we are all fundamentally the same. Covid has taught me to appreciate everything that I have and value every day that I live because I truly didn’t realise that life could change so drastically in such a small amount of time.

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