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An ephemeral empire, captured in phone

Photographs by Joel Sternfeld, Text by Hal Clifford

Published in the January/February 2010 issue of Orion magazine

Joel Sternfeld is fascinated with the idea of Utopia. His 1987 work, American Prospects, directed a large-format camera lens at the possibilities of this country and how those possibilities have translated into realities. Much of his subsequent work maintained this theme, but in the last few years it has been mingled with a growing understanding of climate change and its implications. That awareness snapped into sharp focus at a 2005 United Nations conference in Montreal. “At this point in America we were pre-Al Gore. Even people who had tried to follow climate change had trouble getting a real sense of the danger because of misinformation put out by the Bush administration and other administrations,” Sternfeld said. “In Montreal the magnitude of the impending calamity became absolutely apparent to me.” His research there sowed the seeds for the project shown here: “Even if we did solve climate change, it would simply allow us to consume the Earth in some other way. I wanted to find a way to communicate this.” He chose Dubai, the pleasure dome between the desert and the sea, as a symbolic site of world consumption. But instead of his large-format camera, he used the consumer fetish object of the moment, the iPhone, to make these images. It was a nod to both his subject matter and a new way of understanding the world. However, while working in the mall he realized he also had the opportunity to “use the iPhone as a civilian journalist to present a positive image of Arabic family life that isn’t being received in the West.”

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Joel Sternfeld is the recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships, a Prix de Rome, and the Citibank Photography Award. His eleven books include Joel Sternfeld: Sweet Earth, When It Changed, Oxbow Archive, and iDubai.

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