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John Stanmeyer: The Timeless Sands of Saudi Arabia

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The historic Nebatean ruins of Mada'in Saleh, carved into sandstone mountains thousands of years ago. Each of these historical structures were used as tombs for the wealthy during the Nebatean era which stretched from Petra in Jordan then southward throughout most of the Hejaz region of present day Saudi Arabia.

“The thing about time is that time isn’t really real. It’s just your point of view.” —Secret o’ Life, by James Taylor

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A ghost forest of dead date palms in Yanbu Al-Nakhal, Saudi Arabia. Decades of stress on the water table in this part of Saudi Arabia has caused a massive loss of vegetation.

Growing up listening to this song in the late ’70s was an anvil grinding the consciousness of the teenage mind.

I knew already in 1977 about the moving hands of time. Calendar time. Geological time. Yet only my personal experience of aging affirmed any reality of time. In actuality, this song about life resonated far more on the science emanating from that one verse than any other lyrics—our sense of time and the spacial sense of time is not actually a reality.

It was just a perspective or indeed, my point of view.

My scarcely understood sense of time grasped in years since has been that of deadlines, bill payments, flight schedules, and doctor appointments. Most everything else, including this story (I’m already pushing deadline for National Geographic Proof!), happens when it happens.

Over the last three decades in more than 100 countries, I’ve had the honor and privilege to meet countless people across this astonishing place we call home. Many have dazzling tales to tell, poignant, often laced and pegged to specific senses of time (events), personal history (age) and their hopes (future).

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Portrait of a Bedouin camel owner outside Yanbu, Saudi Arabia

Stimulating and often important, the most interesting discussions tend to evolve from those who are unburdened, freed from most any sense of time.

Ask an elder in the Ifugao region of the northern Philippines or a farmer in the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia, how old they are and the response will often be, “I don’t know but I think 50,” yet their face and hands indicate much older or even younger. Even my father-in-law isn’t certain on exactly which day in December he was born, offering an annual chuckle as to when we should celebrate.

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Pigeons in Wasit, Saudi Arabia

Time becomes no longer quantified as a specific date or year, but as a moment, an event, where all sense of reality has no connection to time, focused rather on point of reference.

With this notion ever present, last October while standing in a field, embraced by a spectacular and somewhat depressing sight—date palms arching, curled and hunched in surreal patterns in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. The scene emitted a sense of time that had stood still, rendering a mammoth sculpture created by the passage of events.

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Saudi men perform a war dance celebrating the ending of Ed al Haj Festival at Yanbu Al Nahkal. For centuries, this dance was used to intimidate enemies but today is a performance celebrating the ancient Bedouin traditions.

Other landscapes and vistas in Saudi Arabia released similar tomes—little had changed in decades. Centuries.

Millennia.

No poignant opus visually illustrated this more profoundly than the ancient Nabatean landscape of Mada’in Saleh.

Rarely visited (let alone accessible—Saudi Arabia doesn’t often issue tourist visas), these 3,000 year-old tombs carved deftly into sandstone appear on the surface to have been created only years past yet 60 generations have transpired since hands created them.

In Mada’in Saleh, time has truly stood still.

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Remains of a Catalina aircraft, abandoned on beach at Ra’s Ash Shaykh Humayd, Saudi Arabia, after an attack by Bedouins in March 1960.

The July 2014 issue of National Geographic features a story I photographed for the magazine, part II of the Out of Eden Walk project with colleague and dear friend, Paul Salopek; a journey that will last seven years across over 30 countries as Paul retraces humanities footsteps out of Africa, populating the planet as we are today. This installment, titled “The Wells of Memory,” took us overland through one of the most rarely visited regions on earth, the Hejaz, a long swash of land that begins south of Jeddah, stretching north well into present day Jordan. Paul and I had the privilege to be some of the first foreigners to travel freely through this astonishing landscape by foot (me by landcruiser) since likely the time of T.E. Lawrence.

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The historic Nebatean ruins of Mada’in Saleh, carved into sandstone mountains thousands of years ago. Each of these historical structures were used as tombs for the wealthy during the Nebatean era which stretched from Petra in Jordan then southward throughout most of the Hejaz region of present day Saudi Arabia.)

It felt too straightforward only to photograph in color with a 35mm camera. I needed a means to distill this reality I was feeling—time seemed to barely exist in the Hejaz, a region of fading memory.

Reaching into my shirt pocket, there needed a compendium voice to the visual narrative of the story. Instinctually, I chose my favorite iPhone camera app, the Hipstamatic, a tool that by selecting a specific film and lens combination renders an image which is finalized once developed.

For these images in the July issue, I selected the Watts lens and Uchitel 20 film, a merger that creates a print as if turning calendar pages back to the 1920’s, washed by time, fading in memory, ensconced in the present.

What draws me to Hipstamatic is my absolute disdain for choosing filters or using endless slider options found in other camera apps. Hipstamatic allows a dance with another fading memory—film. Choose a lens/film and post brief processing, you get what you get. The next debate to surely ensue with bringing iPhone photographs into a story like this for National Geographic will be that of manipulation.

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Bones of animals lie in the Umm Jirsan, or the Mother of Jirson Cave, in Saudi Arabia. This cave has often turned up human remains dating back to our earliest ancestors, some 50,000 years ago.

Are these manipulated images, rendered via a computer process?

Yes, deliberately doing so with complete consciousness and purpose—I care about communication, allowing the viewer to think in expanded ways. Whether the photograph is from a whatever megapixel camera (by the way, I don’t even know what a megapixel means), printed then scribbled on with my pen, or I carve an image onto a rock no different than a petroglyph created by our brothers and sisters thousands of years ago, all that matters is if I made you feel. Elicited thought. Inspired hope or action.

Simply put, we should attempt to relish and appreciate all forms of photography. There are indeed times where such a visual approach may not work, but that’s a whole other discussion.

The remaining wrangle is simply babble, no different than when photographers couldn’t grasp moving from a Brownie over to 35mm, film to digital.

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The old city of Al-‘Ula, built in the 13th century, has many structures still remaining. Al-`Ula became a major settlement of the region facilitating trade and the movement of people to and from Mecca. In the 20th century the new town center was established beside the old town and eventually the people left the old buildings. The last family is said to have left in 1983, while the last service in the old mosque was held in 1985.

Here is the reality of where we are today in photography:

My good friend and VII photo agency co-founder, Ron Haviv, used a Canon D30 to document the war in Afghanistan. His subsequent book, Afghanistan: The Road to Kabul, is the most profound testament of events which transpired post September 11, 2001, in Afghanistan and was the first ever digital monograph book.

Guess what? That D30 was a camera which today is hardly different than the camera found in an iPhone 5s.

The lines between a camera we’ve engraved into our consciousness as being an image-creating tool and a camera found in a phone are indeed blurring.

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Rabah al rhafe, a Bedouin nomad, breaks his fast with goat milk and Saudi style bread at his families encampment in the desert near Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. He has three wives and over 20 children.

The ability and the profound power to create in-depth visual narratives has never been more astonishingly stupendous. We are living in the most awe inspiring, empowering era of communication.

Despite technology, we stand at a crossroads of our collective humanity where modernity appears more important despite the future often mirroring the past.

History, the last 130 or so years, is now a core sample of our collective time referenced through the communication of photography. Weighted in reality, it is an indisputable reference for our dire need to put balance in an increasingly unbalanced world.

I hope when you pick up the July issue of National Geographic, you will enjoy the synonym fingerprint of images which hold little sense to time, interspersed between color photographs profoundly rooted in today, rendering time barely existent.

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Cluster of eroded sandstone hills, known as the Dancing Ladies, located in Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia

YES (indeed emphatic because I am passionate on this topic), I do look forward to the day where the only camera needed while on a National Geographic assignment is one which I can also call home to my family, tune a guitar, find a new recipe for chicken, read a book, purchase airline tickets, see into the cash register of my gallery/coffeehouse in West Stockbridge, MA, or guide me via its GPS through the desert of Saudi Arabia.

That closing graph made me pause to question every aspect of memory I’ve just written. Will technology and our profound ability as humans to finally unite for the betterment of all, avoiding our mistakes of the past, ever come to needed fruition?

Only time will tell.

View more of Stanmeyer’s photographs from the July 2014 issue of National Geographic here. Follow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden walk here.


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