Nick Hannes

Garden Of Delight is the latest project by photographer Nick Hannes in which he deals with urbanisation, leisure and consumerism in the city of Dubai. The title refers to J. Bosch’s most famous painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, depicting a paradise where people feast on all kinds of earthly pleasures.
‘It’s a moralistic painting made in order to keep people on the right path – which is certainly not the case in my work. Dubai is always presented as a paradise, where everything is possible, from underwater hotels to air-cooled beaches. I thought that idea would fit well with my series’

Interview by Herlinde Raeman
Photos shot by Sybren Vanoverberghe,
in Nick Hannes’ atelier & garden

How come you chose to go and work on a project in Dubai?
I had been fascinated by new urbanity for a long time. How cities expand, and, more particularly, how cities are expanding in a non-organic way, very orchestrated and market-driven. Dubai was created on a hunt for money, to spend as much as possible – the city as a market, not as a nice place to settle down. It was developed for economic reasons mainly. Of course the city has a lot to offer visually; the skyline, for example, is very impressive.

I had seen very few photographs from Dubai that enter the private world before

Are the images you’ve made spontaneous?
Well, everything was very well prepared. Without decent preparation you can do very little over there, even street photography is extremely difficult. So yes, there is a lot of research behind the photos, but once I got to a place where I had permission to shoot, I was looking for coincidence and making spontaneous photos. There’s no staging, although I try to make it look like that, so many people believe there is. One of my strategies is to wait for a good moment with my camera on a tripod and the self-timer in my hand. As Dubai is such a controlled society, people need to know what you are doing at all times. I did not say I was making a book or an exhibition or a documentary because people couldn’t imagine what that would look like, so they didn’t trust it. When I asked for permission, I received numerous emails asking how big my crew would be and how many meters of cable I would bring, where would I install the lights, and so on. They were thinking about commercial productions. I had seen very few photographs from Dubai that enter the private world before.

What kind of people live there?
Roughly speaking, you have 3 kinds of population. At the top you have a layer of 10%, the Emiratis in their white robes, the elite, the privileged people. They get all kinds of benefits from the Sheik, so they won’t question the Sheik’s power. These are not the main subjects of my series. Below that you have a very large group of expats, 90% of the population. They are a heterogeneous group of people, ranging from underpaid Pakistani construction workers to middle class (Western) expats. The latter are my main subjects. They leave for Dubai to make a lot of money, because you don’t have to pay taxes, but no one intends to stay for the rest of their lives. Everyone is living there temporarily because your residency always depends on your work permit. You are reduced to an economic pawn.

Everyone is living there temporarily, you are reduced to an economic pawn

How many times have you been there?
I have been there 5 times between 2016 and 2018, each time for two weeks, which is not long. I’m used to spending more time on projects, but with those forced preparations I could plan almost everything in advance and was able to work very efficiently from day to day. Not that many photographers are crazy enough to apply for all permits in advance [laughs], which means I was able to make quite unique work. I notice that because of the fact that it got picked up internationally.

It is not the first time you went abroad to photograph, right?
A very practical reason as to why I opt for long-term foreign projects is that you don’t get disturbed that often. You are alone when you’re traveling. At home I have my family, the academy, my phone, mails, … You can’t fully focus. I also like to travel. I live in Belgium, so I don’t have the urge to create here as well. I know my own country well enough. Although I don’t focus on exotic things, but rather on reasonably familiar territory. I find it interesting that I can relate to it, so I am in a position to give visual commentary.

I find it interesting that I can relate to it, so I am in a position to give visual commentary

You question authenticity in these series. What does that word mean to you?
If you walk through the whole exhibition, you will see very little elements that refer to authenticity or local culture. Dubai was a regional trading post in the 1960s, but the houses were all demolished to make room for the new skyline. Now they are starting to reconstruct old buildings because they realize it could be interesting for tourism. Dubai is a generic city, to use a term from Rem Koolhaas; it refers to a city without stratification, without soul, without character. It could actually be anywhere.

Why does that appeal to you?
What happens in Dubai happens everywhere. Not so excessively maybe, but still…  Every city becomes a tourist destination and is being converted into an amusement park. The obsession with control, safety, cameras, etc., is happening here too. In Dubai public life takes place inside, in malls, gated communities, beach clubs… The public space is actually abandoned and neglected. The real estate business has political power. Politics and economic forces are one. The big companies are starting to determine the political agenda. I think that’s my concern.

I particularly noticed how hard people get bored …
Yes! But that is my view as a photographer, I am not saying that’s the truth. I could have, of course, taken other photos but I opted for that apathetic and artificial boredom. Dubai is a giant amusement park and I am convinced that’s a disaster for the imagination of people. When you have to bear those superficial things all the time, in the long run you will stop thinking about the things that need reflection. A lot of art is forbidden, contemporary art in Dubai does not surf on freedom of expression, it’s an empty box. Without art and culture you won’t get soul nor rock ‘n roll.

Without art and culture you won’t get soul nor rock ‘n roll

It would be funny to be able to show your exhibition there, no?
Yes, but I would need to censor it and I don’t know if I want to. You do have free zones, without local regulations, but it is not on my priority list.

What kind of music suits this project?
Punk! Music that revolts. Dubai has to be a bit more daring, a city must remain adventurous, there has to be a rancid side before you can experience spontaneous things.


The exhibition Garden Of Delight runs until 3 March
in De Garage in Mechelen. The exhibition is free.
More info here!
The book Garden of Delight is published by Hannibal.