Migrant Photographs and Fantasies of the Persian Gulf

By Mohamed Shafeeq Karinkurayil. Mohamed is Assistant Professor at Manipal Centre for Humanities, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Karnataka. He researches the visual and literary cultures of migration with a focus on the Gulf migration from Kerala.

Look closely at the photograph above. It was taken by an Indian migrant in Abu Dhabi in 1981. We see two men shaking hands with each other. The distance between them and the stretch of the hands suggest that they are unknown to each other. These are two strangers meeting in the city. Behind them the newly constructed Corniche stretches to infinity. The broad walk by the sea lined by streetlights clearly conveys that this place belongs to the city and the developed world. The two men are dressed impeccably. They are wearing shiny black shoes. Their shirts are in vogue. The scantiness of life around them is noirish.

The camera is placed at an angle. This is a shot which is not supposed to foster identification with the characters. The high angle of the shot suggests a vision that is not human. This is not the recording of an occasion in the interest of future remembrance. The point of view is not that of an interlocutor. It is as if—to borrow from Walter Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator—this unforgettable moment is now in the realm of “God’s remembrance.” By leaving out the trace of how the photographer could be at an elevation, say a flight of steps, the photographer has made it an establishing shot. The shot is transcendental in its objective and authoritative perspective.

Vilkkanundu Swapnangal (1980)
(Source: malayalachalachithram.com)

What could this photograph, of a real space rendered fantastic, tell us about migrant self-representations? What does it say about photography as a medium of those representations? In its form, the shot of the photograph is similar to Malayalam film’s depiction of the city as a space of crime, thrills, and adventure. It bears no resemblance to this film industry’s depictions of the city as a space of labour such as we find in films like Vilkkanundu Swapnangal (Dreams for Sale). This was a 1980 movie about the Gulf migrant experience set in Dubai and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. In fact, the shot could be directly lifted from Love in Singapore, another Malayalam film from this period that was set in Singapore. A thriller about a stolen artifact, this film depicted a glamorous city with broad streets, infinite high-rises, and vast shopping spaces. When new connections are made in the city, whether for nefarious or noble reasons, this is how the interested parties meet, with hands stretched out as in a business meeting. Listen to the picture and you can even hear English – ‘how do you do!’

Love In Singapore (1980)
(Source: Imdb.com)

In the realist space of labour, people do not shake hands. They pat each other, maybe hug. They are not strangers meeting in a city. Even if they were, they share an organic solidarity as members of the same class. But this is not the realist space that Gulf labourers aim to convey to their folks back home. They do not represent life in the Gulf as hard and excruciating. The shaking of hands with stretched out arms suggests a different association, one which is urban and therefore obviously modern. It is very different from greetings which do not touch each other. Or those that involve bodies which are in closer proximity to each other, like the nose to nose greeting of the Arabs. The shaking of hands is when people meet in a city because there are things to be done, adventures on the road, lights, action, and a camera.

The two people we see in the picture are, as we might have guessed by now, well known to each other. They are flatmates as is the one taking the photograph. The three have set out one Friday, a holiday, to photograph themselves against the wonders of the new place that they are now in.

The photograph suggests an instance of how such migrants recorded their bodies in the urban space of the Gulf. What we have in the photograph is an instance of what Christopher Pinney has called “imposturing.” This is one of those instances when the photograph is relieved of its task as an indexical document—that is, to record what is there—and to picture instead a fantastic situation. Pinney’s examples, such as the photographs of people posing with film stars on display at the shopfront of a studio in Chandni Chowk, Delhi, involve the manipulation of images. Here, the image is not manipulated but the situation captured by the photograph is in itself in the order of the cinematic.

One obvious interocular reference for this photograph is to Malayalam commercial cinema. At the time, the industry produced innumerable stories of stolen relics and hidden treasures, ghastly villains, and agile heroes. An obvious reference may be, as noted above, Love in Singapore. This film starred Jayan, an icon of adventure and action who, in the film, has run away from home and has to deal with villains in that fantastic city by the sea. By his side, and also starring, is Prem Nazir, the romantic hero and the good son, the one who is sent here so that the stolen relic can be brought home.

Jayan in Love in Singapore (1980)

I would like to put forward a generalization with this photograph as an example: in the migrant’s recording of their own lives through the medium of photography, we are privy to a different imagination of the Gulf. It is a place that is characterised by thrills and adventure and not the grime and harsh sun that the standard discourse on labour would have it to be.

But this discourse on labour hardly comes from an outsider’s perspective. It is often propagated by the migrants themselves. Is it the photograph that denies the realist? Does its unoriginal aura-defying nature occlude the personal? Or, is it this “imposture” that is truly private, the evil-eye for which will have to be warded off by the discourse on privation? These are just a few of the questions a photograph can raise for the study of migrant narratives.