“I didn’t want to end up with mugshots. You know, tasteless, without any kind of soul. I wanted to take portraits to really project the beauty of the eyes,” says Abu Dhabi-based photographer Noura Al Neyadi of her latest project ‘Eyes & Stories,’ shot inside four COVID-19 screening facilities across the emirate. 

It’s only when she says it that I laugh and actually notice how easily her project could have turned into just that. How easily an attempt to document the people working tirelessly on the frontlines could have become dehumanising, a collection of atomised stories snapped hurriedly between tending to patients. 

But it isn’t. In each of Al Neyadi’s photographs, there’s a blinding humanity. Some are light-hearted and humorous, some are honest moments of fear, and most are odes to loved ones. Al Neyadi’s heartfelt series featuring 150 doctors, nurses, cleaners, security guards, and volunteer workers at the frontlines of Abu Dhabi’s Coronavirus fight is a masterclass in portraiture.

“Since the beginning of this pandemic, as a photographer, it’s been an obsession to me, on how to document this pandemic,” says Al Neyadi. “I was really curious about the kind of people who would pause their lives, hop on, and work in the screening facility. The main goal of the project was to photograph everyone working there, regardless of their background, and for everyone to talk about themselves and say something that they would like to share with the world. I wanted them to feel appreciated.”

“And at the same time,” she continues, “I wanted to share this beauty with the community of the people staying at home. There are a lot of people who are actually not in the field, and they don’t know what’s happening, and they don’t know the hardship that these people had to go through, in order to provide these services.”

Further precluding her ‘mugshot’ fears, Al Neyadi made sure she took the time to interview each of her subjects, having them warm up to the camera first before clamming up in front of it. “It was times when the whole world was dealing with the unknown, and all the struggles, in these facilities, I saw my community coming together, supporting each other, working towards serving my community. And a lot of people I interviewed [who aren’t originally from the UAE] call this country home, and that made me feel that I am very lucky and fortunate to be able to live in this land.”

Al Neyadi laughs as she takes me through the safety measures she put in place to ensure her photography project doesn’t put her or anyone else in danger of infection. “I had to quarantine all of Ramadan, away from my family. I had to take the test before entering the screening facility, wait for the result, get into the screening facility, finish my shooting, leave the screening facility, take the test again, and never visit the next screening facility before my second test result came in. As you can see, I had to really put safety measures before anything else.”

Because of the occupational hazards of shooting in a virus testing centre, Al Neyadi eventually switched out her heavy camera for her iPhone, with which she shot most of the series. 

The photographer had set out to do what artists like her do best: document for those not on the ground. What she didn’t expect, however, is the impact of her short interviews and portrait sessions on those in the facilities themselves, what she says had the feel of an overwhelming beehive of people rushing around.

“These are people under severe stress and a lot of pressure,” she explains. “I was close to tears when a few of them told me that my project is giving them a bit of joy and a positive push: that there are people who are really interested in their work, who appreciate what they’re doing, and there’s someone who wants to listen to them talk and give them the platform to do that.”

You can check out more of the series on Al Neyadi's Instagram.