• PROOF:
  • June 13, 2014

John Stanmeyer: The Timeless Sands of Saudi Arabia

“The thing about time is that time isn’t really real. It’s just your point of view.” —Secret o’ Life, by James Taylor

A ghost forest of dead date palms in Yanbu Al-Nakhal, Saudi Arabia. Decades of stress on the water table in this part of Saudi Arabia has caused a massive loss of vegetation.
A ghost forest of dead date palms in Yanbu Al-Nakhal, Saudi Arabia. Decades of stress on the water table in this part of Saudi Arabia has caused a massive loss of vegetation.

Growing up listening to this song in the late ’70s was an anvil grinding the consciousness of the teenage mind.

I knew already in 1977 about the moving hands of time. Calendar time. Geological time. Yet only my personal experience of aging affirmed any reality of time. In actuality, this song about life resonated far more on the science emanating from that one verse than any other lyrics—our sense of time and the spacial sense of time is not actually a reality.

It was just a perspective or indeed, my point of view.

My scarcely understood sense of time grasped in years since has been that of deadlines, bill payments, flight schedules, and doctor appointments. Most everything else, including this story (I’m already pushing deadline for National Geographic Proof!), happens when it happens.

Over the last three decades in more than 100 countries, I’ve had the honor and privilege to meet countless people across this astonishing place we call home. Many have dazzling tales to tell, poignant, often laced and pegged to specific senses of time (events), personal history (age) and their hopes (future).

Portrait of a Bedouin camel owner outside Yanbu, Saudi Arabia
Portrait of a Bedouin camel owner outside Yanbu, Saudi Arabia

Stimulating and often important, the most interesting discussions tend to evolve from those who are unburdened, freed from most any sense of time.

Ask an elder in the Ifugao region of the northern Philippines or a farmer in the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia, how old they are and the response will often be, “I don’t know but I think 50,” yet their face and hands indicate much older or even younger. Even my father-in-law isn’t certain on exactly which day in December he was born, offering an annual chuckle as to when we should celebrate.

Pigeons in Wasit, Saudi Arabia
Pigeons in Wasit, Saudi Arabia

Time becomes no longer quantified as a specific date or year, but as a moment, an event, where all sense of reality has no connection to time, focused rather on point of reference.

With this notion ever present, last October while standing in a field, embraced by a spectacular and somewhat depressing sight—date palms arching, curled and hunched in surreal patterns in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. The scene emitted a sense of time that had stood still, rendering a mammoth sculpture created by the passage of events.

Saudi men perform a war dance celebrating the ending of Ed al Haj Festival at Yanbu Al Nahkal. For centuries, this dance was used to intimidate enemies but today is a performance celebrating the ancient Bedouin traditions.

Other landscapes and vistas in Saudi Arabia released similar tomes—little had changed in decades. Centuries.

Millennia.

No poignant opus visually illustrated this more profoundly than the ancient Nabatean landscape of Mada’in Saleh.

Rarely visited (let alone accessible—Saudi Arabia doesn’t often issue tourist visas), these 3,000 year-old tombs carved deftly into sandstone appear on the surface to have been created only years past yet 60 generations have transpired since hands created them.

In Mada’in Saleh, time has truly stood still.

Remains of a Catalina aircraft, abandoned on beach at Ra's Ash Shaykh Humayd, Saudi Arabia, after an attack by Bedouins in March 1960.
Remains of a Catalina aircraft, abandoned on beach at Ra’s Ash Shaykh Humayd, Saudi Arabia, after an attack by Bedouins in March 1960.

The July 2014 issue of National Geographic features a story I photographed for the magazine, part II of the Out of Eden Walk project with colleague and dear friend, Paul Salopek; a journey that will last seven years across over 30 countries as Paul retraces humanities footsteps out of Africa, populating the planet as we are today. This installment, titled “The Wells of Memory,” took us overland through one of the most rarely visited regions on earth, the Hejaz, a long swash of land that begins south of Jeddah, stretching north well into present day Jordan. Paul and I had the privilege to be some of the first foreigners to travel freely through this astonishing landscape by foot (me by landcruiser) since likely the time of T.E. Lawrence.

The historic Nebatean ruins of Mada'in Saleh, carved into sandstone mountains thousands of years ago. Each of these historical structures were used as tombs for the wealthy during the Nebatean era which stretched from Petra in Jordan then southward throughout most of the Hejaz region of present day Saudi Arabia.
The historic Nebatean ruins of Mada’in Saleh, carved into sandstone mountains thousands of years ago. Each of these historical structures were used as tombs for the wealthy during the Nebatean era which stretched from Petra in Jordan then southward throughout most of the Hejaz region of present day Saudi Arabia.)

It felt too straightforward only to photograph in color with a 35mm camera. I needed a means to distill this reality I was feeling—time seemed to barely exist in the Hejaz, a region of fading memory.

Reaching into my shirt pocket, there needed a compendium voice to the visual narrative of the story. Instinctually, I chose my favorite iPhone camera app, the Hipstamatic, a tool that by selecting a specific film and lens combination renders an image which is finalized once developed.

For these images in the July issue, I selected the Watts lens and Uchitel 20 film, a merger that creates a print as if turning calendar pages back to the 1920’s, washed by time, fading in memory, ensconced in the present.

What draws me to Hipstamatic is my absolute disdain for choosing filters or using endless slider options found in other camera apps. Hipstamatic allows a dance with another fading memory—film. Choose a lens/film and post brief processing, you get what you get. The next debate to surely ensue with bringing iPhone photographs into a story like this for National Geographic will be that of manipulation.

Bones of animals lie in the Umm Jirsan, or the Mother of Jirson Cave, in Saudi Arabia. This cave has often turned up human remains dating back to our earliest ancestors, some 50,000 years ago.
Bones of animals lie in the Umm Jirsan, or the Mother of Jirson Cave, in Saudi Arabia. This cave has often turned up human remains dating back to our earliest ancestors, some 50,000 years ago.

Are these manipulated images, rendered via a computer process?

Yes, deliberately doing so with complete consciousness and purpose—I care about communication, allowing the viewer to think in expanded ways. Whether the photograph is from a whatever megapixel camera (by the way, I don’t even know what a megapixel means), printed then scribbled on with my pen, or I carve an image onto a rock no different than a petroglyph created by our brothers and sisters thousands of years ago, all that matters is if I made you feel. Elicited thought. Inspired hope or action.

Simply put, we should attempt to relish and appreciate all forms of photography. There are indeed times where such a visual approach may not work, but that’s a whole other discussion.

The remaining wrangle is simply babble, no different than when photographers couldn’t grasp moving from a Brownie over to 35mm, film to digital.

The old city of Al-'Ula, built in the 13th century, has many structures still remaining. Al-`Ula became a major settlement of the region facilitating trade and the movement of people to and from Mecca. In the 20th century the new town center was established beside the old town and eventually the people left the old buildings. The last family is said to have left in 1983, while the last service in the old mosque was held in 1985.
The old city of Al-’Ula, built in the 13th century, has many structures still remaining. Al-`Ula became a major settlement of the region facilitating trade and the movement of people to and from Mecca. In the 20th century the new town center was established beside the old town and eventually the people left the old buildings. The last family is said to have left in 1983, while the last service in the old mosque was held in 1985.

Here is the reality of where we are today in photography:

My good friend and VII photo agency co-founder, Ron Haviv, used a Canon D30 to document the war in Afghanistan. His subsequent book, Afghanistan: The Road to Kabul, is the most profound testament of events which transpired post September 11, 2001, in Afghanistan and was the first ever digital monograph book.

Guess what? That D30 was a camera which today is hardly different than the camera found in an iPhone 5s.

The lines between a camera we’ve engraved into our consciousness as being an image-creating tool and a camera found in a phone are indeed blurring.

Rabah al rhafe, a Bedouin nomad, breaks his fast with goat milk and Saudi style bread at his families encampment in the desert near Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. He has three wives and over 20 children.
Rabah al rhafe, a Bedouin nomad, breaks his fast with goat milk and Saudi style bread at his families encampment in the desert near Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. He has three wives and over 20 children.

The ability and the profound power to create in-depth visual narratives has never been more astonishingly stupendous. We are living in the most awe inspiring, empowering era of communication.

Despite technology, we stand at a crossroads of our collective humanity where modernity appears more important despite the future often mirroring the past.

History, the last 130 or so years, is now a core sample of our collective time referenced through the communication of photography. Weighted in reality, it is an indisputable reference for our dire need to put balance in an increasingly unbalanced world.

I hope when you pick up the July issue of National Geographic, you will enjoy the synonym fingerprint of images which hold little sense to time, interspersed between color photographs profoundly rooted in today, rendering time barely existent.

Cluster of eroded sandstone hills, known as the Dancing Ladies, located in Mada'in Saleh, Saudi Arabia,
Cluster of eroded sandstone hills, known as the Dancing Ladies, located in Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia

YES (indeed emphatic because I am passionate on this topic), I do look forward to the day where the only camera needed while on a National Geographic assignment is one which I can also call home to my family, tune a guitar, find a new recipe for chicken, read a book, purchase airline tickets, see into the cash register of my gallery/coffeehouse in West Stockbridge, MA, or guide me via its GPS through the desert of Saudi Arabia.

That closing graph made me pause to question every aspect of memory I’ve just written. Will technology and our profound ability as humans to finally unite for the betterment of all, avoiding our mistakes of the past, ever come to needed fruition?

Only time will tell.

View more of Stanmeyer’s photographs from the July 2014 issue of National Geographic here. Follow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden walk here.

Related story: Notes From the Road: John Stanmeyer in Jerusalem

There are 45 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. اسامه
    July 30, 2014

    رحلة موفقة وجميلة الصور ومعبر

  2. Craig peterson
    July 16, 2014

    The two NG articles shot by john stanmeyer are superb examples of a
    Lifetime body of work by this top US photographer. John, please keep
    These powerful images coming.

  3. drbreaker
    July 13, 2014

    The Way We Were in Saudi

  4. Rick Hobson
    July 12, 2014

    It’s been said that the Medium is the Message. Using the styles available via Hipstagram can be as much a part of the creative process as selecting a brush or typeface. Thank you for sharing the specifics of the virtual lens and film selections as these are letting me see my surroundings in a new way as well.

  5. Jessica M
    July 10, 2014

    The Hijaz is actually one of the most visited regions on earth, not the least– it is home to Mecca and Medina, holiest sites of pilgrimage in Islam, and incumbent upon all Muslims to visit if they have the means. Several million international pilgrims visit the Hijaz every year. But you are indeed correct that few visit, or are permitted to visit, Mada’in Saleh and other areas. I also take serious issue with your portrayal of the people and the landscape of this region with an ‘old-timey’ filter. The images are beautiful but they contribute to an image of the people and the region as static and unchanging– romantically stuck in the past (in this case, the past as represented by an era of European colonialism). I agree with different elements noted by jean bradbury and carlos p and charles: there is a lot of Orientalism going on here, and with all the discussion of timelessness, there is little incorporation of actual history. The Hijaz region has huge historical importance, yes, covering millenia, which isn’t difficult to learn about. The timelessness looks slightly different when you read about what has changed and what has not, and why, over the course of the past several hundred years.

  6. Robin Mellings
    July 3, 2014

    Couldn’t agree more with the excellent post of Paul Brazie on the 13th June 2014. I shall be making a financial donation to Paul Salopek’s epic seven year odyssey

  7. Sarah Jandrucko
    June 26, 2014

    The photographs were beautiful. The discussion about how they were taken was a little to technical. I loved knowing you used an iPhone 5. I need more of a people perspective in your writing.

  8. erbPIX™
    June 23, 2014

    @ Charles Revello While I did not find the iPhone diversion distracting, your point is well-taken. Discussing methodology in the midst of an image presentation is like trying to mix oil and water. And as Mr. Petrie suggests, I generally prefer images without explanations, but then, that isn’t the NatGeo format, so… I never ask what kind of gear was used, I don’t care, it’s irrelevant. The tone of your comment suggests that you might be a professional photographer who is feeling encroached upon by the growing capabilities of phone cameras. If so, don’t feel bad, those who were lugging around Deardorffs and like in the last century felt the same way about 35mm gear. BTW, a pixel is just a digital film grain, No?

  9. Steve Petrie
    June 23, 2014

    Wonderful images, but the writing is atrocious. Several sentences have improper syntax, are missing words, or simply don’t make sense. If a picture is worth a thousand words, maybe add 1-2 more photos here, and take out the text.

  10. Michael Saba
    June 23, 2014

    When crossing the Rub’ Al Khali(Empty Quarter) of Saudi Arabia where time is endless, I heard the Sunrise.

  11. Michael Saba
    June 23, 2014

    When I crossed the Rub’ Al Khali(Empty Quarter) of Saudi Arabia where time is endless, I heard the Sunrise.

  12. jean bradbury
    June 22, 2014

    Extraordinary images. But can we not move beyond romanticizing the Bedouin people? Depicting them as timeless, exotic foreigners who might as well be labeled “Oriental” is both tedious and creepy. The discussion of varying concepts of time is interesting but why must it be accompanied by these outdated Orientalist images. I would much prefer to see these beautiful photographs without the pseudo nineteenth century treatment – given the colonial baggage this sort of image carries.

    • erbPIX™
      June 23, 2014

      @ Jean Bradbury You offer an interesting perspective. I know not what you mean by “romanticizing the Bedouin people” unless it is to suggest that they have been elevated even subtly to a level above their station, or more importantly, ours as we see it. As an American I have long noticed that many people here tend to look at foreign cultures in one of two general ways: ‘If they ain’t like us, they must be backward and wish they could be like us.’ and ‘Oh, my, how fascinating, they’ve been around so much longer than we have, so they must be smarter.’ Both views are idiotic and get us as a nation into a lot of trouble. Personally, I see Bedouins as just folks who have mastered living in the dessert, probably because they haven’t received any invitations to live anywhere else, especially since they don’t have any oil wells.

      • Mario Lawrence Monteiro
        June 24, 2014

        The Bedouin people may have adapted to living in the desert and like to migrate often. But like all Arabs they are Muslim and will not tolerate any other religion in Saudi Arabia. They do not allow worship of any other religion on their soil and there are no churches, temples or synagogues in Saudi Arabia except mosques. Hence their wealth is fast eroding as the oil wells have completely run dry.

  13. Carlos P
    June 21, 2014

    I live and work in Saudi Arabia and expect a more profound investigation from NG on the centuries of history of this proud people. Hope this project still have more ‘episodes’ and we may experience a true share of new information and knowledge. Continue good job.

  14. Charles Revello
    June 20, 2014

    Forgive me, but what exactly is the purpose of this article? I came to it expecting an interesting look into Saudi Arabian culture and landscape, but instead was greeted by what appears to be an ad for the iPhone. About halfway through the piece, the author completely derails in an attempt to justify their use of the iPhone-Hipstamatic combination over a more traditional camera setup. What really rubbed me the wrong way was the author’s dismissive comment about not knowing what a megapixel is. I know that it was meant in a more rhetorical manner, as megapixels are a fairly common abstraction (i.e. the exact ramifications are not known but the general function is.), but to then compare the visual aesthetic/optical quality of the iPhone to the D30? the only level those two are even slightly comparable on is their megapixel count! The sheer size of the D30′s sensor dwarfs that of any cellphone, not to mention the fact that the quality of the lens mounted on the Canon was certainly better than the bit of plastic glued on to the phone. To see this kind of prattle published on something with as much history and prestige as National Geographic is saddening to say the least.

  15. Stuart Taylor
    June 19, 2014

    Wonderful images and the post-processing (or in this case the Hipstamatic iPhone app) fits perfectly with the “timeless” title of this article. I strongly believe that post-processing such as this adds the correct atmosphere to the images to match the vision that the author/photographer has in his mind’s eye. With the advances in phone ca,era capabilities and some of the superb images we are now seeing from phones such as the iPhone 5 it will only be a mater of time till we see such imaging in National Geographic, in much the same way we saw the use of digital images over film a number of years ago.

  16. soupbone
    June 17, 2014

    Beautiful work. I’ve heard it said, though, that the real camera is the eye – the thing you are holding in your hands is merely a glorified copy machine.

  17. suresh
    June 17, 2014

    very good and interesting and make history on this photo thank you john

  18. Kiwee
    June 16, 2014

    Great article! But it’s Ifugao (not Ifagao).

    • Alexa Keefe
      June 17, 2014

      Thank you for spotting that. We have fixed the error.

  19. jacques willemen
    June 16, 2014

    beautiful foto’s
    as time stood still
    and no changes

  20. Kathryn Jackson
    June 16, 2014

    The title brought me to the page. The pictures kept me scrolling down. The words capture my mind. The Bible speaks of God in such a timeless way. Time is indeed a point of view. From man’s few brief years we see it measured out of us in seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and years. When in fact from Jehovah God’s point of view we are but dust…yet he cares so much for us. Hopefully, this will help some think not only about the pictures and the place but the time they have. Time is something we never get back. Although history seems to repeat it self, we as individuals do not get to see every act. Instead we can only get brief glimpse at what might have been the past without pausing to think with every breathe we should make it count.

  21. Sudhindra kulkarni
    June 16, 2014

    The photographs are awesome and seem to be taken in bygone era but very relevant. The B&W photography adds to the authenticity and seems that time has stood still.

  22. James Hultman
    June 15, 2014

    If “The thing about time is that time isn’t really real. It’s just your point of view.” —Secret o’ Life, by James Taylor,
    then, how can ” Only time will tell?”

    e thing about time is that time isn’t really real. It’s just your point of view.” —Secret o’ Life, by James Taylor

  23. erbPIX™
    June 15, 2014

    James Taylor might have been reading my mind or that of countless others when he wrote that line. Our commonly shared concept of time in the industrialized world was conceived to serve the schedules of others, directly or indirectly related to “progress,” ergo the phrase “wasting time,” which is impossible.

    For some, a camera is a means to an end, for others the means is the end. I recently abandoned several photograph groups because of the omnipresent obsession with technology at the expense of image appreciation; the ‘threat” of iPhone cameras to “professional” photography was often raised. Though not an iPhone user myself, I greatly appreciate the results your use of one rendered, thank you.

  24. Libby Rook
    June 15, 2014

    Wonderful photography with a lot of history that increases my interest for the region. Thank you.

  25. Maureen michaels
    June 15, 2014

    I enjoyed your article immensely

  26. Wallowa Bob
    June 15, 2014

    What makes these pictures timeless, as images that could be mistaken for being shot any year in the past 150, is the LOOK. It’s that old BW with warm tone and imprecise focus from center to edge and cross-your-fingers processing that makes it so.

    However, I doubt if Matthew Brady would consider those limitations an asset, when he sweated with caustic chemicals in a horse-driven dark-room for an hour or more before he even knew if the silver on the fragile glass plate he exposed was good enough to even make a print.

    Similarly, I have family folders of old BW photos from WWII and brownie shots of the Alaskan Gold Rush, but only one out of 4 was a print-worthy image. So much time (and expense!) were wasted in the pre-digital era because of unreliable technology. Now we know instantly if our images are good enough to wirelessly post on Facebook.

    That these images were done with a phone camera is just a timely hook IMO, although I get the irony that the subject is 3,000 years old. But I think people should get over the “cool” aspect of mobile technology and celebrate what truly can be done today more than any “time” in history: reliably capture a moment with precision, and then process it according to the artist’s vision. Whatever the year these were shot, with whatever device, they appear to do just that.

  27. Ani Meharry
    June 15, 2014

    Inspiring, lyrical bridge! Thank you for this.

  28. Cendra Lynn
    June 15, 2014

    Time exists so that everything doesn’t happen all at once. Space exists so that everything doesn’t happen to you. [Heard on Prairie Home Companion years ago.]

  29. menon
    June 15, 2014

    du mal à suivre tellement c’est grand et beau !

  30. jacques willemen
    June 15, 2014

    time is change
    here or in the cosmos or within an atom

  31. Stanley Bembenek
    June 15, 2014

    Thank you for taking me back in time.

  32. Paul Warner
    June 15, 2014

    Wrapped as I am in the sense that time is a fleeting sensation of life, I have recently added a new tool to my experience of time. Before there was time. If one follows the universe back to its beginning there comes a point of singularity that simply has no “before”. I got this from Stephen Hawking, but I’ve been wondering about what was there before the universe started to form and the quality tracks the perception of time slowing as one approaches the speed of light to where time stops. Timelessness, indeed.

  33. carlos lasanta
    June 15, 2014

    Very good and interesting. Specially about time concept.

  34. Magnum Opus
    June 15, 2014

    Thanks for taking us on this transcendent journey…

  35. Cameron Davidson
    June 14, 2014

    I am glad that Mr. Stanmeyer speaks about the lens/film combo and the wanting to get away from filters and sliders. My friend Julian Calverley is a landscape shooter int he UK and two weeks ago, his first book #iphoneonly was published. All landscapes shot in Scotland and run through the Snapseed app.

    I still prefer shooting with Nikons and my medium format kit. I love the limitations of the iphone – it forces you to use your sneaker zoom and think position.

  36. Matilda Essig
    June 14, 2014

    Beautiful discussion. re: the needed fruition – I see it happening, but not universally, (yet), rather amongst ‘ the choir’ of those who are deeply engaged and enthralled in the great good power of this communication. As the world becomes more and more visual, because of all of this available technology, I see the choir growing. All of this spurs me forth in my work, as an image maker, to try to harness these tools to create images that speak across as broad a spectrum of humanity as possible. The iPhone stands the chance of uniting us in so many ways – both aesthetically and experientially. I have great hope for the visual future, even if the quality of the imagery is not always supreme. We are going back to intuition as we embrace the truth through visual record.

  37. Jim Richardson
    June 14, 2014

    Wonderful images and wonderful explorations (both geographic and esthetic) explained.
    Kudos for going beyond the standard narrative of iPhone photography as a novel sidelight to “serious” photography. Most accounts give a nod to the growing interest in phone photography and end with a big “but…”, going on to explain that while phone photography may be interesting, when the going gets tough the big cameras come out of the bag. True enough, for as far as it goes. But that is a type of myopia, missing the bigger point, missing the capabilities of mobile, connected photography to transform not just how we display photographs, but how we take them and WHY we take them. Not to mention the transformative power of immediate and constant experimentation that the plethora of apps allows us to carry around in our pockets. Combine that with the immediacy of the medium and the immediacy of the feedback and you have a revolution in photography. This is not just a curious offshoot of serious photography, it is a new kind of photography, and in many ways much more effective than the old, slow photography.

  38. Michael Lentz
    June 14, 2014

    True, the line between pro cameras and Phone cameras are blurring (somewhat), until you need to control lighting with flash, or mount on tripod. These images are great, thanks for sharing !

  39. Daniel Ramos
    June 14, 2014

    Ask an elder in the Ifagao region of the northern Philippines or a farmer in the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia, how old they are ………

    The correct name name of the tribe is IFUGAO and is also one of the provinces in northern Luzon Island in the Philippines.

  40. paul brazie
    June 13, 2014

    James Taylor’s reflection on the relationship of time and reality is an interesting introduction to the conceptual idea of how the state of art photography, (the iphone) differs from the history of recording and sharing photographic images. That the hipstamatic app allows you to produce images that at once look aged and weathered adds emotional impact to the image, but the quality that warps reality and bends time, is the iphone’s ability to bring your world and ideas to me instantly a world away. The astonishing thing that you and everyone involved with “The out of Eden” project is doing, is bringing a reality to me, that I will never experience in real time.
    I thank you for that and will buy you a coffee at your shop when someday you return to my world.

  41. Sumaiya Hamdani
    June 13, 2014

    Although the technical comments about photography eluded me in this post, the timeless quality of the images from mada’in and al-’ula came through beautifully. I visited these sites six months ago and was haunted by their ageless majesty and was so moved by the construction of the tombs at mada’in as memorials to loved ones buried there so many thousands of years ago. They are especially striking because they are so rare and rarely visited. The saudi government destroys arabia’s past in aid of their ideology and discourages visits to any sites that others like unesco have thankfully preserved.

  42. Mario Lawrence Monteiro
    June 13, 2014

    A photo is worth a thousand words. For the past 3 months, your emails do not display the photographs correctly but show only the top one third of the photograph. Hence sometimes the text has no meaning without the accompanying photographs.

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