This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia
"If you asked me to describe the Middle East, I would say it's a place full of warmth, culture, and love," explains photographer Ali Al-Shehabi. "Unfortunately, the western media chooses to portray the region using established stereotypes. For example, the image of Dubai is often of super cars, high-tech and luxury buildings. But there are so many more values that are far more important. I want my photos to show what the region is actually like."
Ali was born in Bahrain before his family moved to Dubai when he was just one. After graduating from high school, the 24-year-old started a degree in Petroleum Engineering but soon dropped out and moved to Tokyo where he studied Art and Media, eventually majoring in photography.
"My photography initially focused on capturing street scenes in Tokyo," Ali tells me. "But I soon realised that too many people either had no clue about Arab culture, or what they understood was very one dimensional."
This realisation inspired him to switch up his focus towards showing people that the day to day of the Arab world is a lot more colourful than people imagine, with a healthy mix of modern and traditional influences. However, he recognises that there isn't a single image that can represent an area of 150 nationalities. And though his work often comes across as heavily positive and nostalgic, the photographer tells me that he's not afraid of taking more controversial images – as he showed with his photo of a topless man sat next to a copy of the Quran.
"Many people considered that photo an insult to Islam because the model wasn't dressed and the Quran was on the floor – even though it wasn't on the floor but on a wooden table, instead," he says. "People wouldn't stop posting hateful comments on social media. Some were asking God to forgive me, as if I had killed someone, while others were like: 'respect the Quran, you son of a bitch.'" Ali had actually intended for the photo to invoke memories of his father, who he lost at a young age. "My dad used to work on Saturdays, and I'd wake up to him reading the Quran as he got ready for work," he explains. "There are many details in the photo that remind me of him. For example, my mother would put flowers and coffee out just as he was getting ready. Its details like that which are represented in the scene."
His Instagram followers weren't the only ones to object to the picture; all of the art galleries he approached refused to exhibit the photo. "That was disappointing; I assumed they would understand it as art."
Despite the challenges, Ali is confident that he has more supporters than critics – evidenced by how easy he says it is to find "inspiring people who are willing to step out of their comfort zones" and model in his shoots. "The majority of people I approach are happy to get involved in the project because they can appreciate that it represents something different." In the long run, the photographer plans for all of his work to come under the project "From the Middle East to the World", that will not only focus on portraying daily life across Arabia, but also highlight stories of what it's like to be young in the region. "Too many people are blinded by the media's representation of Arab culture," he adds. "Hopefully my work can change that."
Scroll down for more photos from Ali Al-Shehabi. For a full selection of his work, check out Ali's website.