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Egypt's revolution in the eyes of an Iranian-American photojournalist

Ahram Online talks to Shadi Rahimi, an Iranian-American photojournalist, recalling her days amid Egypt's revolution, captured in photos now on display in a gallery in California

Sara Elkamel, Saturday 26 May 2012
Crowd Stand, photo by Shadi Rahimi
Views: 1728
Views: 1728

Opening 26 May at the Old Crow Gallery, Oakland, California, is a solo exhibit on Egypt’s revolution entitled “Stand Your Ground, The Sun is Rising,” by Iranian-American photojournalist Shadi Rahimi who moved to Egypt for seven months last year to experience a life-altering series of events.

Through juxtapositions of chaos and calm, Shadi Rahimi recreates the fluctuating nature of the unfolding January 25 Revolution. Rahimi selected 25 photos out of the hundreds she shot across Egypt, showing a glimpse of the people’s struggle, challenges and triumphs to an American audience. Living in Egypt, and participating in a vibrant revolution, Rahimi says she learned the value of life. She talks to Ahram Online about her art and time in Egypt.

Ahram Online (AO): How did you choose the photos to exhibit and what is the idea behind your show?

Shadi Rahimi (SR): I have 25 photos in this exhibition. I have paired photos together that match each other in style and tone, but contrast each other in theme: "chaos" versus "calm." For example, I have a nighttime photo of a young girl at a No Military Trials protest on Kasr El-Nil Bridge, holding a sign against the military's "virginity tests." I've paired it with a nighttime photo of a Nubian singer at the community arts festival held in Abdeen Square. She's singing about revolution.

Another pairing is a silhouette of boys standing in front of a cloud of tear gas smoke on the first night of clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. I've paired that with a silhouette of an old man at sunset at an oasis in Fayoum. I talk about the clashes in the caption of the first photo, and how the fear of visiting Egypt during the revolution has impacted tourism in the second.

AO: How did you get into photography and why were you interested in photography in Egypt?

SR: I'm Iranian-American; I was born in Oakland, California, the year after Iran's Islamic Revolution. My dad was a student who had come to the US on a scholarship from the Iranian government. When the revolution happened, my parents were financially stranded. A few weeks after I was born, Iraq invaded Iran.

Growing up, I always wanted to be a journalist. I was affected by the way media impacted the Americans' views and how it treated Middle Eastern and Arab people. I was in Egypt because I fell in love with the country. And because as a journalist and an educator I wanted to experience life during revolution; I wanted to witness how people in my generation and younger were working to create a different tomorrow.

I wanted to live history and current events in a way that I find difficult to do in the US, where for most, days and weeks can go by without you having a sense of where you fit in the world. I moved to Egypt 8 July 2011, arriving in Tahrir on a day called the "The Friday of Persistence." I had planned to stay a year, but left about five months earlier than planned because I was hired for a job in my hometown working for Iranian human rights, a truly rare opportunity.

AO: How do you think your exhibition creates a deeper understanding for audiences of the revolution's events?

SR: The photos I chose, and the captions I'm working on to accompany them, provide visitors with a sense of the struggle and humanity of revolution. I've paired photos of clashes from Tahrir Square with photos I've taken in Fayoum and other places in order to show Egyptians both in times of resistance and peace. I want people to get a sense of the people and the country, to leave with an understanding of what people are fighting or working for, and who they are.

For me, the best way to do that was to not only pair photos thematically, but also to provide audio (with portable CD players) that will allow people to listen to sounds from Tahrir and interviews with Egyptians. Also, I asked some Egyptian friends to send me quotes that they want to share with Americans, which I will put on the walls as well.

While I think it's very important for Americans to see the impact of the political support the US government provides to the Egyptian government, the $2 billion per year it provides to Egypt's military, and the weaponry that American companies ship to Egypt. At the same time I also want Americans to get a sense of the beauty and strength of the Egyptian people. I joked sometimes to my Egyptian friends that I was like a one-person travel agency, because many of my American friends upon seeing my photos online would tell me they wanted to visit Egypt. I would remind them that even during times of clashes, you would walk just a few blocks and it was as though nothing was happening. I still think everyone who can, should visit Egypt.

AO: What was the one moment in Egypt that you couldn't capture with a photo?

There are many, many, many moments I couldn't capture. Most of them were because I was more interested in self-preservation, either by running or ducking. Some friends, one brave Egyptian photographer in particular, would find a high place to stand and remain there while police and soldiers were charging at people below. They had grown accustomed to how to photograph or film clashes in Tahrir since January. Me, on the other hand, I could never seem to find a good or safe place to be. So I was constantly on the run with everyone else.

There was one very frightening experience that I captured only the beginning of, which is actually one of the photos in my exhibit. It was on Sunday, 20 November 2011, the day videos were posted online of security forces throwing bodies on trash piles. I was on Mohamed Mahmoud Street all day. Boys were throwing rocks and security forces were shooting tear gas. At one point I ran to get air, away from the tear gas, by ducking in a corner of the old AUC building. I took a photo of a boy who had been shot by pellets. I took some photos of boys throwing rocks, and noticed the street had cleared.

Then I heard the boom of shots. People started screaming, "They're coming." Security forces were coming down the street to clear it out, using either rubber bullets or live ammunition, the latter I believe was the case considering the deaths that day. But I can't be sure. Along with about five other people, I burst into a storage closet along the side wall, where we hid. The chaos outside continued (I think while we were in the storage closet was when people were killed and their bodies piled in the corner, judging by the lighting in the video). By the time we felt safe enough to go outside, it was dark. We ran directly into a group of plainclothes security officials. We were escorted for brief questioning on the street, and let go.

AO: How has being in Egypt and partaking in the revolution changed you as a person?

SR: Being in Egypt was very challenging, and yet exciting and fulfilling, and among the best ways I've spent my days. Everything I learned there has stayed with me. It's opened me to a world of possibilities in terms of organising and the way I saw citizen media impacting social movements. Egyptians are amazing organisers, and journalists. Some of the bravest people I've met. I learned how to ask for help, and how to be resourceful in crisis. I learned the value of life. I learned how to manage without knowing the language, or knowing systems of a culture. I learned how to rely on strangers. I learned who not to trust. My instincts were tested and honed.


“Stand Your Ground, The Sun is Rising” runs until 11 June at the Old Crow Gallery, Oakland, California.

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01-06-2012 11:47pm
Middle East has no future. As time passes, ME receives less hope for a better future. All those countries are run by dictators and divided nation that some are working for the dictators and the rest helping the next one to take over. At best, they get Islamic eventually, which is nothing but a mass suicide.
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