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Through the lens: Egypt's photography takes a new pitch

Professional photography is regaining ground despite the endless hype for selfies

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 27 Oct 2016
Roger Anis
Watching the Moulid Al-Adra, the Virgin Mary Coptic Moulid celebration, Fayoum, Egypt. (Photo: Roger Anis)
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“I just move around carrying my mobile camera and capturing endless shots; I like to take pictures of things, people, streets -- I don’t have any particular use for these pictures but I just like to capture certain moments through my lens,” said Shahira Selim.

A translator by profession in her late thirties, Selim has no intention whatsoever to take the path of photography. She is not even budgeting for a simple digital camera to carry around.

For her, the camera on her mobile phone has always been good enough – first to keep record of “special family moments, and I don’t just mean occasions but moments like when the entire family sits around the living room to enjoy a nice home-made dessert,” and later to capture shots from the streets, the stores and “just anywhere I happen to be.”

Selim sometimes uses these exercises “therapeutically – just to get my mind off things I don’t want to get overwhelmed with and sometimes to reflect on the meaning of certain things in life like poverty versus happiness and I find this often when I capture a picture of a clearly not so financially well off family that are in perfect joy while having some can sugar juice in a poorer Cairo neighborhood.”

For Selim pictures are important. “They keep your memories; they kind of turn into a dairy – and you don’t necessarily share your dairy but you just like to keep it.”

This said, Selim is following with considerable passion the new and expanding trend of ‘online photography.’

“I have noticed that during the past two or three years, I am not sure when exactly but obviously one or two years after the Revolution [in January 2011] more and more people were establishing ‘photography pages’,” she said.

Those online photography pages have been also offering what Selim finds to be the very diverse narratives of Egypt.

“They are looking at Egypt, more or less, but each from his or her lens; just like I do with my mobile camera – and of course each of us has a very different take and a very different ‘photo story’ to tell,” she said. “And it is sometimes interesting to compare the narratives,” she added.

It is also interesting to compile these narratives and put together what could well be ‘the story of Egypt today through the lens of many young men and women who are at times professional photographers and at times just amateurs who are still capable to produce good quality photos and to have them posted online,” said Hossam Elouan, a photography researcher.

Elouan has been investing a good part of his time during the past five years to re-visit the story of Egypt by going through the inspiring archives of photographers who had lived and worked across Egypt.

He is convinced that the new trend for photography “is certainly helping to add a new chapter to the story of life in Egypt” from the 19th century onwards.

Elouan also added that this is despite the drops that happened when the interest in photography, for the most part a profession that you needed to hire someone to do before the widespread of easy-to-use cameras, was compromised in favour of making videos “before those too went out of fashion in favour of the new-found mobile phone cameras that allowed both for photos and videos.”

Today, Elouan said, “it is always very interesting for example to go through the archives of early years of 20th century photography of Egypt and to compare say the pictures of little girls in rural areas posing for professional photographers who traveled through the Delta and compare them with pictures taken by some of the many adventurous photographers who just travel through the countries to capture stories through their lens – and those are not very few nowadays.”

Aly Hazzaa is one of those. With a BA in mechanical engineering, Hazaa, in his late twenties then, decided to part ways with his academic degree and opt for his passion: photography.

“I knew that this was what I wanted to do and I finally had the courage to follow through with my passion,” he said.

With some professional but not so advanced cameras, Hazzaa experimented for a relatively long period before finally producing what he felt was a decent portfolio to take him into the world of professional photography.

Aly Hazzaa
Family photo from Karnak temple, Luxor. (Photo: Aly Hazzaa)
 

Hazaa first stop at the doors of photojournalism was in the independent daily Al-Shorouk.

He recalls his three plus years in photojournalism as “a very diverse experience” whereby he went from one assignment to the other to see and document the big events, including of course the 18 days of the January Revolution, and the small details of the lives of people – children at their schools, patients at the hallways of hospitals and young men serving tea and snacks in small cafes.

It was more the human-interest side that captured the attention of Hazzaa.

“I mean it is true that during the past few years, especially with the January Revolution, photojournalism has gained an incredible space of the attention of news editors who were becoming more sensible to the value of photos but still for me it was the people and their lives that counted most,” he argued.

Hazzaa decided to go the path that many young photographers are now embracing: private photography that is administered essentially online.

This he did upon “a clear awareness of the fact that the growing interest in photos went way beyond the papers to the ordinary people who developed an almost fanatic interest in pictures because of social media – I mean first with Facebook it was quite a hype and now with Instagram it is more so.”

According to Hazzaa “yes, for the most part people post pictures that they have taken either with their mobile cameras or with their digital amateurs’ camera but during the past year or two there has also been this interest to post professional photos.”

Hazzaa found that this was especially the case not just with weddings, a typical occasion where everyone would resort for professional photography at least for a few nice portraits of the bride and the groom, but “more and more often for large family assemblies and friend reunions.”

“I am not sure how it works but people want to sort of hang on to their moments of joy so much nowadays,” he argued.

“And as always, with private collections, I think people always find a particular joy in having their pictures taken and looking at these pictures – now of course also and sharing these pictures on social media,” according to Hazza.

Aly Hazzaa
A bride getting ready for her vows, at the Catholic Coptic Church in Heliopolis, Cairo (Photo: Aly Hazzaa)
 

The resumed interest in soliciting the assistance of a professional photographer is not at all a leap back into the past, Hazzaa insisted.

“Because the way photo sessions are done now is very different,” he said.

He explained that with weddings, for example, there is not much attention in having the traditional studio-paused photo.

“You would get more interest for open-air photoshoots for the bride and the groom with shades of sunset or with a background of boats floating the Nile,” he argued.

Hazzaa added that there is also the growing interest in “the pre-wedding photo sessions” whereby the bride and the groom spend a half-day with close family and the photographer in an open-air setting “usually a choice made jointly by the couple and the photographer” and have “ a set of photo shoots that are not really paused.”

This is a new trend that Hazzaa is convinced is gaining considerable attention among young couples “and it is often done by a professional photographer to secure good quality photos that you would often find the couples using as their profile pictures on Facebook rather than the actual wedding picture because there the couple are not all dressed and made up – so it is love in the everyday life setting.”

Coming second in line for the request that many professional photographers get for commercial service are family photo sessions.

“This used to be a tradition mostly of the well-off families in pre-1952 Egypt where a family would have their individual portraits every year and then have a group family photo -- the tradition is coming back now,” Hazzaa argued.

The reason it is coming back, Hazzaa argued, “apart from the interest in quality photos to show off on social media, is the obvious fact that more and more families are not living together in one country and for some families a full get together for parents and children and maybe also grandchildren, is a once a year or once every few year event – it becomes a moment worth documenting in the nicest way possible.”

And according to photographer Roger Anis, the pursuit of professional-quality beautiful photos is “actually experiencing a new high with some Asian tourists who visit professional photographers to accompany them to give them the perfect site-seeing photos.”

Most recently, Anis, a long-time professional photographer who does both photojournalism and private photography at the same time, joined another professional photographer to give no more than ten tourists from China their post-card quality photos.

Roger Anis
Tourist takes a photo at the Giza pyramids (Photo: Roger Anis)
 

“Some had pictures of post cards on their mobiles and requested and wanted these shoots reproduced and some just said they wanted beautiful photos,” Anis said.

He argued that it makes sense now with social media that tourists would want to have perfect sight-seeing photos and “if they actually have an already big budget for a visit to faraway places – which they might not come back to -- then it is worth documenting their moment of joy.”

Documenting joy and beauty is not the only choice a photographer could take – although to judge by many of the private photography pages online most are dedicated to producing images of beautiful people in beautiful settings or simply of beautiful and exotic places.

There is also the choice of documenting pain. Eman Helal, who also started as photojournalist after having graduated in the department of mass communication at Cairo University, is opting mostly for the second path.

Helal, also in her early thirties now, spends a good part of her photography time to look at and capture moments from the lives of minorities.

“They are often overlooked in the midst of the larger masses and sometimes it is very rare to have them stand out but if we look closer and zoom in they are there with very special challenges and very special stories that are often untold,” Helal said.

Earlier this year, Helal was awarded a photography prize for a feature she did on physical harassment of women in Egypt.

“I know that it is perhaps more trendy to take pictures of smart looking women in ethnic outfits and I also like to do this once in a while but what I find interesting and really challenging with this particular photo-feature that I worked on is that it captures a rare moment of outrage that is not happening in the midst of a big political event but rather in the path of everyday life,” she said.

Having attended a training course for six weeks in New York on human rights photography last year, Helal became determined that she wanted her portfolio to carry more and more pictures of challenged men and women finding their way through the hard moments of life: girls who are struggling to access education in a rural neighbourhood, a Copt who has to travel a long way to reach a church for her prayers, a poor women carrying her newborn through her working hours and an elderly person finding his way through the voting queues in local elections.

Aly Hazzaa
Pre wedding photo session (Photo: Aly Hazzaa)
 

Most recently, Helal worked on a feature that documented the return of a few Coptic families to their villages in Upper Egypt that they had to flee because of incidents of anti-Coptic violence. There she saw faces that reflected " a very rare mix of pain and joy – of fear and reassurance.”

These pictures might not make it to the front-page of any of the many dailies that she had worked for before so she opted to be a private photographer who takes independent assignments “but they certainly find their way through the media on the internet and in this sense they do bring considerable awareness on issues related to the lives of minorities,” Helal said.

According to Hazzaa and Helal, the work of modern day photography that is essentially done by young men and women of various academic backgrounds is providing a very detailed image of the face of life in Egypt "inside out."

Elouan agreed that this is “very true.” He added that unlike photography of – from Egypt from the 19th century through the 20th century, the works of young Egyptian photographers is certainly way less posed and much more insightful as it goes beyond the perfect composition of the actual stories.

“With the return of professional photography to assume the attention of the public – beyond photojournalism or the actual work of documenting events for books – we are seeing a wealth in the making of material that would for long provide researchers with an incredible insight into the life of Egyptians from these years,” Elouan said.

He argued that efficient cataloguing and management of copyrights would be essential to make this information accessible for researchers in the future. “And I think that this is one of the blessings of technology that photographers of previous generations were not privy to,” he added.

Eman Helal
Steering out of harm's way: Soldiers containing the anger of women in the wake of a sectarian incident in upper Egypt (Photo: Eman Helal)
 

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