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“That is always the first question I get asked – where I’m from, and I actually don’t answer that question,” UAE-based photographer Waleed Shah says, curt and slightly irate, echoing a sentiment most travelers share but few dare speak of in the age of border walls. “Regardless of whether you’re a racist or not, your brain automatically tries to segment people and things into categories based on your past experience, so I just don’t want to give your brain the opportunity to do that to me.”

When he’s not closing big deals with global conglomerates like Sony Music, Absolut, Red Bull, and Audi, the award-winning photographer heeds the call of wanderlust. “Travel just kind of hits the refresh or restart button in your brain,” he says. “When you stay in one place for too long, everything starts to look ordinary. As soon as you travel, everything ceases to be ordinary, and you find yourself interested in everything again.”

Ironically, his most recent passion project – and arguably his best work to date, saw the exotic and unfamiliar wander right into his doorstep in the UAE, where he was born and raised. “I was flipping through the calendar to see what was coming up, what was going on, and it was Father’s Day,” he recounts. “I thought to myself, you know what, that’s a pretty good idea, let me do something around Father’s Day; let me try to connect fathers who are here to their families wherever I’m going or wherever I want to go.”

Left to right: Portrait of Gigi Thomas, a Keralite worker who left his parents, his two children, and his wife in India to go work in Abu Dhabi to support them, and his family back in Kerala (photos: Waleed Shah) 

Holed up in the fringes of the bustling metropolises they helped build, Keralite migrant workers – about 40 percent of the country’s Indian workforce, the UAE’s largest migrant labor population – toil long hours, thousands of miles away from home, fathering their families from afar. In The Father’s Day Project, which saw Shah collaborate with UAE-based professional photographer Nikith Nath, nine Keralite fathers are reunited with their families through portraiture, transcending the borders and distances keeping them apart. The photo series consists of portraits of the fathers, as well as portraits of their families back in Kerala. “[We travelled] around south Kerala on motorcycles to deliver framed prints to their families, then delivered framed prints of the families’ [portraits] back to the fathers in Abu Dhabi for Father’s Day,” Shah explains.

Once in Kerala, the Father’s Day Project took a different turn. It was there, after all, that Shah and Nikith’s work would really begin. Out of the ten days the two photographers spent in Kerala for the purpose of the shoot, six were spent biking across the state. “Nikith is from Kerala, so wherever we go, he doesn’t have his camera out because that’s home to him, but I did. I was snapping everything,” Shah says.

The further they got from 'Kerala: the Tourist Pamphlet Version' – far from the palm trees that line the state’s Arabian Sea beaches, the more real Kerala got: a fatherless city, where people are too familiar with the realities of life to entertain fanciful strangers who flew in to take their fatherless family portraits. The real challenge, according to Shah, was getting the families to open up to him. “What I learned in Kerala is that people are very reserved, they’re very family-oriented, and they don’t really trust anybody with their emotions if they’re not family,” he says. “So we’d just kind of hang out for a little while, chat, share a meal, then we’d give them the portraits – because it takes a bit of time for them to trust us, to show us that they’re happy.”  

Left to right: Benny, a plumbing supervisor who has been living in the UAE for 13 years, and his family back in Kerala (photos: Waleed Shah)

Luckily, Shah was armed with a secret weapon: the Malayalam phrase for ‘give me a big smile’, which he employed at the time the portraits were being taken. “I don’t speak the language, it was Nikith who was always communicating and translating what I was trying to say. But once everything was set up and we had our lights ready, I’d burst out, ‘nalla poritchirikiu’ and they’d burst out laughing because they didn’t expect it. And that’s always that moment you see in the portraits, where everybody has a big smile on their face, because it’s genuine laughter,” he says, laughing.

The portraits, accompanied by personal notes from the fathers to their families, paint an archetypal father figure that elicits a familiar warmth in the viewer, while preserving the uniqueness of the cases the project documents. The photographer duo tell a story of migrant workers to whom there is more to distance than just miles on a map. “It has been three months since I last visited my family; I won’t be seeing them again until at least two years from now, when my leave gets approved,” Baiju, a site supervisor, tells Shah and Nath.

Nikith Nath (photo: Waleed Shah)

What separates them from their loved ones is immeasurable, it is greater than time and space – it is missed birthdays, anniversaries, and soccer games; the many firsts and life events. It is the joys of parenthood they will happily give away in the hope that, one day, their children won’t have to. “My daughter is in 1stgrade and my son just started kindergarten. It is summer break back home and I miss them very much, [and it saddens me] that I cannot be with them,” one father told Shah and Nath. “Mini, I hope you and the kids are happy and fine. I will come back soon, once all of our financial troubles are resolved, to an extent. This is only a small interval till then,” he says, addressing his wife. “I am working hard in this desert for all of you,” another note read.

At a time when everyone seems to be bragging about ‘quitting their job to travel the world’, The Father’s Day project is a breath of fresh air in that it overturns a cultural shift where travel is increasingly becoming a marker of wealth and social status. It strips travel to its all too human essence, combining Shah’s wanderlust with Keralite migrant workers’ homesickness, as two parts of a whole. It makes travel inclusive again and validates all of its ends.

The photographers display a refreshing level of awareness, uncharacteristic to their modern-day photographer cohorts to whom people’s stories and struggles are ‘content’ and ‘posts’, validated only by the amount of traction they gain – a vehicle to Internet celebrity. They look beyond the idyllic, storybook fatherhood experience and hone in on the uniqueness of The Father's Day Project subjects while seamlessly bringing out the universality of fatherly love. “I like to prove to myself and to people around me that everybody is the same, wherever you go,” Shah says. “There’s no right way of doing things and that’s the whole point of coming back with stories like this.”