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Photographing decadence

There is not much wiggle room for ethical equivocation when it comes to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of decadence: “a process or manifestation of cultural or moral decline/ luxurious self-indulgence”. Not a good thing then.


Sean Sheehan


What this doesn’t allow for is the easy-going use of the word to mean something like “I know it’s a bit sinful but it’s fun and I’m not hurting anyone so, hey, enjoy”.

This is soft decadence, endorsed by popular wisdom that knows a little bit of what you fancy does you no harm.

Then there’s Dubai, the major city of the United Arab Emirates, a

popular stop-over on long-haul flights and a place where expatriates pay no income tax and enjoy a high standard of living. An imported proletariat work for a tiny fraction of expatriates’ salaries on infrastructure projects and as domestic maids.

The expatriates don’t feel bad about this because, as they are only too readily inform  you, their ‘home helps’, refuse cleaners and the like are sending home to their families more money than they could possibly earn elsewhere. So that’s all right then. Move on. You can see where this is going – Dubai is decadent – and the photographs of Nick Hannes support this contention.

Dubai, UAE, January 16, 2016
Saturday afternoon brunch at Blue Marlin Ibiza beach club.
From the series ‘Garden of Delight’. © Nick Hannes

He photographs construction workers waiting for their bus to the labour camp where there are housed, as they rest against a concrete wall with graffiti proclaiming Free Your Mind.

He shows Saudi tourists having a hot chocolate at a sub-zero bar at Oasis Mall, expatriates gorging themselves with food at champagne brunches when they’re not splayed out poolside in all their overweight grossness.

“Garden of delight” shows Green Planet, an indoor tropical rainforest consisting of a giant concrete tree structure with a walkway built inside it and around the tree live tropical birds, reptiles, porcupines and sloths.

But where you can have a rainforest an indoor ski resort is also possible: it exists in the Mall of the Emirates and features an 85-m high mountain and a 400-m long ski run.

Having spent a week in Dubai, I can attest to the authenticity of these photographs of expatriate and holiday life in the city. The decadence is plainly vile but those who work there cannot see this. Like the citizens of Besźel and Ul Qoma in China Miéville brilliant novel, “The city and The City”, they learn to unsee what is in front of their eyes.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, September 19, 2016
Indoor ski resort Ski Dubai, located in the Mall of the Emirates, features an 85-m high mountain and a 400-m long ski run.
From the series ‘Garden of Delight’. © Nick Hannes

The cumulative effect of seeing these photographs is not a pleasant one and Nick Hannes deserves applaud for what he has achieved. He says in the book that Dubai lacks a soul – ‘where is the local flair, the fringe society ….Where is my Culture shock?’ For anyone looking at his pictures, the shock comes from seeing modern consumerist culture at its most disgusting. And it’s not a pretty sight.

“Garden of delight”, by Nick Hannes, is published by André Frère Editions

(Photos provided  by the publisher)

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