7th APRIL 2015 - Vol.XXXVIII No.018
Local News

Zooming in on the best of Bahrain...

BAHRAIN House of Photography is home to more than one million photographs - almost all of them taken by Abdulla Al Khan.

The 72-year-old Bahraini has been photographing the country since 1945 and has archived all the images he has captured over the past 63 years.

During his career he has been an official photographer for the Bahrain royal family, been accused of spying and claims to have spent more time in a helicopter than anyone else in Bahrain.

He has spent the past five years transferring his massive collection onto a digital format to preserve it for future generations, but is only one third of the way through.

The Bahrain House of Photography, where all the negatives are stored, is now in the process of being transformed into a photographic museum to honour the royal family.

However, more than 60 years behind a camera has done nothing to rob Mr Khan of his passion.

"Photography is in my blood," said Mr Al Khan, whose father was also a photographer.

"I have taken photographs ever since I was a child. I was a member of photo clubs at school and university and my first job was as a photographer."

Mr Al Khan started out at Bapco where he got a job photographing mechanical problems, site developments and public relations events.

However, his studio walls are adorned with pictures of Bahrain's past - from pearl divers to dhow captains and aerial shots of the country.

He also takes credit for introducing wedding photography to Bahrain, an idea he brought back from England where he studied photography at Ealing Technical College.

As a result, Mr Al Khan became the official photographer for many of the key events in the lives of Bahrain's royal family members.

Photographing the weddings and birthdays of Bahrain's elite led to a personal relationship with the late Amir HH Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who once described him as: "My eyes in the kingdom."

"I went around taking photographs of Bahrain as it really was to show Shaikh Isa," he recalled.

"Every time he went anywhere people had cleaned up before his arrival, so I acted as his witness - taking pictures of the country when it hadn't been cleaned for him.

"Many important people viewed me as a spy and a problem because of this.

"My camera was even destroyed once by demonstrators. When I was demonstrating for independence, the people in the crowd accused me of spying and smashed my camera even though I was supporting their cause."

Working for the housing and works ministries, Mr Al Khan has photographed the country from helicopters for more than 30 years.

Changes in the country's landscape are chronicled in detail in his archive, from views of Isa Town as a desert to the new developments at Durrat Al Bahrain.

"“I have probably had more flight time than any pilot in Bahrain," he said.

"I go up roughly every month to take pictures of new developments for the ministries."

Recent projects have included monitoring developments at Durrat Al Bahrain and the Bahrain Financial Harbour, but he has also published a new book called Muharraq the Sea Rose, which contains images of the place where he grew up and how it has changed.

However, digitalising his vast collection at Bahrain House of Photography is his biggest task to date.

"I am the only person who knows the stories behind the pictures, so I need to do all the work myself," he explained.

"It is all in my head, but it has already taken five years and we are only one third of the way through. I hope we will finish it while I am still around."

But while the changing technology of photography has not daunted Mr Al Khan, he compared digital photography to eating at a fast-food restaurant.

"Digital has taken the art out of taking pictures," he said. "The machines do it all for you now.

"The way I see it, it is like comparing a fine restaurant to a fast food place.

"If you are hungry the fast food will satisfy your appetite, but my work is more like the fine restaurant.

"Just because there are fast food outlets does not mean we no longer need the high quality places to eat."

While taking pictures for the government he is always keen to add to his own collection of Bahrain's history.

"Other countries have government money to archive all of their history, but I am doing this at my own expense," he added.

"It is vital to remind the younger generation of what we were and where we came from, to record history for them.

"I have pictures of the first cables being laid for Isa town when it was just desert.

"The same for Hamad Town, Riffa - all of the new places."

Another interesting method he uses to capture historic events involves taking photographs from his television screen.

Initially, he used the method to chronicle the first Gulf War by taking snapshots of CNN's coverage.

However, he has branched out taking photos of the television during an episode of the Arabic version of who wants to be a millionaire?

The result is a series of images of a Bahraini man winning ever-increasing sums of money, until he hits the $1 million jackpot.

Every photograph is of equal value to Mr Al Khan, who views them as his children.

"You would not say I prefer this son because he is rich or this daughter because she is beautiful, they are all your creations and they are equally valuable," he said.

"So I do not have any photographs which are my favourites. Though I am proud of the photos I have taken of the royal family."

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