A Tacoma Photographer in Modern-Day Qatar

Quatar, the country that forms a small peninsula on the east border of Saudi Arabia, gained its independence from Britain in 1971. Thanks to oil and natural gas revenues, it is now one of the richest and fastest-growing countries in the world.

Looking at Kristin Giordano’s photographs of the capital city, Doha, though, you’d think Qatar is more like a civilization beyond apocalypse. 

Education City #1

Giordano, 37, moved to Qatar last September with her husband, Andrew Gardner, a professor of anthropology at the University of Puget Sound. He’d just accepted a two-year position at Qatar University teaching sustainable development. Giordano was conflicted about leaving her home in the North Slope historic district in Tacoma.  She had traveled around the Persian Gulf before.  “I did a lot of photography then, too,” she says. “I focused on old arches, forts, mosques, ruins — the classical stuff that you typically associate with the Middle East.”  But those types of structures, Giordano found, didn’t represent how Qatari people live anymore.

She began reading about over-the-top developments going on both in Doha and in other highly populated Arabian cities such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai (home of the tallest building in the world). This hyper-modernization fascinated her, enough to become the focus of her MFA, which she is completing through a low-residency program at Goddard University.

Khalifa Stadium

“This is unlike anything I’ve seen before. At one point, I counted sixty-two construction cranes from where I was sitting in a coffee shop. It’s unbelievable how much construction is going on. It makes Bellevue look done.”

Somehow, though, the spaces in Giordano’s photographs feel static and abandoned. Instead of focusing on obvious evidence of the radically evolving culture of Qatar, she is attracted to architecture, bold geometric patterns, concrete and metal. She blurs out much of her photographs in order to draw your attention to subtle design elements. In “Khalifa Stadium” the clear focus rests on the curve of a brick sidewalk; in “Education City” it’s a section of tile that almost resembles Braille.

Olympic Sculpture

While the high-contrast monochrome gives the images a calm feel, it also adds an eerie disconnect.

The photos could have been taken fifty years ago or in the distant future.

The move to Qatar wasn’t as jarring a transition as Giordano expected. Shopping malls abound and traffic is terrible. “Everyone drives everywhere, including women. Everywhere is air conditioned. There’s Pizza Hut, Chili’s, and McDonald’s delivers!” She adds: “I haven’t called.”

So far, Giordano avoids documenting these elements, often positioning her camera (a Yashica twin-lens reflex) low to the ground to excise extraneous details.

“Especially cars,” she explains. “Ugh. Cars just don’t belong in my photographs. They really date them.” As in her previous work (colorful Americana, with a focus on nature), Giordano says she wants her photography of Qatar to evoke memories of historical things lost in time.

Abandoned Spaceship

The architecture Giordano documents is not only significant for its stylized look. Each building represents an important pillar of a culture’s identity: education, commerce, athletics, art, religion. For example, “Education City” was taken at a complex that houses branches of over ten Western universities. “Beautiful Life” is a detail of a billboard advertising a high-end residence called “The Pearl” — the only place in Qatar where foreigners can own property. “Veiled Museum” is a striking portrait of the Museum of Islamic Art which just opened in December. It doesn’t showcase the elaborate design as much as other photos. But it does show you the features at the top designed to resemble an Arabian woman’s eyes shining out from her niqab. In other words, the building looks back at you.

Those are the completed spaces, which seem all about inviting the outside world — particularly the Western world — in. But Giordano says there are many other developments, like the one pictured in “Abandoned Spaceship,” where construction has stopped. “I haven’t been able to photograph the skyscrapers downtown yet, because I’m waiting for the sidewalks to be completed.” Giordano finds herself shooting vacant lots, where large construction reels have been jettisoned. “Who knows if these things will be completed?” Giordano muses. “All these plans have, no doubt, been affected by the economy.”

Beautiful Life

Instead of waiting around for the finished product, Giordano has turned her attention to the spaces in between. “You park in a dirt parking lot, walk over these treacherous piles of rubble and sand and then, suddenly, you’re inside a hotel, where everything is marble and glass and perfect. And roads are never quite finished — or always changing. You can be driving along and suddenly be off-roading. You have to buy new maps regularly. It’s an adventure. ”

Acknowledging that, these seem less like abandoned landscapes — and more like portraits of a place stopping to catch its breath. 

Hanging Sphere

 To view more of Giordano’s work, visit