Iman Al-Dabbagh: Where is Layla?
Iman Al-Dabbagh gives Conchita Fernandes an intimate and humorous view of what it’s like, running behind a toddler who is always full of surprises.
The best time to be a child is when you are just about learning to walk, and are on the threshold of forming words in your mouth. You are the bravest at this time, trying to flex your muscles into letting your tiny legs lift you inch by inch, till you stand upright. You are also the most eloquent, screaming out monosyllables, hoping that someone comes running and picks you up. You are adventurous and quite the traveller too, crawling and finding your way along the various nooks and crannies of your home.
All of these are important milestones that unfortunately turn into fuzzy and irretrievable memories, the older we grow. But not in the case of three-year-old Layla, whose mom, Iman Al-Dabbagh, has been busy creating a photo journal for her.
Now You See Her, Now You Don’t
Iman’s Instagram feed gives you a glimpse into a toddler’s life. From elaborate, funfilled bubble baths to frequent visits to the lake, from chasing bugs in the garden to more. But after a while, you notice that something is different, and this is when it hits you that you don’t quite know what Layla looks like, even though you have seen several pictures of her. It feels as if the photographer has deliberately left it up to you to create a portrait of her child, by giving you bits and pieces of her.
“When I started photographing Layla, I was keen to share the pictures on Instagram. However, my husband and I decided early on that if we are going to share the pictures, we would do it in a way where a part of her was obscured, to give her some sense of privacy.” This seemingly contradictory thought eventually kickstarted the Where’s Layla? series.
The obscurity, Iman explains, has attracted a lot of attention. Her Instagram followers are curious and want to know what Layla is up to. And while Iman appreciates this, she also finds herself amazed at times. “I was once travelling with my family for a wedding, and a lady looked at my daughter and pieced together my photos. She exclaimed, Is this Where’s Layla? Although she was a relative’s friend, I was still surprised,” she recounts.
The Colours That Make Up Layla
Like most toddlers, Layla gets irritable at times, and is quite aware of when her mom reaches for the phone to shoot. In times like this, a quick survey of her face is enough to inform Iman whether it is a good time to make a picture or not. At the same time, Layla’s humorous side makes up for all the intensity she brings when she is cranky and upset. “My friends find her hilarious because she manages to make us laugh by doing these little witty things,” she says.
A New Platform to Share Photographs
Iman photographing her daughter was an extension of something that she did several years ago. Back then, she had created an online photo journal on her website, open to only close friends and relatives. Here, she uploaded pictures of everything… the food she ate, the people she encountered, of road trips and more. However, she wasn’t doing much with the photographs. They were transferred onto hard disks and forgotten. “It was just an innate need to document. No agendas or preplanned ideas.”
This changed after a playful encounter with her husband’s iPhone. “It transformed the way I saw the world around me. It was completely different from the depth that I was used to in a DLSR, where in the phone, everything was in focus and two dimensional.”
“One of my favourite photographs of Layla was when she was four months old. When I was breastfeeding her, she just looked up at me. It was so special. I made a photograph of just one eye.”
Finding Commonality in the Obscure
When asked what she hopes for Layla to take away from the series once she is grown up, Iman responds, “I hope she appreciates that her toddler years were documented. But I also struggle with the whole privacy thing. I don’t know how she is going to react several years later, when she sees intimate pictures of herself in say, the bathtub.”
“Do you remember the Where’s Waldo children’s book, where you had to locate the character? In a way, it inspired the name of the series Where’s Layla?”
Her deep concern for privacy has influenced her composition in ways that deeply affect the way in which we look at her photos. Obscurity breeds familiarity, even universality. Since you don’t know what Layla looks like, the young toddler in the photo could be anyone you associate with, a daughter or a niece or even your grandchild. The lack of identity almost makes people relate more to the work. That said, the several jigsaw pieces that Iman builds up, are a way of engaging with piecing them together, trying to decipher the mystery and persona of the child within these photos. It almost feels like an invitation into her home, where we are all called to be a part of Layla’s wonderful games.
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Better Photography.
About Iman Al-Dabbagh
Iman Al-Dabbagh While shuttling between Jeddah and Sarajevo, Iman works on personal documentary projects that relate to ethnic and national identity, displaced people, and women in Saudi Arabia. Besides documenting the everyday shenanigans of her toddler, she also does commercial assignments, photographing children, weddings and maternity shoots. She has a special fondness for dystopian themed movies and books like Animal Farm, 1984, and also Kahlil Gibran’s Spirits Rebellious.