Salem at work
Salem at work

Emirati photographer Salem Sarhan wins big with Nat Geo comp

Contest winner aims to showcase UAE to the world through his work


David Light

Published: Sun 21 Feb 2021, 4:04 PM

Given 2020’s global situation, the annual ‘Moments’ competition, one of the largest photography contests across the Middle East and North Africa, was always going to be a bit different. Adapting to the climate early, hosts National Geographic Abu Dhabi and Almarai tweaked the theme accordingly titling it ‘2020 Moments: A Year Lived Differently.’ In spite of this alteration, as usual, the entries flooded in and led to tough decisions from the judging panel, which included two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and National Geographic photographer Mohammad Muheisen. Though recently a victor was chosen: 27-year-old Salem Sarhan from Al Ain has become the first Emirati to win the competition in its ten-year history and with it will have his photograph released in the National Geographic Alarabiya Magazine, and receive $10,000 worth of professional photography equipment.

Salem’s winning image captures his brothers performing prayers at home, following the closure of places of worship during the pandemic. Muheisen was drawn to the image’s portrayal of a tradition lived differently during the stay home measures. He also praised the quality and colour composition. We caught up with Sarhan to find out more.

How does it feel to have won this competition?

It was such a great feeling! I am so proud to be the first Emirati to win the prestigious ‘Moments’ award by National Geographic Abu Dhabi in partnership with Almarai. It has motivated and encouraged me to continue learning and developing myself in the area of photography so that I can show the world the beauty, heritage and cultural sites of the UAE in their best light.

Has being a published photographer always been an ambition of yours?

My photography journey started by pure chance in 2015, when my friend forgot his camera in my car. I was on a trip and started using the camera to capture the sites and nature around me. I discovered I had an eye for photography, which I decided to nurture and develop. So I started to read and learn and watch educational videos. Since then, I am never without my camera!

Why do you think your image won? What were you trying to capture in the picture?

I believe it’s because it’s an authentic image that reflects the reality that many of us lived during the pandemic in 2020. This is the moment I wanted to capture with this image. My brothers and I were used to performing our devotion at the mosque and we now had to perform our devotion at home. Not being able to go to the mosque – because it was closed- was a new experience for us. Beyond showcasing my personal story, I believe this image symbolises ‘A Year Lived Differently’, which was the 2020 Moments competition’s theme.

Suddenly, in 2020, every activity that we used to undertake automatically became either challenging or not possible. This is an experience that was shared by everyone in 2020, here in the UAE, across the region, and around the world!

Your picture features your family, how important is family to you?

My family is my refuge, where I feel most secure, where I can be totally myself. I am very lucky to have such a wonderful family who are always there for me and support me fully in my career and life goals.

Are you going to be a professional photographer now?

I just graduated with a Law Degree from Al Ain University. I work full-time at ADNOC Onshore in Abu Dhabi. I would definitely like to devote more time to photography and would love to travel, take photos and learn about different cultures!

You made the most of stay home measures with your picture, but how have you found the whole pandemic experience overall?

I wanted to use my time as usefully as I could, and turn the situation into a positive opportunity to read, learn new skills in photography and volunteer. I volunteered on the front lines as a photographer and supported public healthcare workers in their mission to manage the pandemic.

Have you had the vaccine, and if so would you encourage others in the UAE to take it?

Yes I took the vaccine and had my second dose a few days ago. I encourage everyone living in the UAE, who can and is advised to do so, to take it. It was very organised and I didn’t feel any effects. It was done through the health authorities, which gave me a lot of reassurance and peace of mind.

What are your hopes for 2021?

I hope first of all that the pandemic ends for good and never returns, so that we can all return to our normal lives, all of us around the world! Personally, I hope to advance in photography and learn new skills and be able to devote more time to it.

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