Photographer Kieran Doherty in Dubai
While waiting for the sun to set on a snowy Stonehenge, I received a phone call from Tim, ’Do you fancy an eight day trip to Dubai to shoot a story on an urban falconer?’ When someone asks you that question as you are sitting in minus 10 degrees cold, there is really only one answer. So two days later I arrived in Dubai to meet Human Planetʼs Urban team, consisting of Mark Flowers, producer/director, Mark MacEwen, cameraman, the invaluable Andrea Jones, production co-ordinator and Julia Wheeler, the BBCʼs middle east correspondent.
Hereʼs an interesting fact. One third of all the worldʼs construction cranes are currently in Dubai. I imagine itʼs every architectʼs dream to design a building for Dubai. They come in all shapes and sizes. Everywhere you look you can see office blocks, skyscrapers, apartments with penthouses that have swimming pools on the 47th floor. Hotels have motorised gondolas to ferry you from one part of the complex to another. Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Verons and Bentleys sit parked outside hotel lobbies. I felt a bit like Jim Carreyʼs character in the Truman Show. Is all this real? Maybe this is the Dubai experience everyone was telling me about? Stepping inside the 7 star Burj LʼArab hotel was just that… Fountains filled with glycerine so that the water doesnʼt separate when it arcs everywhere. Forty seven sushi chefs in the Japanese restaurant alone… Well believe it or not, even with all this wealth, technology and state of the art know how, Dubai still suffers from pigeon infestation and there is only one way to clear them out properly.
This story centred around falconer David Stead, and the schedule of sequences required by the team were too numerous to mention, suffice to say that David probably experienced what it feels like to be George Clooney. Every format of camera angle was afforded him, from helicopter cineflex to steadicam, crane, car mount and tripod… I just had to shoot the stills.
And so for the next six days we rose with the light and shot David flying his beautiful falcons against the impressive skyscraper backdrop that is Dubai. Falcons are the fastest birds of prey in the world, so filming and shooting them mid flight was fraught with difficulties. Trying to keep focus with a hand held 400mm lens on a bird that drops out of the sky at over 100 mph is pretty full on. And I had it easy compared to cameraman Mark, who was having to operate his camera on a tripod. These birds are like thoroughbred horses and can tire very quickly while being directed for the film crew. If we averaged about 4 minutes air time per bird, a day’s shooting could be over in just a quarter of an hour. Each falcon had a personality that kept us all entertained.
David is the most extraordinary of falconers, a man who cares passionately about his birds and their welfare. His ability to control them while they are flying has to be seen to be believed. On our final afternoon of filming, we witnessed Nimr disappearing for almost two and a half hours while she devoured a pigeon squab, only for her to return to David in almost complete darkness, something that had never been done before. This in itself was a very special moment as eye contact and visibility is paramount between falcon and handler.
We were also lucky enough to ascend the Burj Khalifa, the tallest man made structure (at almost 3000 ft ) in the world. So if you are squeamish about heights…..look away now.
The last time I worked with a camera crew was in Baghdad while covering the immediate fallout from the Iraq war. This assignment was totally different in every sense but both camera crews strived for the same goal… To tell the story. The rushes looked amazing and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Urban team for allowing me to poke my lens in, around and under them all as they were filming, and of course to David and his sporting cast of falcons.