Astrophotographer Samy Olabi and the Mystical Beauty of UAE Nature

Visitors at the "Heavens and Earths" photo exhibition in Sharjah, February 10, 2021. Photo by Raghad Murad.

Hours away from the cities resides untouched nature. At night, its beauty can be reexamined, and in its pitch black darkness opens an opportunity for the stars above to shine. Astrophotographer Samy Olabi has scouted several of those locations through satellite maps, and with his relatively light-weight equipment, his mission is to invite everyone to quite literally reach for the stars. 

His exhibition “Heavens and Earth” was one of the largest wings at Xposure, the annual photography festival held this month in Sharjah. This year was his fourth as an exhibiting photographer at the festival and also was his biggest. His collection was a conceptual project that he has been working on for the past decade, aiming to visualize the poetic and religious association between the oblivion and magic in outer space and the familiarity and grounding nature of Earth. 

“[When I’m stargazing] I feel closer to God, because I’m just witnessing miracles in front of my eyes. When I’m meditating into the sky, I am actually doing something that we are told to do,” Olabi said in an interview, later quoting a verse from the Qur’an. “We are asked to observe and think of God’s creation for a reason. When I go there, I see this reason vividly and see its benefits for us as humans and the intensity of the peace it brings.” 

The exhibition itself is a visual representation of a journey in the dark. Dimly lit with classical symphonies playing, the viewing experience is a trip in outer-space where color bursts only from the several constellations and nebulas Olabi captured. In its three sections, the exhibition is divided between deep-sky photographs, night-scapes and a viewing room; dedicated to the behind the scenes of those pictures.

Videos of Olabi camping, scouting and discovering play on loop for the viewers to see where the magic really takes place. On the side is a Virtual Reality station for a full 360 angle view of some of the locations. This approach of openness that Olabi took was also mirrored in his seminar, where he detailed the post editing process of his work, but also different insights and tips for other photographers interested in this realm.

Before selecting astrophotography as a niche, Olabi started with photographing his children. Throughout the years he delved into cityscapes and landscapes before he truly found his passion when he looked up into the sky. He finds himself lucky that he was able to go through photography forms gracefully, and that his “learning curve” was a healthy one. 

During his seminar “A Journey Through Space and Time”, Olabi shows one of his most famous pictures of a night-scape in the UAE. The picture was adopted by Microsoft and Apple as a background image. Xposure, Sharjah. February 12, 2021. Photo by Raghad Murad.

“What is behind the scenes is a lot of work,” said Muhammad Salim, an Indian Commercial Photographer who visited the exhibition. “It’s not about the equipment, it’s the person and what he sees through his lens. The equipments are just a tool.” 

Olabi’s exhibited collection is only a portion of a bigger project he’s currently working on. As his lifelong dream, he aims to create an entire visual and highly technological experience showcasing the entire sky in high resolution. 

Samy Olabi, Sharjah, February 10, 2021. Raghad Murad

“I’m trying to take videos, 360s, still pictures and animation and combine them all into one immersive experience which can be viewed through virtual reality or witnessed in a 360 theatre or some form of highly technological representation,” the UAE-based Egyptian-Syrian astrophotographer said. “I can at least say in one more year, I can be done with 80%. Because I’m working alone in this project, I’m limited in my resources so I’m trying to engage multiple entities that take off my back some of the work. It’s a dream and we’re finally taking some real steps.” 

Although the pandemic affected both the exhibition and the photographers, Xposure was able to bounce back and host a successful photography event that included international and regional photographers together in a shared space. 

“This year’s success was not any less than previous ones,” Meerah Alshamsi, one of the event organizers, said. “The feedback we’ve received was all positive and the number of visitors as well was big. This festival has its own following that constantly ask for it especially that we postponed it last year.”

Snapshots from the behind-the-scenes reel in the viewing room. Samy Olabi usually visits the site before sunset and then camps at night to shoot. Xposure, Sharjah. February 10, 2021. Raghad Murad.
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