Dazed Digital

Dubai / العربية

Mohamed Somji and Sinisa Vlajkovic's Substations

October 6, 2011

We speak to photographers whose compelling images of deserted diesel stations in the U.A.E are currently being exhibited at The Pavilion

  • Text by Simone Sebastian

Satellite Voices first featured Mohamed Somji and Sinisa Vlajkovic’s "Substations" series in early April. Since then, the photographers have reproduced their images of diesel stations as light boxes for an exhibition at The Pavilion. Satellite Voices attended the opening night of the show, and became so fascinated with the updated works that we decided to find out more about the making of the series.

Satellite Voices: Putting the "Substations" series together was essentially an exploration of the out of sight and defunct corners of the country. Can you share one of your favourite stories from the experience?
Mohamed Somji & Sinisa Vlajkovic: Although the series was conceived on the principles of photographic typology, for us, it grew into something that has a much deeper meaning - it became a project about the individuals behind these stations (who don't appear in the pictures), just as much as a project about the vernacular nature of the stations themselves. On our first trip in 2007, we made no contact with the owner or the employees of the station that we were shooting. We just showed up, set up our equipment and spent 20 - 30 minutes shooting. Then we left without even saying goodbye, which in hindsight was pretty rude. On each successive trip, we made sure that we met the people first, explained who we were and what we would like to do and obtained permission to do it. It was all based on honesty and good intensions, and as usually happens in these circumstances, we were met with warmth, understanding and hospitality.

On a recent trip, we were offered many cups of tea as we sat for hours with the station attendants and their trucker friends and watched videos from Afghanistan on mobile phones of family weddings, horse riding in the mountains etc. It was a fantastic experience to absorb the stories of these people and learn more about their culture, customs etc. Some of the photos to the left are from that same evening.

SV: The photographs in the Substations series were taken a few years ago but are now presented as lightboxes. Tell us about that what led to that?
Mohamed Somji & Sinisa Vlajkovic: Our aim was to emulate as much as possible the experience of being in one of these remote stations, in the middle of the night, surrounded by darkness and a few flickering lights. In that sense, a light box provided the best substitute for the actual experience, and everything came together beautifully when our friends at The Pavilion Downtown Dubai agreed to paint the walls black and keep the gallery lights dimmed throughout the duration of the exhibition.

SV: Tell us about the diesel pump installation that is part of the exhibition?
Mohamed Somji & Sinisa Vlajkovic: The initial idea was to go beyond just the photography and provide the audience with a real-life experience of what a "Substation" looks and feels like. Our most important challenge was to find a pump… vintage pumps are rare and the custom-made ones typically comprise of a hand-welded metal box housing and a mechanical counter mechanism and motor inside. We first tried our contacts in the diesel trade business, but we were told that all pumps are in use and that there are no spares around. We then spent an entire afternoon driving around endless scrap yards and were very close to giving up when a Hollywood moment struck - we took a wrong turn and stumbled upon a small diesel station. Mohamed said "If we don't find it here, we quit". And there it was – ‘70s or ‘80s vintage, out of use and covered in dust. The shack around it was built within a few days from scrap metal and a 'Diesel' sign, blue neon tubes and a plastic chair were added to complete the experience.

SV: The owners of some of the diesel stations were invited to the opening night of the exhibition - how did they react to the images within the context of an art opening?
Mohamed Somji & Sinisa Vlajkovic: Most of all, they were very proud that their diesel stations were featured and I suspect that they are still skeptical that people are interested in the stations despite us explaining why they are so fascinating to us city dwellers.

"Substations" is open to the public until October 30 @ The Pavilion Downtown Dubai

DownTown Dubai - Dubai - United Arab Emirates

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