The winning photo
The winning photo Image Credit: Supplied

When 27-year-old Salem Sarhan received the call, little did he know he was about to make history as the first Emirati to win ‘Moments’, an annual competition held by National Geographic Abu Dhabi and Almarai. He says, in an interview with ‘Gulf News’, that he’s very humbled by his win, which was officially announced today.

The winning shot was born off the theme ‘2020 Moments - A Year Lived Differently.’

Sarhan, who was born and brought up in the UAE and is currently based in Al Ain, recalls that while working from home last year owing to the unusual COVID-19 circumstances, he found himself staring at a daily event that would represent what had changed and yet stayed the same – moments of faith.

I’m very proud to be the first Emirati to win this competition and I’m very very proud to represent this country and the Gulf region as well.

- Salem Sarhan

His image captures his brothers performing their devotion at home, following the temporary closure of the places of worship, due to the pandemic. “I was there with my brothers [at home]. At the Maghrib prayer, we decided to perform the prayers. I had a drone and with the drone I took the photographs. I had timed the drone to take photographs using interval photography; the camera takes a number of photos in succession.”

The result is a photograph of vivid colour. ‘Moments’ judge, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and National Geographic photographer Mohammad Muheisen said he was drawn to the image’s portrayal of a tradition lived differently during the pandemic.

The others on the shortlist for top prize were 29-year-old Ahmed Alazzam from Jordan, who photographed Mohamed Hendy, a Jordanian calligrapher who has been working on his art since the 1950s, and Palestinian Samar Abu Elouf. The 36-year-old’s image sees a barber, Sameh, cutting hair in the middle of a street.

Sarhan’s triumph is made that much more impressive when you realise that he’s not professionally trained; it’s a passion that has taken off. “I started in 2015, and I started using different types of professional cameras – Nikon, Canon, Sony - and then said, ‘let me experiment with other technologies as well’, so I started looking at drones and GoPro and also telephone cameras,” he explained.

He also explored YouTube and websites that specialise in photography, engaged with a photography community – and more than anything else, practiced. He explains that he’s driven by a need to show people the world through his lens, his perspective. This need to document a life lived influenced his decision last year, when he was at home, with time on his hands – to learn more about his art, to hone his skill, to create a file of what it meant and how the pandemic affected him and those around him. “I documented the year from the start of the year - Jan/Feb until the middle of the year,” he said.

With the ‘Moments’ win, which brings with it $10,000 worth photography equipment, Sarhan is thrilled. He says the [prize] will help him improve himself and his skill, and pursue his passion with the highest quality equipment. And while he’s keeping his day job for now – at an oil and gas company – he’s already working on his dream of an exhibition.

Sarhan’s already working on his next project, too; he wants to document Emirati heritage, his roots. “I’m very proud to be the first Emirati to win this competition and I’m very very proud to represent this country and the Gulf region as well,” he concludes our talk by saying.