Think deserts and neon and Las Vegas will no doubt spring to mind, but a new book by French photographer Céline Stella shows that the combination is a big hit in another part of the world too: Saudi Arabia…
Titled Nour, Stella’s book is published by photographic imprint NO UFOs. It features images taken in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan in 2013 and 2014, which focus on the country’s love of neon lights. “I’m originally from Paris, but based in London and have a regular job in education which means I travel around a lot,” says Stella. “Over the last few years, this has been taking me to Saudi Arabia. Whenever I travel, I shoot a lot and I tend to fixate on certain motifs – a colour, a shape, or a type of person, and shoot it again and again. On my first trip to Saudi, we were driving out of Jeddah at night into the desert and you see all these neon shapes in the distance. During the day it looks like there’s nothing there, but at night all these food trucks, little shops and huts are decorated so you can see them from miles away.”
Stella shot the images quickly, taking them around her other work commitments. They were taken using a Fujifilm X10 camera, without a tripod, and of course, after dark. “I was working with my driver who was very kindly driving me around in his own time so it wasn’t possible to set up anything too elaborate,” she says. “Saudi is a big place, and locations can be a long way apart. For most of the shots, it was simply a case of driving around until we saw what I wanted, him pulling off the road and me shooting as quickly as possible. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of shooting where there’s limitations, and seeing if you can turn them to your advantage.
“The neon itself was easy enough to find,” she continues. “My Saudi friends say that it has a lot of cultural significance there – most families might only have had electricity for the last few generations, so there’s a real love of bright light, especially during special occasions – so once I started looking, you see it everywhere.”
The book is published in a hardback, limited edition of 150 copies, and as the images below show, is printed using a special yellow ink and drip-off varnish, which make the neons really ping on the page. Stella’s intention with the project, as well as documenting a lesser-known aspect of Saudi Arabian life, was to show another side to the country than we typically see. “Part of what I wanted to do with these photos is get away from the clichéd views that we often see when Western photographers approach Muslim – and particularly Arab – societies, and try to capture something more impressionistic about how the country feels to me,” she says.
“Or at least how the part I saw feels to me: people lose sight of just how big Saudi is, and how drastically it varies from region to region and city to city. With this book, I just wanted to present how it felt to me to be there in that place and at that time.”