Be careful when you take photos in the UAE

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(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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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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.

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  22 comments for “Be careful when you take photos in the UAE

  1. February 5, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    i heard about that nga. pero actually medyo ganun din naman dito hindi lang ganun ka strict ang implementation kasi may iba na ok lang mag shoot may iba naman naninita. tama ka na dapat may P&S ka pa din kasi iba dating sa tao ang big cam kaya kung mag shoot ka using a dslr always ask permission.

  2. February 5, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    wow, i’m glad i don’t work/live there (or i’ll be in jail by now!:P). i’m such a scatterbrain and trigger-happy person, malamang di ko mapapansin ang mga signs pag na-excite na ako. but you’re right, respect for one’s culture is important, especially when you’re a foreigner. luckily, i seldom take photos of strangers, shy ako. the guys in your photos, did you ask them to pose for you? serious naman ang mga manong.:p

    • witsandnuts
      February 7, 2011 at 8:00 am

      Yes, I asked those guys to pose for me. I was actually trying to frame the buildings when they pass by. I asked them to smile, but that’s the best expression they gave me. ;)

  3. February 6, 2011 at 1:09 am

    I was about to drop a line in my blog something about taking photographs here in the UAE too. Recently, we were on the border and our mate was taking photos of it, the police asked her not to do so. Then, we had to pass this checkpoint in Oman, our mate was admiring the mountain behind the police post, taking photo of that again. Again, the police stopped her, thinking it was their post that was the subject.

    I was browsing a Dubai guide book when it clearly said to avoid taking photos of military or government buildings. And it’s not just in Dubai, in Oman too.

  4. February 6, 2011 at 3:15 am

    There are rules like this in some malls too here in the Philippines, I swear, Robinson’s Place here is Gensan has rules not to take out your camera when inside the premises, i dunno why! But then, it’s the husband who always takes out his, I don’t.

  5. Kayni
    February 6, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s always good to be conscious about a country’s sensitivities and preferences.

  6. kg
    February 6, 2011 at 10:58 am

    thanks for the heads-up. i guess as tourists, we want to capture as much of a place as we can.

    but let’s not forget that some people do not feel comfortable with having there pciture taken by a stranger. let’s be mindul of this, even when we are not in UAE.

  7. February 7, 2011 at 6:58 am

    these are good reminder wits. i hope a lot of of people get to read your entry.

    when i visited dubai and abu dhabi, it came in handy to be accompanied by someone who knew these “rules”. the moment i arrived in dubai, my husband told me right away what are the accepted and not accepted norms in the city. i was very grateful for letting me know right away because as a traveler, i can be very naive and carefree because i want to explore a lot of areas and take photos, of course. but being in dubai has taught me that every country has it cultures that a traveler must adjust to.

    have a great week!

  8. February 7, 2011 at 7:01 am

    p.s. here in australia, we have like a silent rule not to take photos of people and children in beaches and schools. it has something to do with privacy of people and protecting children against pedophiles.

  9. February 7, 2011 at 7:07 am

    this is so informative, jo but of course, alarming.
    i’m also law-abiding and try to be obedient always; so kung ayaw nila, di wag!
    ingat na lang lagi.

  10. February 7, 2011 at 7:19 am

    they’re that strict in taking photos? wow. naku wits, be careful na when you’re taking pictures there! ayoko naman makulong ka dahil sa litrato nila. hehe. :)

  11. February 7, 2011 at 10:51 am

    this is a good reminder that photo enthusiasts should be aware and abide to place’s laws on taking snapshots…

  12. February 7, 2011 at 11:00 am

    there was a time when my brother and his friends took photos of some camels in a racetrack, only to find out its was a “royal” racetrack. They got their memory cards confiscated.

  13. February 7, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    the ownership of a photograph belongs to the subject of the image, while copyright law gives ownership to the photographer>> wow! i was actually surprised seeing you post these photos with them posing.

  14. February 8, 2011 at 7:36 am

    I’m surprised those guys agreed to be photographed. Bilib ako sa convincing powers mo hehe

    But laws are imposed for a purpose so we should just respect and obey them. When we lived there hindi pa uso digicam so we didn’t take many pictures but ehem we had special passports so I don’t think we would be jailed or deported for that matter. We would just die of shame nga lang.

  15. kay
    June 9, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Just a question, what if you we’re been pictured by a man without your permission but you are not a muslim?

  16. Indio
    July 13, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    We should respect and observe their conservative nature and culture.

    I would recommend that there should be laws imposing the prohibitions of taking shots anywhere in the UAE. Secondly, selling of DSLR cameras, bridge cameras, camera phones, and anything that can take some shots should be banned in the UAE.
    Lastly, entry on these gadgets should be prohibited. To mention all smartphones available in themarket already have cameras.

    If these should be strictly implemented, i think there would be no more doubts and no further complains. And everyone living in the UAE will have peace of mind. A good thing isn’t it?

  17. MEJSZEL Riwkeh
    July 7, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    Dear Fellow travellers to UAE and Foreign resident in UAE,

    Taking photos in UAE seems to be financialy and legally risky even if you wear convenient clothes, behave according to local traditions (easy), respect the other’s right to privacy and the widespread worldwide prohibition of capturing Airport, train stations, urban mass transit amenities, official buildings and military plants or materials. To this list, you can add constructions, spécialy of new building where southern Asian and indian workers operate at all time of the day and the night in insane conditions. In luxury marinas and dwelling complexes, don’t forget the domestic employee activity which must not be captured even accidentaly under any pretext.

    When I will fly to UAE in september, I will visit this country with a local lawyer. We never know. Managing our behaviour was much easier in former Soviet Union.

    Nice stay in UAE.

    Paris, 2013/07/07

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