Egypt’s photography: From documentation to the gallery

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Photography has been used as a tool of documentation, incitement and even artistic expression during Egypt’s year of revolt

[Published in Ahram Online & Ahram Weekly]

From the initial portraits of the martyrs, which created street art around the country and brought tears to people’s eyes, to the iconic photos like Tahrir from above on the night of 25 January 2011, photography has been playing, and continues to play, a role in the documentation of the revolution and has been used as a tool of instigation by activists and supporters of the cause.

A common sight in protests over the past year has been the sight of dozens of people in the crowd holding up their mobile camera phones. More and more people were participating in the documentation of the revolution photographically – not only professional photojournalists or art photographers. This movement spread to anyone who had the ability to record a moment whether by cameras or camera phones.

Photography spread across Egyptian society through a variety of media – but has now made it to the galleries as well, more than ever before.

Photography and activism

“Spreading the image is just as important as spreading the word,” Hossam El Hamalawy, activist, journalist and member of the Revolutionary Socialists Party, wrote on his blog in 2008. Hamalawy has been blogging and spreading the world about “visualising dissent” and spreading awareness regarding the role that photography plays in instigating and documenting protests for many years.

“The use of images depicting events brought people round to a revolutionary consciousness,” he said referring to the photos shared widely on blogs and independent media of the Kefaya Movement’s protests against the 2005 “democratic process” and the 2008 Mahalla workers uprising, which inspired the founding of the April 6 Youth Movement – now one of the most important groups on the ground in several governates. In 2010, “The Tunisian revolution started the domino effect and was visually aired to us online and through independent news channels,” Hamalawy goes on.

For his part Mosaab El Shamy, a pharmacy student whose photos – shared widely on Twitter – were picked up by mainstream media channels like Aljazeera International and CNN, recalled an iconic image of the Tunisian revolt: “The photo of the protester on his knees with a loaf of bread facing the police very much related to the Egyptian public due to the ongoing bread crisis along with police brutality.”

Hamalawy attributed much of the willingness of people to take the streets in protest to ongoing images from Tunisia and, especially, to the Kefaya demonstrations and the Mahalla workers uprising, which were closer to home. “People saw these images and thought: if they can do it, we can too,” he said. “Especially at the beginning of the revolution and in the years leading up to it, the reach of independent media was very low and national news sources demonized demonstrations.” Hamalawy stressed on the importance of showing visually what was really happening in these protests.

Egyptian state and even some independent media coverage of the revolution has been criticized by protesters as biased towards people in power, not to mention recorded accounts of what were later proven to be complete lies claiming protesters were paid by foreigners and offered meals.

Conceptual artist and photographer Marwa Adel, who participated in the citizen coverage process, states that the revolution made having a camera, whether a professional one or just one attached to a mobile phone, a necessity. “Everyone in Tahrir was taking photos because they felt the responsibility to do so,” she said.

Concurring, artistic photographer Amr Fekry commented that he saw Egyptians’ passion towards photography since camera phones were made available. “Give an Egyptian a camera and they will photograph,” he said. “Taking photos became a weapon and a knee-jerk reaction.”

Photography became a democratic medium through which people could participate in the ongoing revolt. According to Maggie Osama, who has been photographing various protests, “I can’t physically throw rocks or practice first aid. I needed a role to play in the revolution, so this was my method of participation.” She added that it was an important role that many played because of the media manipulation of reality.

Likewise Kim Badawi, a freelance photojournalist who has been covering the Egyptian revolution professionally: “I’m not sure if images can incite demonstrations but I definitely believe photography offers a glimpse into an individual perspective much like a film and therefore can encourage audiences to sympathize with a certain view point.”

International journalists covering the revolution

Many participants in the documentation and dissemination of information during the revolution reported an issue with the photographic medium of communication, however. “People interpret photos in the way they want to perceive it,” Lilian Wagdy, an activist, citizen journalist and photographer, said. “For example, the iconic photo of the girl who was beaten up and stripped; for many it was evidence of the army’s brutality when dealing with protesters, but others questioned the girl’s action prior to the incident and even asked if the image was real.”

Tarek Hefny, a commercial and art photographer, felt the public asking whether a given image was real of photoshopped was a positive development: “There is more awareness which creates a critical approach to perception of images.”

“The importance of photography was growing daily during the [initial] 18 days,” Rana El-Nemr, an art photographer, said. “There was even this complexity where people who were in Tahrir were checking the photos of Tahrir to try and see how they were being depicted.”

In demonstrations prior to the revolution, which usually had a much lower number of participants, having a camera – especially a professional one – turned a given protester into a target. El Shamy almost lost his camera due to Central Security violence then had it bashed in front of him while documenting protests on 26 January 2011 in downtown Cairo.

El-Nemr, who felt the need to document the protests during the first few days of the revolution, also recalled seeing cameras confiscated and broken by police forces. “I felt the obligation to go down during the first days to document as the practice was not as widespread as later in the initial 18 days of the sit-in,” she said. “Due to the fact that I am a woman, I felt it would be safer for me.” Apparently even though her gender helped with how the police dealt with her, she too had to pull the camera back from a policeman who was trying to confiscate it on 26 January.

“Taking photos in protests can be very dangerous, as in a way you are isolating yourself,” El Shamy said. “When you take photos you take risks,” he added.

El Shamy was injured while taking photos during the attack on the cabinet building sit-in in December, which was protesting the appointment of Prime Minister Kamal El Ganzoury, a former prime minister under Mubarak. While El Shamy was taking photos of the army and police throwing rocks, glass and even furniture off a building and onto the protesters below, a shard hit him very close to the eye.

However, in spite of the risks, many participants in the documentation of the revolution felt that public appreciation of photography was growing. “People who didn’t have cameras during the protests were helping protect the photographers and pointing out photo opportunities,” Wagdy commented.

Kasr El Einy Street Street Battle Dec 18 - معركة شارع القصر العيني ١٨ ديسمبر

From activism to the galleries

As the year progressed, art galleries, cultural centers and even public spaces like the Cairo Metro Station under Tahrir square hosted countless photography exhibitions. The American University in Cairo Press managed to publish four photography books on the Egyptian revolution – not to mention the countless independent efforts to showcase iconic, descriptive or event artistic photos online.

Wagdy and Osama both feel that the number of photographers in Egypt is growing, not just those doing photojournalism or documentary photography.

“There are many more members in groups like photography clubs and others signing up for courses,” Wagdy said, pointing out that judging by what she has observed, female participation in such groups is higher than that of males.

Wagdy believes that Egypt will see more and more people interested in photography, but maybe not art photography. “Art will stay quite elitist as not everyone has this interest,”

“There was a flux of imagery, even half talented citizens were able to exhibit and publish their photos in books,” the visual artist Khaled Hafez said. “Egypt has never seen this amount of photography exhibitions,”

Even spaces like the Zamalek Art Gallery and the Safarkhan Gallery, who generally focus on painting and fine art, held photography exhibitions. Emerging and amateur photographers managed to get their photographs exhibited alongside work by established artists in a number of spaces. “Photography gained respect from certain art collectors, who were more interested in fine arts,” El Nemr says.

Yet not everyone is enthusiastic about developments. Adel said that many art galleries accept photos for exhibition just because they are related to the revolution, which she thinks is a problem.

“Artists deal with the ongoing revolution differently. Some use art as a means of transmitting a message,” El-Nemr reflected. “In my opinion this is the role of the media and not the role of art.” Artists often spend their time reflecting, observing, documenting and experimenting with the results. El-Nemr explained that these reflections of artists should be expressed first, then people can take them where they will.

For Marwa Adel, “The revolution is still going, we still don’t know where it will go. At this point we can produce art work about the human feelings in the revolution but not about the revolution itself.”

For his part Fekry, who had his camera on him at most points in the revolution, could not take photos. “An artist needs to take things in; an artist needs to live the experience fully. When you photograph, you step out momentarily. The process of art needs stability and isolation,” he explained. “We need to see the full picture. Art photography will be more appreciated once the system becomes clear.” He also explained that after the 1952 Free Officers’ movement, led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt saw an explosion in all forms of art. As things stand, there is a lot of “cooking” to be done inside people, and it needs some time and reflection to metamorphose into art.

Some artists are also concerned that art photography (and art in general) may be confined to topics related to the revolution, ignoring other aspects of Egyptian life. El-Nemr narrated her time in Tahrir square, spent with other artists who also shared this concern.

Yet Hafez disagrees: “I don’t have the slightest fear that this will happen in Egypt. We have a long history of artistic expression, the worthiest and heavies in the Middle East along with Iran.” He added that many international curators are interested in Egypt not only because of the revolution.

Due to intense international media coverage of the Egyptian revolution, which continues to this day, contemporary Egyptian issues have solicited much international attention. This caused a shift in perception of Egypt as the land of the past – whether that of the pharaohs or of other historical players – to a land of popular revolt, highlighting the contemporary Egyptian life. “Now that we are in the spotlight, it’s our chance to show the world our best work – to show Egypt’s talent, not just regarding the revolution,” Adel hopes.

As the revolution continues, it seems that photographic practice in Egypt will grow even more. It is only a matter of time before the art photography explosion will follow, in light of the public’s awareness of an interest in the photographic field.

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