Photojournalist and aerial photographer Jumana Jolie grew up in Dubai in the 1980s, when it was a developing desert town – long before it became a synonym for futuristic cityscape living and air-conditioned luxury.
"I remember it before the beautiful chaos and traffic. The highways and skyscrapers that are some of my favourite subjects to photograph now stand above what was once a desert that stretched for miles," says Jumana. "I remember driving to college before all the highways were developed, and looking at a young city that had so much potential. I remember photographing the Burj Khalifa in 2007, early on in its construction – to see it now and to compare my skyline pictures to back then... it’s inspiring how quickly the city has grown over the last few decades."
With more than 250 posts on Instagram, as @pixelville, Jumana has attracted a global audience of more than 100K followers thanks to her vertiginous photographs from city rooftops. She shoots in what look like terrifyingly dangerous places, between impossibly high-mirrored towers, using her Canon EOS 5D Mark III. "I play with angles – it’s all about perspective," she says. "It started out as a hobby – off the back of my love of architecture. I’d look up and think, ‘Wow, that building is beautiful from here, but I wonder what it would look like from up there?’ It’s so different, seeing the world from above."
Her love for aerial photography began at Reuters, where she worked from 2007 to 2015. "We’d document the progress of The World and Palm Islands – the city’s man-made archipelagos – when they were being constructed, and be invited on helicopter flights," she recalls. "It’s not just a matter of simply taking the picture – with every flight you train yourself to construct the shots in your mind, thinking about framing and cropping, leaving elements out that don’t need to be there. Wherever I travel, I like to fly. Nothing compares to flying above a city and looking at everything from that perspective – seeing cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai, each one with its own unique rhythm.
"I don’t use a gyro; I'm hand-holding out of a window," she adds. "We hover in some areas; if you have a really good pilot, he can tilt the plane to 90 degrees and it's kind of stable. You're strapped in with a seatbelt, so you can't hang out or fall out, but I'm often holding onto the door handle and shooting with one hand, sometimes stretching my arm out to get that perfect bird’s-eye perspective. That’s what I did when I shot New York – I stretched my arm out and shot blind."
Her fascination with documenting cities was largely inspired by her grandfather. A self-made man from a poor background, he worked his way up to be a civil engineer with a contracting firm in Kuwait, and brought his family from Jerusalem to the United Arab Emirates – via Lebanon and Kuwait – in the 1960s. "One day, his manager asked him, ‘Can you go to this place in the Gulf to oversee a small project?’ He had to put a pin in the map to show where Dubai was because, at the time, it wasn’t there." Seeing how much potential the city had, he started his own construction business, which is now one of the main contracting firms in Dubai."
Nothing compares to flying above a city and seeing its unique rhythm.
Today, whenever Jumana looks out at the Dubai skyline, she sees the developments his company constructed. "When I’m driving, I see his company's cranes on a new plot," she says. "It fills me with pride, and inspires me to document the growth of Dubai from as many vantage points and perspectives as I can."
But it's not just capturing Dubai that motivates Jumana, she's driven to document the pace, growth and unique rhythm of all the major metropolises that she can. "I want to captivate audiences everywhere through my photography; to capture how every city moves to a different beat, each in its own way. Every urban jungle has its own unique rhythm, and a special sort of organised chaos that, when looked at and captured through a viewfinder, is so simplified."
It was her grandfather who also kickstarted her passion for photography, with the gift of a 35mm rangefinder camera. "In college, I pursued a BFA degree in photography; it was the best thing I ever did, to have that classical training," she says. "After graduating, I worked in fashion for a few months. But I quickly realised it wasn’t for me, so I began freelancing for local papers. I started with Gulf News, which led me to Reuters, documenting stories and shooting news features and sports. That moulded me into the photographer I am today. Now I’m a full-time freelancer. I work with Getty Images as a photo editor, and for clients and brands on campaigns, too."
Working as a female photographer in the Middle East comes with its challenges. "But it’s a challenge I always welcomed," she says. "I’ve pushed to find my strengths and improve on my skills, using that as motivation every day. Having my family’s support has inspired me so much, and given me the fortitude to pursue photography as a career.
"When I started in 2007, women were definitely in the minority, and we still are. When I go to an event, 99% of the photographers will be men. I'll see maybe one other woman with a camera. At first it was a little overwhelming, but over time it got easier," she says. "I was very young when I began, so I was the new kid on the block. There were all these guys who’d been around for years, and they were solid in the industry. At first, I wasn't taken so seriously, but then I found my place and it became like a family. Although you’re working with competitors and different agencies, at every event you attend you’ll have your group of photographers who all respect each other."
Now Jumana is also getting respect around the world for her hugely popular Instagram feed. "I opened a social media account a couple of years ago," she says. "The way I decided to do it was to showcase the growth of Dubai through aerial photography – daring shots, those sort of images. When it comes to social media, I'm very selective about what I post. I think the most important thing for anyone starting out, or photographers who are already on social media, is to create a body of work that’s unique and authentic – it has to represent who you are as an artist."
Coupled with her 5D Mark III are her go-to lenses, the EF 16-35mm f/2.8 III USM and EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, which she always carries with her. "These focal lengths are perfect, whether I'm shooting people or cityscapes," she says. "But if I’m shooting sports I use the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM on a monopod, since it’s practical and easy to move around the field with."
Despite being known for her aerial shots, Jumana’s day-to-day work is as a photojournalist and editor, covering sports and news stories across the Middle East. "You could say that the aerial photographer is my alter ego, because I love photojournalism – both spot news and other topical stories," she says. "For example, the Arab Spring uprising of 2010-2012, during which I spent time in Yemen covering the unrest for Reuters."
Jumana feels she is developing her character as a photojournalist. "It’s such a male-dominated field," she says. "Women are still a minority, but things are changing. I think we still have a long way to go, but more and more women are realising their passions and pursuing careers." And that, thanks to her stunning images from on high and those down at street level, is a path she's treading in an innovative and inspiring fashion.
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