(Under UAE law, the ownership of a photograph belongs to the subject of the image, while copyright law gives ownership to the photographer.)
The recent news about residents and tourists being fined (and worse, imprisoned) because of prohibited taking of photographs is alarming. I especially empathized with the tourists whose main intention of visiting the emirates is to enjoy their stay here and part of it is of course, to capture the rare corners of the UAE.
What’s unfortunate is there is no existing photography law (decree) in the UAE. Hence, aside from the explicit warning like “taking photos is not allowed” in some areas, which is normally written in English and Arabic, there is no available quick reference of the “forbidden elsewhere” that a person might resort to reading between the lines. Being a photo enthusiast myself, I’d like to share these gentle reminders that I’ve learned to punch to myself every now and then:
Do not take photos of any women, especially the UAE nationals. On my second weekend in Abu Dhabi, we went to Heritage Park and as expected the newbie in me wanted to have snapshots of some corners of the park. Incidentally, in one of my shots, a group of young Emiratis (teenagers and children) were captured. I was approached by a lady who turned to be their companion and asked me to delete the photos that I took. She politely told me that she noticed that I was taking photos of her siblings. I explained that I was a new resident and was simply capturing the views and not anyone. “We are Muslims and you should know that we are sensitive to being photographed by strangers”, she explained. Lucky me that she was soft spoken and didn’t bring me any harm. I obliged to show her the photos in my camera and deleted the questioned shots. She was pleased after that.
Do not take photos of royal palace. How lucky we were that we chanced on getting in the compound of the presidential palace. Because we got lost! How we managed to explain to the security officer that we were driving and so… is another story. I’m just glad that all of us behaved so well that time and didn’t even take out a camera. Otherwise, we definitely could have spent months in jail. The truth is, lost we were, we didn’t know that we were indeed in the grounds of the palace already. Recently, a tourist was imprisoned for taking photos of it and he reasoned that he did that out of admiration of the palace and had no bad intentions. (But, the warning signs were there!)
Do not take photos of military, airport, and government instillations. Warnings in English and Arabic are normally found in and near these places. But beware of INCIDENTAL snapshots:
- Last year, an expat was imprisoned for two days and fined because he allegedly took a photo of an area which houses warships and defence installments. He was driving over Khalifa Bridge and decided to stop to capture the sunset to submit it as his entry for a photography competition in Abu Dhabi. The warnings probably not visible from the bridge, he didn’t know that a military camp will be captured within the frame of the sunset.
- Another expat was arrested and fined because of the alleged taking of photo of the control tower of the Abu Dhabi International Airport. He claimed that he did not see the warning and just wanted a commemorative photo of a plane taking off, which incidentally captured the control tower.
- Another expat was arrested for taking snapshot of the leaning tower of Abu Dhabi, Capital Gate. A nearby embassy was accidentally captured in the same shot. He was acquitted after three months.
Be most careful when there are no warning signs. The biggest challenge is when there’s no sign of prohibition in one place and it does not happen to be a military or government instillation or the airport. For instance, two residents were convicted and fined this month for taking photos of the Yas Marina motorsport racing circuit. I hardly believed the judgment because it is one of the tourist attractions and a common photo interest in the UAE. I even took several shots during the Grand Prix last November. I don’t even remember any warning signs there. How to read between the lines? I don’t suggest that. Instead, ask from the security officers if it’s not defined.
Be respectful and sincere. While my most favourite photo subject is food, there are rare instances when I want to capture a group of people. Just like that day when we had our basic photo workshop, I asked the passers-by if they can pose for me for my assignment. Be genuine and reasonable when giving reasons why you request to take their photo.
Be discreet. While I like my dSLR, most of the time I’m accompanied by my point and shoot camera. Let’s face it, big cameras grab more attention and give the impression that you shoot for commercial reasons. I thank my digicam for being so reliable and making my captures discreet. Let the big camera shine only when it’s needed.
Be law-abiding. As they say, When in Rome, do what the Romans do. While the photography ethics in UAE is vague, make time to learn the basic dos and don’ts and feel the news. Believe it or not, I don’t feel so restricted because at the end of the day, it’s about respect for one’s culture. It helps to be a chameleon. My self-imposed photography ethics transformed, too, depending on where I am.