A newlywed young woman from Zagora, South Morocco, making traditional couscous for her husband’s family for the first time, a photo by Benmokhtar Mohammad, first prize winner at Moments 2016

Renowned photographer Steve McCurry once said: “a picture can express a universal humanism, or simply reveal a delicate and poignant truth by exposing a slice of life that might otherwise pass unnoticed.”

It is in that spirit that photography enthusiasts across the region have been invited to take part in the seventh edition of National Geographic Abu Dhabi’s “Moments” competition. For the fourth consecutive year, it is being held in partnership with food company Almarai.

“The competition has continued to grow in numbers year on year. People from all over the Arab world have been eager to share their unique perspective about each theme throughout the competition’s life, as we have sought to bring out the best talent within this region,” says Sanjay Raina, the managing director of Fox Networks Group for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and National Geographic Abu Dhabi.

“We started with the Single Image Category, [introduced] mobile photography in 2016 and, this year, see a significant expansion with new categories, such as photo-documentary and youth, to give photographers of all ages the opportunity to express themselves in different ways.”

This year, photographs are tasked with capturing moments under the theme of ‘Celebrations’. Along with the Youth category, which is open to participants aged 17 and under, and the hoto-documentary category, whereby entries should showcase a specific moment in up to six photographs accompanied by a caption of maximum 600 words, the 2017 competition features another new category – the People’s Choice Award. This category will see short-listed entries compete for votes from across the region on the competition’s website.

“With the world being where it is today, people are overwhelmed with not just news and environment but with the daily stresses of juggling work, families and the day to day chores of our lives,” Raina says. “@ heWe wanted to give people the opportunity to somehow reset their perspective and focus on the good. There is so much good happening all around us every day and this needs to be celebrated and captured. Therefore “Celebrations” was selected as the outlet for participating photographers to step out of their day to day preoccupations and capture the beauty in celebrations. We also know that in this region we are well known for our celebrations so why not focus on those moments? We have already seen some wonderful entries and are happy we went with this year’s theme.”

Since its launch in 2010, the competition has received over 160,000 entries for diverse themes such as Food and its traditions in the Arab World (2016) and Arab Cities Through Your Eyes (2015).

“Moments has grown tremendously since its inception,” he says. “I don’t mean through this that it has become an institution, as this would be contrary to the spirit and the emotions which are at the core of the art of photography. But I do see it as a window onto the world for all the talent that begs to express itself in the Arab World, and I would like this becoming part of our landscape, as a springboard for the region’s youth.”

Among the prizes up for grabs is an all-expenses-paid 11-day photography expedition to Cuba mentored by National Geographic professional photographers, along with $7,500 (Dh25,500) photography hampers by Nikon as well as tickets and travel to the awards ceremony. Entries will be accepted until May 30, after which they will be judged by a distinguished panel.

“It was a great feeling to win the competition. It’s such an honour for me and my family... plus, I won with a picture of my wife so I feel blessed,” says Benmokhtar Mohammad, a 28-year-old Moroccan national. He won the 2016 competition, which included a trip to Japan.

He snapped an image that depicted his wife preparing dinner in their home in Zagora, in southern Morocco.

“I took this picture at home with her help... we ate the couscous after that, it was the most delicious meal I had ever had – and it must have been the luckiest one too to get us this prize,” Mohammed says. He discovered a passion for photography when he received his first camera at the age of 16.

“Taking the pictures, I had no idea I would win, especially the first prize,” he says. “The challenge for us was to find a good idea for the competition until we got the inspiration for the photograph.”

Currently, it is open to Arab Nationals from Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, Tunisia, the UAE, Yemen, Eritrea, Iraq and Libya.

When asked by Weekend Review whether that would change, Raina says: “This competition came about when we realised that there is a need to showcase talent coming out of our region that may not otherwise have a platform to do so. There is so much raw talent across the MENA region. I was in awe when I saw the receptivity and excitement of people in sharing a piece of themselves with us. Don’t forget – a few years ago photography as an outlet in this region was not as prominent as it is today. With the art scene having expanded its wings over the past few years, we felt we were able to be part of this movement, even in a little way, and help encourage people to come out and show the region just how talented we are. We will continue to support Arab talent as we are proud to represent these rich cultures whether it is through our photography platforms or our original content, which is the essence of National Geographic Abu Dhabi.”

And he adds: “I believe what makes this competition so unique is that we are focused on the MENA region, and I don’t think that we would, at this stage, open it to other markets. But again, this is something we would need to study. Our landscapes and audience needs are constantly changing and we always look at what serves them and National Geographic Abu Dhabi best. We feel that every country within MENA has something special to offer – different perspectives, talent, experience... the more we continue to push this diversity and dynamic the further it keeps our audience interested and curious to see what is out there and that is something we pride ourselves on.”

In the meantime, both Raina and Benmokhtar have some words of advice for both participants and budding photographers.

“I am not an expert in photography, even though I too am an avid photographer,” Raina says. “I would certainly leave that with our judges, but I will say to our participants to be focused, to study their environments and truly feel the moments so they may grab the essence of the story they want to share regardless of the category. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so make sure you capture that moment in your image before submitting your entry.” .

Benmokhtar agrees. “Find ways to stay inspired and do your photography with love, “ he says. “It is all about practice, so look for a different angle you will find something more interesting.”

Nathalie Farah is a writer based in Abu Dhabi.

For more information about the competition, please visit http://www.natgeo-moments.com