The contentious issue of the media’s representation of the UAE will come under the spotlight at a top-level panel discussion at The Shelter, Al Quoz, Dubai, on Tuesday, October 20. Hosted by arabianEye, the UAE’s leading visual content provider and held in conjunction with the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy, the event is expected to spark lively debate on how professionals within the UAE portray this culture.
Among the questions being asked on the night will be; ‘How much of UAE life is accessible to the western media gaze and how accurate is that depiction?’ and ‘How do we overcome the stigma of appearing in photographs?’ The panel that has been selected to debate these issues represents a cross-section of Arab and western life.
Celia Peterson, Managing Director of arabianEye, believes the forum will cast a critical eye on how media coverage affects people’s perception of life in this part of the world.
“We wanted to provoke a dialogue about the often stereotypical media imagery and narrative that is applied to the United Arab Emirates,” she revealed. “There is a very rich culture thriving in the region; a culture that's changing. Yet most media representations tend to focus on shopping and generic images of happy families, missing the nuances of Emirati society and the more subtle cultural currents moving through it,” she added.
Peterson clearly believes that any skewed representation is partly down to the pressures of consumer society and also partly due to cultural factors. “Some of the unrealistic portrayal is industry-driven, as advertisers want to associate products with images that communicate a kind of generalised optimism, which can result in clichés,” she said. “On the other hand, Emirati society is very private and inaccessible to outsiders - including media professionals who've lived in the region for years - so the reproduction of clichés is in part a response to closed doors. Not every door is closed, of course and since the ones which are open are precious, we would like to have a chat in the courtyard, as it were, rather than rush in with cameras blazing,” she added.
Taking part in the discussion, which will be held between 7pm-9pm, are a number of prominent figures within the regional media; including Alia Al Shamsi, a local photojournalist and a winner of the Qatar Al Thani Awards in 2004 and James Langton, Deputy Editor of The National on Saturday. Appearing alongside them will be Nezar Andary, Professor of film and literature at the Zayed University of Abu Dhabi, Rami Farook, a member of the Sheikh Mohammed Establishment for Young Business Leaders, and Till Hohmann, Executive Creative Director for Memac Ogilvy & Mather, GCC.
“The whole profile of the panel discussion will generate debate about an important subject for all of us who live in the UAE,” said Peterson. “Some of our panel members will have a conservative stance; others are likely to want to promote a more liberal media agenda. The discussion probably won’t involve a consensus of opinion on every topic raised and we are expecting a heated debate,” she continued.
ArabianEye was started by UK expatriate Peterson in 2005 and is well placed to host such an introspective event. The organisation has grown rapidly from its original incarnation as a Middle Eastern image library to become a ‘one stop shop’ visual service which provides images from an extensive archive that exclusively represents the region. The organisation also provides world-class photographers, a number of whom have won international awards, to provide tailored photo-shoots. Peterson herself doesn’t see any incongruity in a western expatriate running a service dedicated to portraying a Middle Eastern culture.
“I think that someone on the outside looking in, in terms of Emirati society, is able to view things from a different angle and see new and exciting perspectives,” she said. “I believe that it is organisations such as arabianEye that are helping to bridge the cultural divide here,” she added.
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