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Photography by Céline Stella

Neon lights in the Saudi desert

Explore the warm glow and otherworldly quality of neon lights against the stark backdrop of the Middle Eastern night

French photographer Céline Stella has spent the last few years taking photos of the neon lights of Saudi Arabia – capturing a different side to the Middle East than the less favourable one that is often flashed across our screens. In her work, there are no war ravaged images, no focus on poverty or religion, and instead, Stella turns her lens to create close shots of objects and architecture bathed in warm neon and exuding an ethereal glow. Finding herself captivated by the lights' dream-like aesthetic, but also to how neon signifies very different things culturally than their Western counterparts, she says: "We tend to forget that Saudi, as it exists now – like all the gulf countries – is a relatively young place." Subsequently, such neon lighting is all the more impressive to those that remember a darker time, when there was no lighting at all.

What drew you to this project? What made you want to capture these locations?

Céline Stella: I was working in Saudi Arabia. I’d noticed these neon shapes in the desert at dusk and so asked my driver to take me back out there at night so I could see them properly. I was just drawn to them aesthetically – they’re very stark against the dark of the desert and slightly abstract.

What do you find so fascinating about neon lights? These ones in particular?

Céline Stella: Partly, it’s the location. We tend to think of the desert generally as being dark and uninhabited, but there’s a lot going on there. And we’re conditioned to think of images from the Middle East as being negative, or like reportage. I liked the idea of showing something that captured the feel of the place in a more impressionistic way, while getting away from the usual images we see. I’m self-taught, but I tend to get very obsessed with a subject – if I see one thing that works in a shot I tend to shoot it again and again.

Why was Saudi Arabia chosen as a location?

Céline Stella: At first, it was entirely to do with my job and I travel there a lot. As a photographer, you’re always looking for things that other people either haven’t spotted, or don’t have access to. And obviously, because most western people don’t go there, it meant that I could see something others didn’t.

What do the lights signify to people there? You mention it's a sign of luxury for the people here...

Céline Stella: I think historically, light was used in the desert as a practicality – you can see for huge distances there, so light travels in the dark and lets you see where people are. But nowadays, while it still has that function for people running the food trucks and little shops, it’s also something that signifies a kind of modernity. The older people there will remember a time before electricity was commonplace, and Saudi friends told me that as a result, people still like to make a big feature of electric light. And, obviously, neon is the ultimate expression of that.

How did these scenes differ from the day to the night?

Céline Stella: All these places just sort of melt away in the day – that was partly what I loved about them, the way that they just emerge from the pitch dark when the lights are turned on.

The photos are mostly absent of people, is there significance to this?

Céline Stella: Not in cultural terms, no. There are two main reasons: Firstly, I was shooting at night and wanted to focus on the neon shapes, rather than making the point of the photo an individual. And secondly, I was there during Ramadan and the easiest time I could get away from work was during the end of the fast period. So it just meant that when I went out, most people were at home with their families.

NOUR by Céline Stella is out now in a limited edition, published by NO UFOs. To purchase, go to noufos.co