Oasis interviews photographer Mohsen al-Dajani about photography and his new book on Taif.

Why did you decide to become a photographer?

Well, I may surprise you with my answer. For me, being a photographer is second nature. I was raised as a Bedouin. I slept under the open sky; I woke up to sunlight striking my eyes; I walked on sand dunes everyday; I escaped from the heat, under the shade of acacia, every noon; and I saw those brilliant night stars every night. As Saudi Arabia entered the modern age, in the early seventies, my lifestyle began to change gradually. I moved to the big cities in my late twenties after I graduated from the air-force academy. Living in these cities was a dramatic change for me. I became like a caged bird. In 1998, I couldn’t resist the call of nature anymore. I escaped to nature every weekend. Enjoying the wild again was like medicine to my sick soul. After a day or two in the wild, I would return with great memories that I told to my family and friends. Then, I decided to record those beautiful & peaceful moments with a camera. That’s when my journey with nature photography began. After I realized that I had mastered nature photography to a degree, I began to feel responsible towards my country’s natural environment. Through my photos, I hope that I am helping people to appreciate the value of our natural environment and the country’s historical sites. So, nature photography to me started as a tool, then as entertainment, and now it is a mission.

So many people have recently picked up photography.How do you define a photographer?

Yes, that is true. These days, there are many photographers who think that to be a good photographer is to own expensive photo equipments. I believe that once we consider photography as a tool, or a vehicle for expression, our images will shine. Let’s say that there are two photographers. One uses his camera for the joy of just taking pictures, while the other one carries his camera because his joy lies in expressing something that he saw. I believe that the first photographer’s desire will end by taking the photo while the second photographer will keep trying to make that photo reflect the true image of his subject. The first photographer is just taking the picture, while the second one is actually making it. A good photographer is the one who makes the image and not only takes it.

What photo equipments do you use?

I use many models. I started with Canon Elan 7 but switched to Nikon cameras later. After I understood the basic principles of nature photography, I purchased the Nikon F6, a pro 35mm film camera and I used it almost exclusively to produce the images in the book “Taif: Eden of Arabia”. Now I use Nikon D3. I also have a Pentax 67II. A tripod, cable release, and Nikon lenses of different ranges and focal lengths are all included in my bag.

What is the most important tool?

My eyes.

Is it necessary to own expensive cameras to produce good images?

Good question. No, not necessary, especially in this time when technology has improved photography tremendously. In myopinion, the most important factor to produce a great image is the photographer himself. He has to have passion and vision in his subject. It is the photographer’s passion that pushes him to wake up before dawn in order to catch that mesmerizing light, or to reach that far and wild place, or spend many hours capturing the image he visualizes in his mind. One of the most common mistakes that many beginners fall into is that the camera can see and record the scene the way humans do. I see photography as a science and an art. If you focus on the type of equipment, you may get a good photo technically but with no aesthetic dimension. In photography, we call this a photograph without a soul. Concentrate only on the artistic value of the scene, and your chance of producing a defect image is high. A good photographer must be aware of both.

Do you see Saudi Arabia differently through your lens? Does the camera give you a different perspective?

Absolutely. Paying attention to details, like colors, type of light, direction of light, repeated pattern in nature, and shadow all come as a result of the process of making the picture. A good photographer is one who has a good sense of light, and tries to control it. Such things come with study and experience. It is easy for people to look but few can see. Photography teaches you to see. In other words, you make your looking selectively. This is why my book has left many people astonished. Many of them couldn’t believe that such beauty is within their reach, even those who have spent their whole lives in Taif.

Do all your photographs have a point of inspiration?

My photos highlight our valuable natural treasures. I believe that living in the cities and forgetting about our natural environment contributed to many problems. One of those problems is climate change. If you ask people nowadays when was the last time they enjoyed the stars, the moonlight, or even the horizon you will find that many haven’t for years. I want my photographs to remind people that nature heals our sick souls from the stressful lives we lead, and to remind them of how fragile our planet is.

Is this your first photography book?

I worked as a contributing photographer, with a company in Dubai, on a book about Oman before. But, yes this is my first book and I consider it a first step in a long road. I am working currently on another book about Riyadh and I am thinking of extending my lens to reach the north and south of the Kingdom soon.

Which is your favorite photo in Taif: Eden of Arabia?

The Mangrove Tree. It not only looks beautiful but every time I look at it, it brings back the excitement that I felt when I first saw it. You won’t believe me if I tell you that I spent nearly half a day near that tree only to photograph it the way I imagined it in my mind. I shot that tree in the spring of 2005, and when I returned to the same spot three years later, I was astonished to find it still there facing those countless winds from the direction of the Red Sea.

Tell us more about the images in the book. Why did they leave an impact on you, and most importantly why should people visit those places?

In photography we say: a camera sees both ways, backward to the photographer’s soul, and outward to the world. Many of the images in my book reflect my passion about nature. I concentrated on showing images that tell great stories about Taif’s history, heritage, and natural beauty. Due to the mild climate of the city, many sites still hold their unique look. It’s a great pleasure to see beauty in simple things like how the old people of Taif are living. It is also a great escape from the heat of our desert during the summer. Taif I believe is the best destination in the Kingdom.

Do you think your book will achieve its goals?

The book has been in bookstores for only a month now. Responses I received so far have exceeded my expectations. The book follows the initiative that has been taken lately by Taif’s municipality to preserve the Ibn Suliman Palace. It is one of the sites that is featured in my book. I deliberately removed all distractions from the frame of the photo, and included only the palace. That single photo encouraged authorities in the city to protect it. This is exactly the type of image I want. An image that changes attitudes and moves people.