Then, I need power for computers, lights and flashes, access to the web and Hegre-Art.com. I can sleep on the floor, and often have, but my gear is precious and a little pampered. A bit like Luba, I suppose. Planning is essential, but then I like to keep myself open to destiny and let coincidence do its thing. That's how our journey to Dubai came about.
I don't eat red meat and found the perfect spot to indulge my taste buds in a little Arabic restaurant when I was on a trip to Vilnius, the picture book capital of Lithuania. The chef is one of those souls with the rare gift of garnering his delicately baked turkey and chicken fillets with blends of herbs and spices that leave your mouth faintly tingling with all the exotic flavours of the mysterious Orient. I returned several times to Lithuania with the excuse that I had a lot of photo work to do there, but equally the spicy perfumes of Arabia were calling me back to that little restaurant in Vilnius.
The Syrian owner of the place is a calm, courteous, aloof guy who would nod to Luba and me, ask in perfect English when we left at the end of the evening if we were satisfied, and bow politely. After our seventh or eighth time, he asked what business I was in.
"I'm a photographer," I said, and he glanced at Luba, who was looking particularly lovely.
"Ah, of course," he replied, his eyes twinkling.
He clicked his fingers, a waiter rushed over with a round of drinks and as we talked I discovered that our Syrian friend was not merely a restaurateur, he was the right-hand of the Sheik of Abu Dhabi and a trusted intimate the sheiks of the Arabic Emirates. What was he doing living in Vilnius? I thought it was impolite to ask, especially as our new friend made the necessary introductions that gave me some new contacts in places unexplored by the sleepless eye of my camera.
Luba shot back to Norway to get her papers in order - travelling still isn't easy for Ukrainians, married or not; I headed home to Portugal to spend an intense three days training Justin, my Dutch assistant, Luba joined me and, with our tons of equipment, we were back on the big bird flying east to Dubai.
The first impression you get of the United Emirates is the airport, a cross between a vast marble temple and a royal shopping mall with giant palm trees under the high glass ceilings and a vast black and white tiled floor like a chess board for an endless game of chess. Everything, I mean everything, is owned by the Sheik of Dubai...air company, airport, even the white Rolls Royce that delivered us to Burj Al Arab, the one and only 7 star hotel in the world, Luba hidden behind the biggest bouquet of red roses you have ever seen.
The piccolo brought our luggage to the two-storey, 140 square metre citadel on the 19th floor with its view that goes on beyond the Dubai skyline into a pure blue universe. We didn't even have a moment to catch our breath (and open the champagne in the ice bucket) before the butler turns up to unpack our luggage. Every room at the Burj Al Arab comes with its own butler, I mean, that's obvious, right? And I slowly started to realize that I was on a different planet: planet Arabic Emirates, and we were staying in the crown jewel.
It took a few hours for Luba and I to just absorb the various features of the room... the theme was gold, gold and gold. What was more amazing, was that we learned that everything the looks like gold... is gold. Even the 50 inch plasma screen had a triple gold frame. The bathroom was the size of a living room with a shower for ten. ("Wow, I thought, could we make a movie in this place!"). A Dynasty style staircase curved up to the second floor and the king-sized bed had a king-sized mirror on the ceiling :-)))
Finally, we have found paradise, I thought. But paradise always has a flaw! With this backdrop, I was itching to get Luba posed against all that gold. I had to check my emails and see what Justin was doing at the Archives. I plugged in, hit the button and on the screen in big red letters was the message: SITE BLOCKED. ACCESS DENIED!!!
This required action. I called my butler (I love that: I called my butler ). He was a handsome Indian guy who charmingly lowered his eyes and asked in that courteous Indian way exactly what kind of site I was trying to access and from what server I was checking my mail. His voice became a whisper.
"If it contains any nudity, even if the tiniest piece of bare skin is revealed, the site is blocked to the whole Arab Emirates."
He shrugged hopelessly. This is 2004, I told him. This was my profession. "There is nothing pornographic on Hegre-Archives," I insisted. "This is art. This is one of the most respected websites on the web."
"What to do."
He shook his head. He looked pretty sad, like I was going to blame him, but it wasn't his fault and I told him I understood that. I understood, but I didn't like it at all. For the first time in more than three years, I was unable to check my own site or check my regular mail for a whole week. If it was up to me, the famous Burj Al Arab should have been degraded 2 stars for this censorship. I set up a Hotmail account and for a week it was like going back to the days of carrier pigeons as I corresponded with the team - in fact, I am lucky to have a fantastic team around me, so the Archives ran just as smoothly as ever. Thanks guys.
Dubai is different from anywhere else I have been, and they definitely have a complex, that is to say the rich have a complex. It is all about being the richest, largest, fastest, tallest and most spectacular. They are constantly competing with the world and each other. When the sheik from the next city is building something, the other sheiks think to themselves, I'd better do that, and start building something bigger and better in New York, or Kuala Lumpur or Tokyo. They don't have cultural festivals, they have shopping festivals. They don't have normal cars. They have extended, stretched, hotted up limos with fab designs with custom-made everything !
On the other hand, Luba and I felt very safe in Dubai. It is spotlessly clean, which is an interesting phenomena when in our old European cities the streets are now often filled with graffiti and garbage, and the food is every bit as good as the little Arabic restaurant in Vilnius. Dubai has in a decade evolved in a way that used to take cities a 100 years, the expansion in part due to the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on America. A lot of Arab billionaires got the cold shoulder in the US at this time, so that emptied their bank accounts and built their own world metropolis on home ground.
I had set out with plans for shooting Luba outside, but I took one look at the smartly uniformed police and decided to forget it. I didn't want to go to jail for my art, so all the photos were made in room 1904 at the Burj Al Arab. With all that luscious gold, it turned out to be a pretty sexy shoot, If you take the tour though the interior of the only 7 star hotel of the world, you may enjoy a few snaps of my 10 star wife Luba enjoying the luxury of it...all naked.