Our Instagram feeds were flooded with photo after heartfelt photo in digital commemoration to dads this week. Between the 17th and the 21st of June, i.e. the various dates Father’s Day falls on depending on where in the globe you’re situated, photos and accompanying captions dedicated to fathers dominated. The men who may not have had their images plastered in pixels on their families’ feeds? Indian immigrant fathers in the UAE, who’ve left their families back home, in order to support them from hundreds of miles away.
But it is precisely these fathers who are being honoured in a new heartfelt photo project by two Abu Dhabi based photographers. In The Father’s Day Project, Waleed Shah and Nikith Nath captured portraits of 9 Indian fathers working in Abu Dhabi, travelled to their hometown of Kerala in India and gifted the printed frames to their families, then photographing them with the frames and returning to Abu Dhabi to give those snapshots to the fathers.
Joy, an immigrant from Kerala, India, who now works in Abu Dhabi
The Inception-esque visual project, which is also accompanied by stories of the men, as well as a documentary, was conceived by Shah, in an effort to pay tribute to these often overlooked fathers. “About 30% of total population in Abu Dhabi is from one district in India called Kerala,” he explains, “So naturally anybody who grew up here would have Malayalam [the native language of Kerala] around them, and so in general, Kerala was just kind of on my mind subconsciously.”
There’s a quote from a very famous Malayalam movie which translated, says something along the lines of ‘when we go off and work [in the gulf or any other countries] we leave our souls behind with our families and it’s just our bodies that go to work and when we come back we are re-united with our souls.'
The project rapidly evolved as Shah teamed up with Nikith Nath (who is himself originally from Kerala) and got in touch with 9 Keralite employees based in Abu Dhabi, whose jobs ranged from plumbers to electricians to construction site supervisors. Gigi Thomas, Devaassy Thomas, Benny, Jomy Joseph, Baiju, Joy, Daniel Philipose, Binu and Anil Kumar, who were at first apprehensive but accommodating, had their images and stories captured for their families back home.
Armed with a slew of 12x18 black and white portraits, Shah and Nikith then travelled to India, planted the printed images on motorcycles and drove 900km around the southern state, through fields, rubber plantations, and tiny remote towns, to hand deliver the photographs to the families scattered throughout Kerala.
The photos convey a powerful story, one of sacrifice and perseverance as these migrant workers have essentially abandoned everything they know to work in Gulf countries, often for decades, to provide their families with opportunities.
“There’s a quote from a very famous Malayalam movie which translated, says something along the lines of ‘when we go off and work [in the gulf or any other countries] we leave our souls behind with our families and it’s just our bodies that go to work, and when we come back we are re-united with our souls,” reminisces Shah.
Just like everyone who has dreams when they come to the Gulf countries, I too had, which I have managed to accomplish over these years. I have been able to educate my kids well.
These men who seek work overseas, are absentee fathers in a sense, not by choice, but by necessity, and it is their very absence that allows their families to survive. Many of them never graduated high school; their children now are getting degrees from college. Some of them had no real homes; the salaries they now save up often provide for a roof over the heads of families of six or eight.
Benny with the portrait of his family, in turn holding his portrait
“There was this one story that really hit me,” recounts Shah, whose own father also moved to the UAE to build a life for his family, “His name is Baiju and he was telling us how his family had nothing; they were rubber estate workers, and had no land, no house, nothing. When he came to Abu Dhabi, he saved up some money and and with that was able to buy some land for his family, and built a house on it.”
Neither the two photographers nor the immigrant men view their tales as sob stories; they are not people to be pitied, they are people who have empowered themselves, at times pulled their families out of poverty, at others propelled them to lead a better life than they had. It is a source of pride. “I work hard here [in Abu Dhabi], but I don’t regard it as a burden at all,” shares Benny. “My life is dedicated to my family and my kids. What I sacrifice here is for my family’s happiness.”
I work hard here [in Abu Dhabi], but I don’t regard it as a burden at all.
Unlike what we may perceive as a shattered dreams, to them, these are in fact, dreams fulfilled. “Just like everyone who has dreams when they come to the Gulf countries, I too had, which I have managed to accomplish over these years. I have been able to educate my kids well. My daughter is working towards being an airport manager and my son has just graduated from Grade 12. We know not of our tomorrow but at the moment I have a loving family. There is nothing special that I would like to tell everyone back home as they already know everything about me. Just know that I am working hard in this desert for you,” says Daniel Philipose.
Baiju's family in Kerala
And while many of us may have been able to wake up this father’s day, Instagram a #throwback photo with our dads and then post a selfie from the mandatory dinner where we bought him the mandatory tie/greatest dad mug, not everyone has been afforded this luxury. But geographic distance has not dissipated the ties between these men and their families, or overwhelming appreciation they have for the men who are almost inflated to hero status in some sense because of the weight of the sacrifice they have made for their loved ones and the extent to which it has helped them.
“While we were in Kerala, one of the immigrant’s fathers, Baiju’s father, grabs my arm as we’re leaving,” recounts Shah, “And he looks me right in the eye and he says ‘When you go home to Abu Dhabi and see Baiju, you tell him we’re doing okay. You tell him what you saw today and tell him he's doing great.’”
You can check out the full project here.