Photographer Ramesh Shukla came to the UAE in 1960 carrying little more than his Rolleicord camera. He would go on to capture some of the key moments in the country’s history as he documented the work of His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Here, in the Year of Zayed, are some of his previously unseen images.
Ramesh Shukla’s first encounter with the late HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was memorable – and without any formalities or protocol. Although there was no common language, Shukla was welcomed by Sheikh Zayed and treated as part of the community. Sheikh Zayed’s presence and charisma captivated Shukla, and he wanted to capture the sheikh through his lens, marking these moments permanently for generations to come.
Shukla describes his destiny and his presence in the UAE as being “in the right place at the right time.” But getting to the UAE in 1960 as a young 20-something was not easy. He was sent on assignment by Indian newspapers to document life in the region, and spent five days on a boat from Mumbai, surviving on a few bunches of bananas. He had hardly any possessions with him and just Rs50 in cash but in his bag, he carried a Rolleicord camera and 25 rolls of films – a gift on his 14th birthday. Upon arrival, he was greeted with unfamiliar experiences, scenes, and traditions. Being an inquisitive artist, he took as many opportunities as possible to capture and archive it all on film.
Dubai in the Sixties was a very different place to what it is today, and largely undocumented. Shukla’s images were immediately impactful, and after completing his assignment and returning to India, he came back to the emirate to capture more of everyday life. This time, he brought his wife and children with him, and set up a studio in Deira.
He quickly became the most important photographer in the country, shooting more than 100 images every day and developing them at night. He captured life in a city and country that would soon change beyond recognition, but his most famous image is the one of the country officially being formed.
In 1971, Shukla witnessed the signing of the treaty for the formation of the UAE at Union House in Jumeirah. Even now, countless photos later, Shukla believes the image of Sheikh Zayed signing the treaty is one of his best images. He also photographed what has become one of the most iconic images in the history of the UAE – a group shot of all the emirates’ rulers standing together underneath a waving flag. One of his seven shots was chosen to be the official photograph of the historic event, and now adorns offices and buildings across the seven emirates. It was also used to create the Spirit of the Union logo.
Shukla still has hundreds of undeveloped rolls of film from the Seventies and Eighties. Older works of his are surfacing all the time – including the images Vogue Man Arabia is running here – and his photos continue to draw in crowds of people eager to see what life was like before malls and metros. The Etihad Museum in Dubai – the first national museum of the UAE – showcases a permanent exhibition of Shukla’s historical photographic collection, which his wife and son have preserved and archived. Here Shukla talks us through some previously unseen images:
“I had to make myself almost invisible to not disturb the moment. I always admired the sheikhs’ modesty and simplicity.”
“There was a strong connection and friendship between Sheikh Rashid and Sheikh Zayed. These personal moments between them are very special to me. This particular image is memorable because I almost felt like a court jester, putting a smile on their faces.”
“I only had two exposures left on my camera roll, so I planted myself on the ground and waited for the sheikhs to approach me.”
Originally printed in the Vogue Man Arabia Spring/Summer 2018 issue. Words by Matt Pomroy.