Michael Friedel: The man who put a face on Maldives

by / Tuesday, 15 April 2014 / Published in Visitors

Maldives at present is renowned for seven star resorts, safaris, private sea plans and various modern day luxuries the world has to offer. But 40 years ago, the island nation was relatively unknown to the world and “paradise on earth” was yet to be discovered.


A 38 year old German photographer embarked on a journey that would revolutionize and ultimately lead to the tourism brand that is the Maldives.


Michael Friedel was in Nepal when he first heard of Maldives. A German tour operator called him and asked him to go to Maldives to discover the potential tourist destination.


“In 1970 big jets were invented. Suddenly Maldives was just eight hours from Germany. In November 1973 a German tour operator called me and said they want to start here [Maldives],” Freidel explained.


Freidel first arrived in Maldives for a week to check out the mysterious country and what he could work with.


“When I landed in Maldives the customs didn’t even ask for my passport. It was just hello and I was in,” a smiling Friedel said proudly showing us a picture of the Hulule Airport taken from the window of the plane.


The landscape of the Maldives was very different to what Friedel had seen. He quickly realized that the beauty of the country would be best captured from beneath and above.


“Everything is flat and very difficult to photograph. After one week I went back to Germany. I returned to Maldives with a model and an underwater camera.”


He described photographing Maldives from the air as the biggest challenge he faced at the time. With the help of a Sri Lankan air force plane, Friedel became the first to capture the round little islands of Maldives from the air on camera.


Friedel was not accustomed to the sea before he came to the Maldives. He did not have a single dive to his name, but with the help of foreign divers in Maldives during that time, he set off to explore the whole new world of marine culture that lay masked beneath the waves.


“I nearly drowned in my first dive. Its not easy to come up with all that heavy equipment strapped to your body. About 200 sharks darted past me before I got one on camera,” he recounted his first encounter with the diverse marine life that the Maldives is now so famous for.


With the first engine fitted boat in Maldives, Friedel and his wife sailed across the country capturing the natives in their islands while sleeping in hammocks on the beach.


His pictures first published in Germany’s Stern Magazine instantly became the new global sensation and every major press was clamoring for a shot of Maldives.


“What happened was everyone wanted to publish Maldives. Not because my pictures were good, it was something new for the whole world.”


Since then, the images of Maldives captured by Friedel has been used in over 200 publications in 80 different prominent magazines throughout the world. The first ever postcards of Maldives displayed some his of shots while his pictures were also the face of five different Maldivian stamps.


Friedel now considered as one of the leading photo-journalists in Germany has worked in Seychelles, Mauritius and the Caribbean. His particular interest in the ‘dream islands of eternal summer’ has made him an expert on the subject and he has documented the many facets of island life across the globe. But Friedel described Maldives and Seychelles as his favourite destination.


“The landscape is different. Seychelles is one big island. Here there are a lot of little islands. So you can escape. I never come to Male [capital] for holidays.


He also hailed the government authorities for their role in preserving the essence of Maldives in the face of development.


“I think they have preserved the culture as good as they can. Generally the development has gone well.”


But the man who had a front row seat to observe the changes to Maldives as a tourist destination had only one complaint of the recent trend.


“I don’t think you need too many luxury places. Its good to have good mix of middle class and high class resorts. I personally prefer more island style resorts with more Maldivian staff. Tourists are not interested in politics or the government. You have to know that.”


For young photo-journalists aspiring to follow in his footsteps, Friedel had only one advise.


“It doesn’t matter what camera you have. Nikon, Sony. Most cameras are the same. Its in the mind. My pictures are taken for foreigners. My pictures sometimes look stupid with a palm tree, sand and the sun. But the audience is different. You have to think what would attract them. You also need to study the light as your so close to the equator. If you take pictures against the light everything would be dark.”


Michael Friedel’s efforts were monumental to Maldives tourism and though he refused to take any credit for his role, the pride in his work and the undying love for Maldives was evident as he paraded his pictures with a glint in his eyes and a spring in his step, recounting minute details of each shot captured four decades ago.


Note: In partnership with Michael Friedel and Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC), a photo exhibition will be held from January 6-13 at the National Art Gallery to celebrate 40 years of Maldives tourism. The exhibition would showcase some of the oldest, most valuable and treasured photos of Maldives Tourism.

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