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A Photographer Turns Dubai Into A Ghost City

Matthias Heiderich’s portraits of Dubai and Abu Dhabi depict buildings as vivid abstractions.

Dubai has grown fast and exponentially from a small fishing village into an international hub. The city, remade into a tourist destination in the ’80s, is unlike any other in the world and is growing by the day. Undeterred by the 2008 crash that sent its building boom momentarily reeling and which left hundreds of buildings abandoned or incomplete, the emirate’s captains of industry have pledged to forge ahead with dozens of new urban projects.

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When he visited earlier this year, photographer Matthias Heiderich found Dubai and UAE capital Abu Dhabi littered with construction sites–evidence of Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s plan to realize the kingdom’s “ultimate goal.” (What that goal entails is anyone’s guess, but it’s certain to involve more opulent resort properties.) When Heiderich arrived, streets and districts were blocked off for construction crews who were busy building new skyscrapers, hotel complexes, and parks. Which might explain why Heiderich’s portraits are so empty.


The lack of pedestrians is a curiously recurring feature of Heiderich’s photography, which also often focuses on architecture and urban landscapes. His compositions are characterized by bold forms, stark skies, and closely cropped fragments that belie the height and true scale of the buildings he takes as his subjects. The approach, which Heidrich tells Co.Design is more “artistic” than architectural, turns these buildings, like Dubai’s twisting Infinity Tower, into small but vivid graphic moments.

Heiderich’s intentionally restricted scope allows him to plan the shots ahead of time before he arrives on-site. For his “UAE” series, he had a brief window of time to capture the photos he wanted. “Before I went, I spent about three weeks doing research. I studied the buildings and made a list of places to go,” Heiderich explains. “Most of the pictures I took were, more or less, already planned in my head.”


Time constraints aside, Heiderich prefers working this way because it forces him to develop a guiding thematic framework for a new photo series. “What I’m looking for are bold shapes, color spots, and unusual and strange designs.” He’s spent the last few years combing his native city of Berlin for these kind of architectonic fragments. “The UAE is actually the first urban series I shot outside Berlin–and was an experiment for transferring my style of photography to other places.”

The photos he brought back from the desert metropoles depict ghost cities, with alien-like towers that cut strangely dystopian skylines. Heiderich admits that the emirate is a far more diverse place than his work suggests. Commercial avenues and indoor entertainment centers buzz with life. The real, unpeopled urbanscapes, says Heiderich, can be found on the city outskirts, where the migrant workers that built these structures are housed in ignominious settlements.

Other aspects of the images prove more accurate. His treatment of the curving, arching skyscrapers grouped in the Abu Dhabi’s Financial District and in the Dubai Marina renders the buildings as the slightly toy-like architecture that they actually resemble.

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About the author

Sammy is a writer, designer, and ice cream maker based in New York. He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer.

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