How Islam’s two holiest cities went virtual

Sunday 31/07/2016
Luca Locatelli at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. (Photo by Seif Al-Mutairi)

London - Italian photographer Luca Loca­telli, on assignment in March for the New York Times, was granted access to Islam’s two holiest cities for a photo essay. Armed with 360-degree, virtual-reality video cameras, Locatelli, together with a local journalist and producer, spent 14 days in Mecca and Medina, creating a short film that has had millions of internet views.
Titled Pilgrimage: A 21st Century Journey Through Mecca and Medi­na, the film documents the sights and sounds of Mecca and Medina, allowing viewers to experience the journey almost as if they were there.
“As far as we knew, this had never been done in Mecca or Medina be­fore,” Saudi journalist and televi­sion producer Essam al-Ghalib said.
“I have done a lot of production work for various global news or­ganisations over the past decade and, when I was approached by Mr Locatelli, I knew it was something special. It was certainly the most meaningful and important project of my career as this film would help people understand Islam and Muslims like nothing I have ever worked on before.”
Using prototype new technol­ogy cameras, Locatelli, Ghalib and Saudi film-maker Seif al-Mutairi produced a film that the New York Times has promoted in its print edi­tion with colour full-page ads.
Using the Times’ virtual-reality app or 360-degree video on You­Tube or Facebook, viewers can look all around, experiencing what the team saw and heard.
“Luca showed Seif and I how to operate the GoPro 360 prototype and the Panono cameras and told us to film anything and everything we wanted. So, as Luca shot still photos at the various locations we chose, Seif and I shot the video.”
Ghalib said a problem arose that almost caused the production to be cancelled.
“Filming inside the Grand Mosque with professional cameras requires a permit and that’s where the biggest problem we faced was,” he said. “Despite our best efforts and contacts, Luca and I couldn’t get a permit to film inside the Grand Mosque. I mean, I thought that be­ing with [the New York Times], we would be granted a permit instantly but I was wrong.”
The team was told by the Gen­eral Presidency for the Affairs of the Holy Mosque and Prophet’s Mosque that permits were issued in rare and unique situations that usually involved visiting foreign dignitaries.
“Well, as you can imagine, this was a major, major problem. How can we do a project titled Pilgrim­age without showing the very place pilgrims make the pilgrimage to? It would be like making a film about cowboys but without guns and horses in it,” Ghalib said.
The team was cautioned by the Ministry of Information not to at­tempt filming inside the Grand Mosque.
“My contact at the Ministry of Information, who was always most helpful in getting us permits, told us, ‘Don’t try shooting pictures or videos in the Grand Mosque with those cameras’,” Ghalib said.
There are hundreds of security cameras and live broadcast cam­eras in the Grand Mosque and if they were caught, it would be a big problem.
For 12 days the team tried to get a permit. With Locatelli having only two days left in Mecca, the pressure was mounting, so the team decided to take a chance.
“We decided to hide the cameras in special bags we bought and went in through the most crowded en­trances and easily blended in stick­ing to large crowds of people,” Mu­tairi said.
“We figured that it would be best that Luca be the one to film inside the Grand Mosque because he was a foreigner and in his passport his visa stated he was a guest of the Ministry of Culture and Informa­tion and a photographer. It was good enough where, if anyone stopped us, they may not make an issue for us.”
With his team acting as lookouts, Locatelli circled the Kaaba a few times, lowering the cameras when­ever police or Grand Mosque offi­cials approached.
“Personally, it was bizarre to be in the Grand Mosque breaking the rules, worrying about getting de­tained for doing something that we felt was essentially a service to Is­lam and Muslims,” Ghalib said, “but we made it out safely with the foot­age that you see in the film.”
Locatelli was later invited to Saudi Arabia as part of a Bloomberg News team that interviewed Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz about the Vision 2030 plan. Locatelli spent eight hours at the Royal Court pho­tographing the prince for the article.
Since the release of the film, Ghalib said he has received positive feedback from the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information.