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FIFA World Cup 2022: When an Indian photographer caught migrant workers and football fans in Qatar

A migrant engineer from Kerala is capturing the imagination of the Qatari society with his photography on the sporting spectacle.

November 24, 2022 / 05:48 PM IST
Doha-based Indian artist Ajeesh Puthiyadath's award-winning photograph, 'City on Shoulders', symbolises the monumental contribution of migrant workers to the Qatar World Cup 2022 (Photo: Ajeesh Puthiyadath)

Doha-based Indian artist Ajeesh Puthiyadath's award-winning photograph, 'City on Shoulders', symbolises the monumental contribution of migrant workers to the Qatar World Cup 2022 (Photo: Ajeesh Puthiyadath)

Ajeesh Puthiyadath was walking along the corniche in the backdrop of a breathtaking landscape of Doha city when he saw two workers carrying a large piece of concrete slab. An award-winning photographer, Puthiyadath soon took out the camera, a constant companion on his leisurely strolls, to capture the powerful image that sums up the monumental contribution of migrant workers to the ongoing FIFA World Cup.

Ajeesh Puthiyadath, who was born in Thalassery in Kannur district of Kerala, is a self-taught photographer. (Photo courtesy: Ajeesh Puthiyadath) Ajeesh Puthiyadath, who was born in Thalassery in Kannur district of Kerala, is a self-taught photographer. (Photo courtesy: Ajeesh Puthiyadath)

City on Shoulders, Puthiyadath's photograph of two migrant workers on the Doha corniche as the country was preparing to host the first football world cup in the Arab world, is mounted on the wall of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) office in Qatar. The picture also went on to win several international awards, including the Indian Photo Festival in Hyderabad, early November, where it picked up the third prize in street photography.

Workers and world cup

"Qatar spent billions of dollars in hosting the world cup. It is the migrant workers who did it," says the photographer, who was born and raised in Thalassery in Kerala's Kannur district. "My work is a reflection of the support for labour," he adds. The work also won the top prize at the Paris International Street Photo Awards last year.

A self-taught photographer, Puthiyadath, 30, came to Qatar five years ago to work as an IT engineer. An artist searching for moments of discovery, he soon immersed himself into capturing the faces of ordinary people in the streets of Doha. When Qatar began preparing for the world cup, these moments grew into hundreds of photographic frames.

The streets of Doha became the focus for Puthiyadath when the activities related to football and the world cup became increasingly visible everyday. "Without the workers, the world cup wouldn't have been possible," he says about the migrant labour, mostly from South Asian countries like India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, who worked for building stadiums and other infrastructure for the biggest sporting event in the world.

Qatar has come in for heavy criticism from international rights groups for human rights violations and deaths of migrant workers during the construction of world cup infrastructure in the past many years. The West Asian nation has also been slammed for its laws that discriminate against members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Qatar and FIFA have both promised help for migrant workers.

Mexican fan in Qatar (Photo: Ajeesh Puthiyadath) Mexican fan in Qatar (Photo: Ajeesh Puthiyadath)

When the world cup began on Sunday, Puthiyadath, who loves to discover new cultures, shifted his focus to the football fans from around the world who have started arriving in droves in Qatar. "The football-crazy fans present an entirely different experience because of their unique expressions and excitement," he says. "Movement of people interests me a lot."

Costumes and cheer

Using slow shutter to capture light and movement, the artist has begun recording the activities of football fans outside the stadiums and in the streets of Doha. "I am interested in creating a photography series devoted to the fans," he says about his new work around the world cup that he wishes to feature in an exhibition in the future.

Brazilian fans in front of a Neymar figure (Photo: Ajeesh Puthiyadath) Brazilian fans in front of a Neymar figure (Photo: Ajeesh Puthiyadath)

Among the fans who have arrived in Qatar so far, the large contingent of Mexican fans has caught the attention of the photographer. "The Mexican fans stand out because of their distinctive costumes and expressions," says Puthiyadath. The broad-brimmed hats, colourful mariachi dresses and curious headgears worn by Mexican fans representing their traditional culture have made fans from the football-crazy South American nation focal figures at every world cup. "The expressive element present in these fans is incredible."

Puthiyadath, who played football as an engineering student in Chennai, in the last decade, goes out every afternoon after his daily job as a software engineer to capture images from the world cup. Sometimes, he watches the group-stage matches in the stadiums, but reserves his attention to the activities outside. "I walk 15-20 km every day to take pictures," he says.

A Netherlands fan in Qatar ahead of the country's first group match. (Photo: Ajeesh Puthiyadath) A Netherlands fan in Qatar ahead of the country's first group match. (Photo: Ajeesh Puthiyadath)

Three years ago, Puthiyadath was one of the two Indian-origin photographers chosen as participating artists for a travelling art exhibition to celebrate the Qatar-India Year of Culture in 2019. Presented by Qatar Museums, a state-run cultural organisation comprising museums and heritage sites in the Gulf country, the exhibition, titled "A Photographic Encounter Between Qatar and India", first opened at the Katara cultural village in Doha before arriving at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi, in January 2020.

Salim Abdulla, a Doha-based photographer, was the other Indian selected for the travelling exhibition on the occasion of the Qatar-India Year of Culture. Born in Kerala's Kozhikode, Abdulla's works included images from around Doha reflecting the world cup preparations. One of the works of Abdulla, a winner of the Nikon Middle East Photo Contest 2014, in the exhibition was a giant world cup trophy resting in a garden with a towering building in the background.

English fans in Qatar are hoping their team will be go further than the semifinal in 2018. (Photo: Ajeesh Puthiyadath) English fans in Qatar are hoping their team will be go further than the semifinal in 2018. (Photo: Ajeesh Puthiyadath)

"Life on the street is what draws me to photography," says Puthiyadath, who has also shot pictures of Qatar's architectural heritage and famous souks. During the month-long football world cup, he will be hoping to turn that attention into works of art reflecting the varying cultures from around the globe.
Faizal Khan is an independent journalist who writes on art.