Ammar Abd Rabbo is one of the Arab world’s best known photojournalists. Over the last two decades, the Paris-based Syrian photographer has covered political developments such as the wars in Iraq, Libya and Lebanon and the Arab Spring, and society events such as the Cannes Film Festival and Paris Fashion Week. His work has been published in magazines such as “Time”, “Paris Match”, “Der Spiegel”, “Le Monde” and “Asharq Al Awsat”. But while covering important events and people for the news media, Rabbo has also taken interesting pictures of famous people in unguarded moments. These photographs offer a rare glimpse into the private persona of well-known public figures. Rabbo is exhibiting some of these images in his latest show in Dubai.
“Follow the Leader” presents intimate portraits of leaders in various fields. And it takes viewers past the cordons of security, protocol, propaganda and hype that usually surround them, to offer a different perspective on the people and events that have shaped our world.
“It was a real challenge to select just a few pictures from the many that I have taken in the last 23 years. Rather than looking at the people featured, I have focused on images that had real graphic value and made sense in a social, political or historical context. The idea behind this show is to present a different view of these larger-than-life figures, by showing that they are human like all of us. As a photojournalist and an artist, I also want to convey the message that any event, even the most boring handshake, can be seen from a different, less immediate, more artistic angle,” Rabbo says.
The pictures have not been manipulated in any way and each one tells an interesting story. One of the most eye-catching images is that of Queen Elizabeth II peeping anxiously from behind a door. “I took this picture at Windsor Castle during French president Jacques Chirac’s 2004 visit to England, where I was a part of his press team. He was a bit delayed for his meeting with the queen and I spotted her looking out from behind the door to check whether he had arrived. I took the photograph because it was interesting to see her behave like any other host who is concerned because a guest is late,” Rabbo says.
Another unusual picture is that of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Abdul Aziz Al Saud in Disneyland, Paris, happily posing with Mickey Mouse and Goofy. “Prince Alwaleed is an important shareholder of Euro Disney and I had gone to his hotel suite at the Park to shoot some pictures of him. Later, he invited me to join him for a walk around the Park. When we came across these characters, I jokingly asked him to pose with them, but never expected him to agree. To my surprise, he thought it was a great idea and obliged. I like this picture because it conveys that you can be the richest person in the world, but you can still keep the child in you alive,” Rabbo says.
His photograph of Stephen Hawking also offers an interesting insight into a little-known aspect of the famous scientist’s personality. The picture shows Hawking in his wheel-chair with a huge poster of Marilyn Monroe behind him. “You would not expect to see a poster of an actress in an academic institution, but this acclaimed scientist is such a fan of Monroe that he has her picture in his office,” Rabbo says.
The artist’s ringside view at important state occasions has allowed him to capture some spontaneous moments that make for endearing pictures, such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni exchanging loving glances at a public reception, and Princess Haya Bint Al Hussain tenderly adjusting the headscarf of Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum at an official function.
Rabbo has also included photographs of some unpopular leaders. Former Tunisian leader Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali is shown in formal attire, with his wife Laila Trabelsi adjusting the kerchief in his suit pocket. Their majestic surroundings and the sense of luxury and power they emanate say a lot about conceited, insensitive and power-hungry leaders who are out of touch with their people. And you cannot miss the irony in the picture of former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, where the focus is on his heavily armed bodyguards.
Similarly, Rabbo’s photograph of Gaddafi in his smart military uniform, covered with medals and decorations, speaks volumes about this eccentric leader. “This picture was taken in September 2009, during the celebration of Gaddafi’s 40th anniversary in power. He was standing behind a very thick bullet-proof glass. To avoid the foggy effect of the glass, I sneaked to the edge of the stage and used a long lens to quickly take this picture before being kicked out by his security. In a wider sense, this portrait epitomises the arrogance of a dictator and his alienation from the reality around him,” Rabbo says.
“Some people did not like my decision to show pictures of these hated dictators. But, whether we like it or not, these people are part of the history of their country, and so I could not keep them out. What is happening in Syria today is painful, but the killing will not stop if I remove Bashar Al Assad’s picture from the show. I understand that these pictures can evoke strong emotions because of my own personal experiences. I grew up in Tripoli and till the age of 45 I only knew Libya under the rule of Gaddafi. But I was there at the fall of Tripoli during the recent uprising, and it was amazing to see Libya and Libyans freed from the weird leader. Whether we love them or hate them, we all relate to these leaders in some way and are fascinated with their lives,” he adds.
Follow The Leader will run at Ayyam Gallery, DIFC until July 14.