New Internationalist

Through the lens: a dreamlike-Egypt

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Cristiana Moisescu talks to Laura el-Tantawy about the trials of being a female photojournalist in Cairo, and the responsibility that comes with it.

“We found him lying on his right side, his eyes open and smiling. I thought he was alive. I held him, kept screaming and told the doctor he's awake. He told me, ‘No, he's dead,’ ” said Safaa Mohamed Hassan of the moment she found her son, 24-year-old Kamal Sayed Barakat, in a hospital morgue on Friday, January 28, 2011.

How did you start getting involved with photography?

I began taking pictures by chance. I was studying journalism and political science and decided to take a photo course out of curiosity and because I felt it would be an easy credit towards my degree.

I fell in love with photography quickly, but speaking from where I am now, I can honestly say I did not understand the full breadth of that passion back then.

My attraction to photography was seeing it as a platform with potential for artistic expression – limitless expression. My passion has always been to write and I still turn to writing to express emotions I am unable to articulate vocally.

Photography is my visual outlet for expression and reflection, mostly on personal issues but often on universal social issues to which I have an intimate connection.

How hard was it to get access to your subjects, for this exhibition? Did you feel in danger at any time?

It was never difficult to get access to people, which eventually became a problem for me. I know it usually works the other way around, but sometimes when people open their door too wide, you really understand the breadth of the responsibility you carry with you when you do this sort of work.

I am talking particularly about the series ‘Casualty’, which consists of portraits of widows and mothers who lost their children, as well as people who were wounded in clashes with police. This became an incredibly emotional and difficult series to work on and eventually I had to stop.

Many women cried when I was talking to them about their children and husbands. I don’t know, what do you do when this happens in front of you?

I realized I was reopening the unhealed wounds of these grieving mothers and I didn’t think my pictures were going to resolve their pain or lead to any resolution with the government, which is essentially what they were hoping for – to see the killers of their children and husbands face justice.

The last mother I met found the burnt corpse of her son in the River Nile. She showed me a mobile-phone photo they captured of the body as her young son, probably no older than seven, looked on. I looked at him, at the photo and back at her and realized I am not helping them, but traumatizing them even further.

I stand by the importance of telling the story of how people’s lives changed dramatically in their struggle for ‘Bread, Freedom and Social Justice’, which were the main things the 2011 revolution called for, but I think I had already achieved that through the series of portraits I had captured and did not need to rekindle the pain of any more families.

The rest of the work was on the streets, which is in many ways where I most feel at home, but also feel most vulnerable. But this tension is part of what I do and it’s something I have to deal with in order to make pictures, so I have learned to adapt. I almost always work alone, work quickly and move quickly and try not to attract too much attention.

As a female photographer, have you ever felt like your access to the city was limited?

Laura el-Tantawy
An anti-Mubarak demonstrator receives treatment in a makeshift clinic set-up on a street corner behind Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo on Wednesday, February 2, 2011.Thousands of people were injured in Egypt’s 18-day revolution and hundreds have died. Laura el-Tantawy

The streets of Cairo are never a comfortable place. In fact, I am always terrified when I am on the street, but I realize that in order to photograph I have to put myself there.

It’s a very ‘dirty’ experience, not just because of the stares you constantly get for no reason but being a girl, but also the comments and the general vibe that there is nowhere for you to hide, no place to go. So that’s what I meant when I said I felt most vulnerable.

In the last year of working there, I bought a small taser that fits in my pocket. I never had to use it but felt some sense of ‘protection’ carrying it in my pocket. This was after a close encounter in Tahrir Square, when something was going to go very wrong, but luckily, it didn’t.

Cairo’s streets are extremely intimidating for me, but I decided to do this body of work and so had to force myself to confront my fear and intimidation.

How did you gain the trust of your subjects?

I strongly believe when you approach people with honesty and give them the respect they deserve, they sense that and open up to you.

I always told people what I was doing and explained to them that the project was something I was doing out of personal motivations with no guarantee that it would be published. Sometimes people said no; in fact, many did, but some said yes. I have to respect people’s choices.

However, many people in Egypt really wanted to be heard. I think this stems from living under a regime where they were being silenced for so many years. There is a huge sense of responsibility once people let you in on their lives and start to talk about intimate and sensitive moments.

Many women cried when I was talking to them about their children and husbands. I don’t know, what do you do when this happens in front of you?

It’s an awful situation to be in, but you are there and you have to do something. Naturally, I wanted [to use] the picture with the tears because it is storytelling, but from a human perspective, I couldn’t do it. In this situation, I was there as an Egyptian first, photographer second.

There have been so many different depictions of the events in Tahrir Square. Has that been intimidating for a photographer or, on the contrary, exhilarating?

Laura el-Tantawy
A woman wears the hijab (sheer fabric covering her neck and hair) at a park in Old Cairo. The influx of women covering their hair in Egypt is a sign of a country in turmoil over its identity. Laura el-Tantawy

I don’t find it intimidating. I think it’s important to have many perspectives and often having such an influx of images allows for the really powerful ones to rise to the surface. But on the other end of this, having so many images can develop visual immunity or story fatigue, so it’s a fine line.

A lot of the photos have an almost dream-like quality, like a mirage. What’s the reasoning behind that?

This is hard for me to address because it’s not something I do intentionally. It just happens to be the way I see and feel in these situations. When I began to photograph Egypt in 2005, it was at a very difficult time in my life and I used the streets of Cairo as the backdrop for my search for identity.

I had to discover where I belong on the streets in order to know where I belong in the country. My work gained more urgency with the political turmoil, but essentially I continued to search for who I am.

Egypt is a real and unreal place for me and I believe this visually transmits itself through the images. My inspiration primarily comes from music, poetry and impressionistic painters – my photographic influences tend to be poetic and painterly like, such as the work of Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Miguel Rio Branco and Saul Leiter.

Finally, is there a case to be made for more Global South photographers/reporters, as opposed to countries teeming with foreign correspondents and photographers? What would be gained or, indeed, lost, from such a shift?

Well, I think it’s important to have both and I do notice there has been a shift in the past couple of years towards trying to get coverage from both local and foreign perspectives – not enough yet, but there is a certain shift.

The local perspective has a sense of authenticity and pure knowledge – it’s not even knowledge, but it’s simply an understanding of one’s own culture and traditions, so subtleties such as body language and gestures are understood, not overlooked.

This makes a huge difference in telling a story and in communicating with people on the ground. At the other extreme, sometimes a local perspective can be too close and that’s when it’s really important to have an outsider’s point of view.

What I don’t like is when you have foreigners reporting in a country and beginning to look down on the locals and think they know more about the country than people who are from there. I think such a presumptuous attitude is certain to filter into their storytelling, and it taints their coverage.

Laura el-Tantawy is exhibiting at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford until 5 October, as part of the Oxford Photography Festival.

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