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Emirati photographer Yousef Al Habshi captures a bug’s life in new exhibit

Anna Seaman

September 5, 2016 Updated: September 5, 2016 03:13 PM

Yousef Al Habshi is a photographer who likes to get up close and personal with subjects many of us would run from.

He is a macro photographer – one who takes close-up photos of small things – with a special interest in entomology, the study of insects. His work has been published in the Arabian edition of National Geographicmagazine, and his first exhibition opens in the capital Wednesday, September 7.

Creatures such as beetles, wasps, weevils and flies give many people the creeps and are certainly not the kinds of things they like to look at closely. Fascinated by this tiny world and its incredible details, which cannot be seen with the naked eye, Al Habshi embarked on a mission to find and photograph the UAE’s native bugs with a macro lens, so that their beauty can be properly appreciated.

The incredible images he has captured can be viewed at The Project Space at New York University Abu Dhabi’s Art Gallery on Wednesday, September 7 in an exhibition titled Little Monsters.

"In general, people fear insects or at least find them disgusting," says Al Habshi. "But they don’t understand how important insects are in our lives. It is a fact that all of us – animals and humans – would not survive if there were no insects. I want to show people there is a different side to these creatures, that they can be beautiful too."

Al Habshi, who is from Abu Dhabi, admits he had to overcome his own discomfort when he started photographing the insects, but soon began to love them. Now he drives to farms on the outskirts of the capital in a car filled with nets and cages, so that he can capture tiny creatures and take them to his home studio, where he photographs their incredible colours and textures.

Sometimes he goes to the northern emirates where "the environment is completely different", and looks for unusual insects among the vegetation.

"My main motivation is my curiosity to discover and witness the beauty of this little and unseen world," he says.

The detail in his images is stunning. In one, a beetle, Latin name Pachyrrhynchus reticulatus, peers out of the frame, dappled in orange, green and red. In another, a cuckoo wasp – with huge, honeycomb-covered eyes – rears up, lifting its front legs towards the viewer. As well as appearing in National Geographic Al Arabiya magazine, Al Habshi’s work was also used as the main content for its 2016 calendar. Yet he is completely self-taught. He became interested in photography in 2010, and two years later, discovered the magic of the macro lens.

He started publishing his work on social-media sites, Flickr in particular, and his own website.

This year, his site, caught the attention of biologist Claude Desplan from NYUAD, who studies the body’s visual system using the fruit fly, drosophila, to analyse how the eye and visual centres that process images are formed during development.

Desplan and his postdoctoral fellow, Michael Perry, were pleased to learn that he lives close to where Desplan teaches on the NYUAD campus. A meeting led to a collaboration, culminating in the exhibition.

Al Habshi’s photographs of eye patterns feature a wide variety of insects found in the UAE. As this is the primary focus of Desplan’s research, they continue to collaborate in identifying rare insects and documenting their unique eye patterns, with the ultimate goal of publication in scientific journals. For Al Habshi, who also plans to collect his work in a book, it is a wonderful union of art and science.

"This is my first exhibition in the country and, hopefully, it will lead to more, he says. "I feel particularly proud that a group of entomology specialists and professors will attend. That gives it weight, not only being shown in an art gallery, but as a scientific project, too."

• Little Monsters runs until ­September 24 at The Project Space at New York University Abu Dhabi.


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