The Man Who Captures Sheikh Hamdan's Adventures

By Adam Baidawi
21 November 2018
UAE, Photography, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum
Emirati photographer Ali Bin Thalith brings rarely seen photographic subjects to life with the help of Dubai's Crown Prince

Whether you ask biologists or oceanographers, the overwhelming consensus is that around 80 per cent of our oceans remain unexplored. Ali Bin Thalith, an Emirati photographer, spends his days chipping away at that figure.

Since 2004, he’s worked as an underwater photographer, acquiring an enviable collection of deep-sea imagery and camera bodies, both rare and modern.

 

“It’s very emotional for me, when I’m amongst all of the creatures in the water. It gives you an indication of how God has balanced this planet,” says Bin Thalith. “It’s a visual journey. I shut down my life. You don’t think about whatever exists up there. You just fully connect with what is under the water.”

That Bin Thalith would become fascinated by the ocean is hardly a surprise – he comes from a line of pearl divers, and grew up in a Jumeirah home with a view onto the water. Learning to dive at a young age, he developed his photography skills in tandem, admiring photographers like Sebastião Salgado, Ansel Adams and Steve McCurry.

Now, Bin Thalith turns his lens to far-flung locations, from Malaysia to Mexico, capturing marine life like Caribbean reef sharks and squid in vibrant, dramatic frames.

His explorations – that have zig-zagged through oceans the world over – have been made all the more extraordinary, thanks to a long-time friendship with His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum.

“His Highness has a big passion for diving and being underwater,” says Bin Thalith. “He keeps surprising me. One time we were diving in Dubai and I was shocked that, while I was diving with scuba gear, he managed to reach 30-metre depths by free diving. That’s not normal, even for someone who’s trained for two years.”

Though Bin Thalith has worked with Sheikh Hamdan in a number of capacities, it’s their expeditions that have solidified their relationship above all else. As you might expect, those expeditions are far from routine.

“One time, he said, ‘I want you to be fully equipped – we’re going to dive somewhere good,’” says Bin Thalith. Bin Thalith prides himself on always being ready – it becomes something of an occupational necessity in a working day that shifts as dynamically as a current.

“He kept quiet about the subject we were going to shoot. All he said was that we were going to dive in India.”

Bin Thalith was confused – India’s great, but what could a likely underwater subject possibly be? He hadn’t heard of any major underwater photographers flocking to India to shoot. The day before the shoot, Sheikh Hamdan revealed that Bin Thalith was going to photograph an elephant.

“I thought he was kidding. I said, ‘Yeah, an elephant – why not?’”

Bin Thalith didn’t believe him, at least not until he saw the elephant approaching. “I thought I was dreaming,” he says.

Ali bin Thalith

In the water, faced with the Asian elephant named Rajan, Bin Thalith forgot himself. “I approached the elephant to the extent where it could have hurt me, badly. His Highness told me to keep away from Rajan, but I had a wide-angle lens and wanted to approach the elephant as closely as I could.

“His Highness said to me, ‘Are you crazy? Why did you approach the elephant so closely?’ My answer was frank: ‘Your Highness, you put an elephant in front of me and think that I’m going to be normal?’”

The final image shows the great creature stretched out in the water, the Crown Prince floating beside.

Another photo, mounted proudly in Bin Thalith’s office, shows several sets of brown legs moving through shallow water.

It started with a call from Sheikh Hamdan – and a video he wanted Bin Thalith to watch. It showed sand gazelles taking advantage of a low tide to cross a body of water between two islands. The video drove Bin Thalith crazy: he had to capture it. And naturally, he did.

“This is what His Highness does: he pushes you to be a creative person, to be a person who’s motivated, 24 hours a day.”

Ali Bin Thalith’s book Truly, Madly, Deeply is available now