The Social Experiment

By Saba Karim Khan | September 15, 2020

You know them as a statistic; but they are really just like us.

In late July this year, as the world revealed a “new normal,” a small group of us at NYU Abu Dhabi decided to conduct a social experiment to tell a different story. This may not be the full story; still, it feels like an important one. The Social Experiment is a photography project chronicling the spectacle of everyday strife and everyday happiness for migrant workers in the Gulf. These are people we see around us—careening down the “new normal” despite the train-wreck hitting them in the face—who deserve their own voice. Through a collection of spur-of-the-moment photographs, this visual journal opens a window into the lives of nannies, chefs, drivers, café workers, house cleaners, beyond their predictable, “global Cinderella” impressions.


“The new normal”

We know these people as migrant workers, marooned in the desert. As cookie-cutters neatly placed on an assembly line. As trapped and rootless. As vulnerable androids suspended somewhere in poor-rich megacities. We know them much less as mothers. As lion-hearted and agentic. As daughters and wives, maybe even sons. As making meaning of their lives, in subtle, appealingly complex tones. Do we know them as warriors, deeply giving, without whom many of our own lives would reach a juddering freeze? But mostly, do we ever get to know them just as humans, like you and us?


“A warm, woody new skill”

At its core, The Social Experiment shuffles the deck, pulling together the threads that make these humans tick despite the pathologies at play. Through a series of photographs, it captures the “behind-the-scenes” contours of their lives during the pandemic. Ripe with imagery – terror and laughter, voices and whimpers, the spirituality of those whose stories we may never have known—this photography experiment takes a tiny crack at repainting a “black-and-white” canvas.


“Lockdown oral traditions”


“Like water for chocolate”


“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”


“Client cancellations–chef’s calendar”


“Another summer subsides”


“When winter comes…”

The Social Experiment Team:
Fatema Ali Al Fardan
Sara Pan Algarra
Saba Karim Khan

Copyright © 2020 Saba Karim Khan

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