Maru presents: Sarah Dea McGregor | Photographer
Sarah Dea McGregor is a good friend of ours and a well established, award-winning photojournalist. Having grown up in Ottawa, Canada to studying Photojournalism at Loyalist College and then working for the Globe and Mail in Toronto, Sarah now finds herself as a staff photographer working for The National out of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. She shoots a bit of everything, including everyday life on the streets of cities all across the UAE, to documenting important individuals including doctors, CEOs and A-List celebrities such as Colin Firth and Mischa Barton (*is she still considered an A-List Actress? haha). When she's not shooting, she's also a devoted wife and mother to her one-year old Scottish Fold named, "Mommy."
As she's currently judging our first photo contest entitled, "shoot our logo," we figured we'd ask her a few questions and introduce everyone to the awe-inspiring Sarah Dea.
you’ve been in dubai since 2011. how the hell is it out there?
I remember first landing in DXB and being immediately mesmerized by men walking around in traditional Emirati garb and the Arabic Cokes in the vending machines. But a week later it was all old hat. Even driving like a bat out of hell was just the thing to do. It’s just how it is here.
There are so many western comforts here that you at once feel at home and yet in some alternate universe with a lot of sand everywhere. Time absolutely flies by here, especially since the forecast is 365 days of sunshine, meaning events that are usually tied to some kind of seasonal shift implode into this temporal blur. I came here thinking I'd stay for a year, but so does everyone else. I'm enjoying ex-pat life so far so I'll keep going with it.
What’s everyday like for photojournalist Sarah Dea?
Now that the sticky scourge of Dubai summer (May-October) has passed, events are happening again, making the assignment schedule pretty hectic. I usually have a vague idea how my day will unfold as my assignments are sent the night before. But since news happens whenever it wants, my schedule is pretty touch and go. I drive around a lot and have mastered the art of navigating this country. I mention this because street names don't exist here nor does any semblance of an address system. Directions can go something like, “Go to interchange 3, pass the mosque, pull a U-turn, left at the roundabout and then you’ve arrived.”
What are some stipulations and obstacles about being a lady photographer? Particularly out in Dubai, have there been many additional barriers?
It can often be an advantage being a female photographer in this place. You can get access to things that would otherwise be closed off to male photographers, such as shooting a woman in her home. Aside from the occasional offhand remark about being surprised to meet a female photographer, people are generally pretty accepting of my role here. In fact, being a woman in this field can be a blessing in disguise since many people find a female photographer disarming and feel more at ease having their picture taken.
There seems to be some extensive travel involved with your job! You’re all across the United Arab Emirates and out in China from time-to-time. Where are some of your favourite and more memorable places that you’ve been able to shoot at?
I wouldn’t say that the international travel is extensive but I have been across the UAE and back, it's true. There are weeks when I rack thousands of miles on my car and some when the commute is easy breezy.
I've watched the sunrise over the desert a few times and it's always a pretty awe-inspiring. Simply witnessing the utter desolation of a lot of the UAE landscape really makes you feel small. Some favourite desert memories are going dune bashing in a 30-tonne Renault Dakar Rally race truck and shooting the different wildlife that roam in conservation areas. I once covered a WWE press conference atop the Burj Khalifa and watched John Cena body slam Kane into the press conference table, which was pretty memorable. I also spent some time in Yinchuan, northwest China, this past fall on assignment and marveled at how different it was than any other China I’ve known. The Muslim Hui people made up a third of the population and gave the place a distinct look and feel. I spent the day with some of them at a mosque and felt privileged to capture them in their most spiritual place.
"I once covered a WWE press conference atop the Burj Khalifa and watched John Cena body slam Kane into the press conference table, which was pretty memorable."
I also like to travel with my husband on our time off. Dubai is a perfect launch pad for relatively nearby destinations. This past year I’ve managed to check off Qatar, Lebanon, Oman, Russia, Sri Lanka, USA, China and Jordan. We’re compiling our 2013 destinations wish list as I type this.
In no particular order, I’ve had the chance to shoot in a stunt plane as it barrel rolled over Lake Ontario, I’ve been able to hug a penguin, I’ve photographed a jailed mother who was later freed when an anonymous donor stepped forward to pay her debt after reading her story, and I’ve photographed a mass Emirati wedding in the middle of a desert where 68 bridegrooms were celebrating their simultaneous nuptials and I was the only woman out of 1000 men. These are all experiences I look back on and smile about.
On a bit of a sadder note, I recall your post back in June where you had shot at a young boy’s funeral. Seems like the job can go from being pretty exciting, to down right depressing in a heart beat. How do you cope with shoots of this nature?
It can be difficult to leave your job on the doorstep after an emotionally taxing day, but clinging to the hope that your work makes a difference helps. In the case of the young boy who lost his life, being able to cover it, despite the sullen circumstances, helped to create awareness for more effective safety measures for apartment pools.
You’ve worked for many major newspapers now including The National and The Globe and Mail. What kind of advice would you give to aspiring photojournalists out there who would love to be where you’re at someday?
Any aspiring photographer should shoot a lot and germinate relationships with people in the industry from the very start. It's important to have a good attitude and to cultivate a good reputation, on top of providing consistent, imaginative work on tight deadlines. It’s also crucial to get your work out there (a website or blog, for example) because you can be the best photographer ever but if no one sees your work, how can people hire you? Constant feedback from people you respect is also instrumental to improving as a shooter.
What are some of the main differences between both living and shooting out in Dubai compared North America?
A lot of the job is the same in UAE and Canada. As for living, landlords often ask for a full year's rent paid in 1 check up front. That's kind of a bummer. Also, you absolutely need a car here if you expect to get anything done. Most of the negative experiences I’ve had living here had to do with the sheer pace of relentless growth and how certain infrastructures haven’t had the chance to catch up. Paperwork can take a million years and you often need four different types of stamps from different places in order to process a document. You have to learn to adapt your sense of time here in order to survive and retain your sanity.
Tell us a bit about the boys in your life! What’s good with “Mommy?” (or maybe just your cat, or whatever you’re comfortable with)
I am lucky to live with two of my favourite boys in the whole world. The first is my husband, who I ended up marrying after four months of whirlwind dating and we’ve been inseparable since. The second boy is my one-year-old Scottish Fold named Mommy. His cuteness is so overwhelming that he’s even graced the front page of reddit and lives on as a recognizable “sad birthday cat” meme.
"His cuteness is so overwhelming that he’s even graced the front page of reddit and lives on as a recognizable 'sad birthday cat' meme."
The three of us share a quaint life in a one-bedroom apartment and we’re often intertwined in some kind of triple-snug.
What the heck are people doing with camels out there? I’ve only ever seen like 1 in my lifetime.
Camels have been part of the Bedouin (Arab nomadic tribes people) life since the very beginning. They offer mobility, milk, meat, are used for camel racing, camel polo and can be used to make clothing and other household items. They’re always fun to photograph but their guttural moans still unsettle me when I get near them.