Joel Sternfeld is fascinated with the idea of Utopia. His 1987 work, American Prospects, directed a large-format camera lens at the possibilities of this country and how those possibilities have translated into realities. Much of his subsequent work maintained this theme, but in the last few years it has been mingled with a growing understanding of climate change and its implications. That awareness snapped into sharp focus at a 2005 United Nations conference in Montreal. “At this point in America we were pre-Al Gore. Even people who had tried to follow climate change had trouble getting a real sense of the danger because of misinformation put out by the Bush administration and other administrations,” Sternfeld said. “In Montreal the magnitude of the impending calamity became absolutely apparent to me.” His research there sowed the seeds for the project shown here: “Even if we did solve climate change, it would simply allow us to consume the Earth in some other way. I wanted to find a way to communicate this.” He chose Dubai, the pleasure dome between the desert and the sea, as a symbolic site of world consumption. But instead of his large-format camera, he used the consumer fetish object of the moment, the iPhone, to make these images. It was a nod to both his subject matter and a new way of understanding the world. However, while working in the mall he realized he also had the opportunity to “use the iPhone as a civilian journalist to present a positive image of Arabic family life that isn’t being received in the West.”

Joel Sternfeld is the recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships, a Prix de Rome, and the Citibank Photography Award. His eleven books include Joel Sternfeld: Sweet Earth, When It Changed, Oxbow Archive, and iDubai.


  1. I liked these images of Dubai, but they give such a slanted, cordoned off view of the place. The city is fundamentally a contradiction and this is not at all conveyed. In the palaces of commerce, the richest Emiratis mingle with western contract workers. Almost anything can be had for money: alcohol, of course,beautiful women, Faberge eggs, Patek watches, luxury automobiles that come with surprisingly low price tags since there is no sales tax. But across the city there are other areas, Indian workers’ shopping areas and ghettos where the real business of life transpires. My favorite spots are outdoor Pakistani restaurants where you can eat Dahl, drink masala chai and order the hottest food you’ve eaten outside of India. There are outdoor cafes where you can smoke shisha, drink strong tea and read a book or newspaper (Times of London) while taking in the street life unmolested. Dubai is not all steel and glass, but this is the most facile vision of it. About 1 1/2 hours down the road is the capital, Abu Dhabi, a much more Arab town whose character is like a combination of Monaco and Muskat. I like it better. But if you want to see the world of the Arabian Gulf from 20 or 30 years ago, visit Oman; (Yemen is better but probably unwise these days). Dubai seen through the shopping mall is an Arab vision, not of Utopia, but of what they think of the west. It is shopping and accumulation as diversion and preoccupation. It is their way of giving people what they think they want. And what they fundamentally believe most about Westerners is that we are materialistic, arrogant and impatient. They take this and turn it into tourist attractions that resemble shopping Disney Lands. I love Dubai for it’s tolerance and openness; it is unique among Arab cities. But for character drive to Al Ain or visit Abu Dhabi and tuck a rolled-up prayer rug in the back window of your car. This will get you discounts and a much warmer welcome. Most of all, be willing to spend time with whoever you encounter. Arabs still have the luxury of time and for this single reason their quality of life is much higher than ours.

  2. The story is a good one… very interesting. But I have a question…

    I don’t intend this to be an insult to any single photographer. Please take this as a genuine desire to understand and not criticize.

    Can someone please, politely, explain to me how snapshots became the favorite art form today? Images where no time or thought was spent on composition, use of light, etc. seem to be the popular expression in photography of late. I understand intentionally creating an “amateur” style, but branding a one-second point-and-shoot as art eludes me. I probably sound like one of those art critics who bashed the expressionist painters of the past as being childish. But they had emotion, energy and passion behind their work. Today’s snapshots don’t seem to have that. And it’s not just the work seen here. It’s everywhere. The Holga camera defines it perfectly: point and shoot and hope you get something cool. Where is the creativity in that?

    I’m an artist struggling to find a fit in this world. Please help me understand this phenomenon. I know many of you are going to flame me for this, but I’m seriously asking for some enlightenment without malice. Thanks.

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