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," says 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 a year old. 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, before eventually majoring in photography.
"My photography initially focused on capturing street scenes in Tokyo," Ali says. "But I soon realized that too many people either had no clue about Arab culture, or what they understood was very one-dimensional."
This realization inspired him to switch his focus to showing people that the day-to-day Arab world is a lot more colorful than most folks imagine, with a healthy mix of modern and traditional influences. However, he recognizes that no single image can represent an area home to innumerable nationalities. And while his work often comes across as heavily positive and nostalgic, the photographer tells me that he's not afraid of taking more controversial images. Case in point: a photo he took of a topless man sitting 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," 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, whom 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 says. "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. It's 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," he says. "I assumed they would understand it as art."
Despite the challenges, Ali is confident that he has more supporters than critics—evidenced, he says, by how easy 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."
Going forward, the photographer plans to house all of his work under one project, "From the Middle East to the World," which 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 says. "Hopefully my work can change that."
Scroll down for more photos from Ali Al-Shehabi. For a full selection of his work, check out his website.
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