the chairman, the supermodel and mr shirkan

For a year or so I worked on contract for a book publisher – the Opus Group who make really quite beautiful, albeit highly impractical and ridiculously expensive, tomes which are described as being “definitive” publications.

I worked on two books and this one was about the building of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Standing at an impressive 828 metres or 2,717 feet tall the tower is, at the time of writing, the tallest building in the world. Costing $1.5 billion dollars to build the project employed a workforce of over 12,000 mostly poorly paid migrants.

My main aim was to document the workforce, from labourer to project manager and also to look at the structure of the tower and adjoining mall which was built first. There had been a lot of criticism in relation to working conditions of the migrant workforce when I took the assignment on, and I only did so on the understanding that I could stay in a workers camp and commute to and from the site. I’m sure I wasn’t taken to the worst site but am satisfied that I met and photographed a fairly average set up. When it was all agreed and I made my way to the coach park to meet the crews I would be bunking with I got onto the allocated bus and must admit my heart sank somewhat when an ageing Bangladeshi man sat beside me, all smiles, and proceeded to show me animal porn on his phone. Stop the bus!

A slightly different experience on another trip was photographing Helena Christensen, who was commissioned to photograph the chairman of Emaar Mohamed Alabbar, for the same book. It was obvious Helena was very uncomfortable in my presence but I did my level best to put her at ease :-)

The highlight – literally – was photographing Mr Shirkan the crane driver. Mr Shirkan operated the crane that was built on a separate steel structure at the very top of the building. There was an internal ladder, I think about 40 metres long, through the various sections of steel that made the crane tower. I thought my knuckles were going to split from gripping the steel rungs of the ladder. It’s really quite spooky how much the tower moves at that height. It can sway about 5 feet side to side at the very summit.

Anyway, my head eventually popped up into the floor hatch of the crane platform to meet Mr Shirkan, crane driver – and coolest, most laid back guy I’ve ever met. Despite the stress, long hours – and cracked glass in his cockpit above the world Mr Shikan seemed to have the most happy and infectious disposition.

Rocky horror video by Michael Tierney and pictures by yours truly.

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