Paint peeling, and the cement surround crumbling, it was hardly the most elegant door Alex Jeffries had ever seen. But the photographer was fascinated, taking pictures of the villa door from every angle. That's because Alex is more than a photographer - he is a visual historian.
The commercial photographer and designer, who runs the Alex Jeffries Photography Group in Dubai, has been photographing the quaint doors of old villas in Al Ain for the past three years, with the intention of preserving at least a tiny slice of the oasis city's culture for posterity.
"To others, it may not make much of an image, but for me the shafts of sunshine lighting up the colourful doors tell a story - of a time gone by in the other emirates.
"It's like time is standing still in these little old villas, a time when life was more leisurely, lived more fully, and perhaps had more meaning. Some of the door are just beautiful to my eyes, which are so used to plain characterless sheets of wood, metal or glass that you find these days. Often you see a dusty sofa outside the doors," adds Alex. "It speaks for the villa owner's hospitality, especially the ones that have a water cooler outside during summer. That's why I feel the houses, the doors, are a reflection of the personality of the dwellers. It reflects the old-world culture of courtesy that has faded away from many parts of the world.''
The story behind the doors
The Englishman first became interested in the doors four years ago. "When you go to Al Ain the minarets of the mosques are the tallest structures you see on the skyline," he says. "The city is friendly and if you were to drive or walk around you would get a feeling that the structures seem to be saying a big ‘hello' to you.
"The more I visited Al Ain, the more I grew to love the landscape and housing styles and was struck by the colourful doors, large and small, metallic and wooden that adorned old villas. For me they told a tale of the times, the people and their heritage."
Initially, it was his photographer's instinct that drove him to take pictures of his new muse. As the images started accumulating, so did the thought that at some point, the city would undergo changes just like the other places in the country.
"I was pretty sure that it was just a question of time before the doors would soon crumble and disappear... the villas giving place to modern structures,'' he says.
An entrance to people's lives
It was his desire to capture for posterity a slice of Al Ain's culture that pushed Alex to put together a collection of pictures on the doors in a book, Doors of Al Ain.
But it's not just the past and history that fascinates Alex - he loves learning about people's lives while photographing the doors.
"Sometimes while shooting a door, I would get a peek into the lives of the people behind it," he says. "Sometimes you can get to see another door through the front door that takes you into their lives, and sometimes families. Sometimes the open door reveals an abandoned house."
Alex finds the small but colourful doors the most magical. "Most of the time the colours and designs reflect the personality of the owner."
It makes Alex sad to contemplate losing some of these to modernity, which has happened in Abu Dhabi and Dubai where several villas were destroyed to make way for high-rise towers.
"You read about some traditions that are getting lost... You see a lack of space for children to be themselves. However, that's something that I still find exists in Al Ain. People can still be themselves; life is still largely unchanged. You can see people walking over to their neighbours for a chat and a coffee. At the end of the date season most of the palm trees are literally weighed down by the huge bunches of dates hanging from them. You can spot kids climbing the palms to pluck them. It's almost like a pastoral scene you can see in any village around the world."
Alex began collating his pictures for the book six months ago, but still hasn't finished it - because he keeps finding new doors to shoot. He plans to include around 200 images.
"I feel this book could be my contribution to preserving in pictures what is an indelible aspect of Al Ain, which may in time be lost. That's when I decided to chronicle them in a book," he says.
"I keep going back to Al Ain, and last week I found some new beautiful doors to shoot! So I keep adding them, as I keep going back at least once a month."
Once Alex gets sponsors for the book he plans to release it later this year.
Alex's first book of photographs, Dubai in Transition, was published in 2010. "It was a desire to go beyond the usual pictures of high-rises and other developments," he says.
"It was of real people, the heritage and day-to-day life. It's a celebration of ‘real' moments, not just the five-star hotels and buildings you see in the normal photography books."
Now his second book promises to do the same for Al Ain.
Alex Jeffries can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org