The mosque project: enlightenment of a photographic journey
Duncan believes he is on a journey with each project and that trying to understand what it means at the beginning of that process is futile. His belief is, “The truth and learnings will only present themselves at the final post.”
Eugene Richards used to take photos but not put film in the camera. He needed the journey of understanding before he could understand the project so his ethos was why waste money on film at the beginning when it will always be the images at the end that matter.
Photography helps him understand. Photography takes him down a path, but he doesn’t know where that path might lead. Until you have started down a road you cannot begin to understand until the end. So now he enjoys the journey and the learning along the way.
“The journey teaches you about the project. The intent after research and planning might be different to the outcome. Learning through the process of taking photographs and then understanding the meaning at the final point is what makes the photographs so much more valuable. This is when the narrative shines through.”
One such journey for Duncan was his accidental mosque project.
The mosque project
Duncan has compiled a portfolio of arresting images he took of mosques over a period of time across the UAE. Affectionately, he calls this his ‘mosque project’.
An important piece of work, it expresses religion and religious culture from his perspective. The project is about his journey of understanding, starting with him as a British expat landing in a country he did not know, uncertain of his surroundings, scared of religion and not comprehending how or where he fitted in.
Observing an abundance of small unusual buildings around the country, Duncan’s curiosity got the better of him and he started taking pictures. Not realising what these small buildings were initially, as some often looked like ramshackle lean-tos or dilapidated huts, soon people started to confront him about why he was taking photos.
In the first instance, understanding that these were religious buildings was a revelation.
Duncan was able to speak to the caretakers, the builders and the attendants of these small, humble buildings on his photographic journey. They were extremely welcoming to him. They would offer water and shade and some insight into their world. They told him that it was “important to have a cross-cultural dialogue and openness between people and religions, an open conversation”.
These buildings that are in very small communities, sometimes in quite harsh living conditions, give people something. Naturally, people pray there and attend for religious purposes, however these quiet mosques provide much more than a place of worship. They provide a central point of congregation for people living miles from the city, miles from the nearest shop. They provide a sense of community, a focus, to a group of people who are living very rural, miles out in the desert away from any civilization, far from home, far from their own families.
“Some of these buildings have evolved unlike any other building in the UAE. They might be scruffy, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t important. They are important for someone.”
Some mosques might have started with just a tin roof and 4 poles, then the next year walls would be added, then two weeks later a minaret. Most are built by men on their own time after work with their own money. Money that they really don’t have to spare; it’s a ‘sacrifice’, but one they do willingly for their own contentment.
And so, Duncan’s touring of the UAE that resulted in his ‘mosque project’ became not just a photographic journey but much more of a self-exploratory learning expedition.
“It’s a story that should be told. These buildings all have their own stories.”
Some of the run-down cabins he originally captured on camera now have huge mosques in their place. They came from humble beginnings and as Duncan highlights, “There is nothing wrong with being honest about the past”.
By looking at his photographs within the project you can only guess at those stories – Duncan does not share their individual stories, for he shields their anonymity. Although perhaps he does this to also protect his own spiritual journey throughout this project.
“This project gave me a whole level of respect for religion as a whole. It’s not scary, religion shouldn’t divide people. These mosques don’t drive a divide, they bring people closer together.”
Duncan’s next project is in the Netherlands about terraforming. There are entire areas that are reclaimed in the sea – they have a very clear vision about the development of this land. He would like to observe the difference between vision and reality. He would also like to post the question through his lens: Can we construct communities, or should communities evolve?
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