In an attempt to further infuse art into society, overcoming social barriers and debunking the elitist-art stigma, photographer Mostafa Abdel-Aty has set up a workshop in the working-class Cairo district of Gamaliya,
The workshop, which stretched into eight months of meetings at irregular intervals, offered five young boys from Gamaliya the tools to reflect their lives and personalities through photography. With its narrow streets and old buildings, Gamaliya has always attracted attention from those interested in Cairo’s history, and inspired several novels by the Nobel prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz. Although filled with historical gems and stories, today many of the residents of the crowded district experience economic problems or lack of work.
Abdel-Aty's project resulted in a new exhibit, A Day in Gamaliya, which is being held at the Friends of Environment & Development Association (FEDA). This allows the young photographers see their work on display.
Abdel-Aty’s vision was to introduce photography as an art into places where art is regarded as a mere luxury for the rich and idle, and instead to offer it as a way of seeing, a means of approaching life with richness and an eye to its beauty.
“We were always met with scepticism and mockery while photographing on the streets. I think it’s important to normalise art in the lives of these people, to make it something they can get exposed to everyday,” Abdel-Aty tells Ahram Online.
He hoped to expose Gamaleya residents to new horizons, seeing things differently through art and finding beauty in the mundane where it might not be apparent, using the camera as a fresh eye.
“People can’t see the beauty of the scene they are part of. Photography allows them to step outside of the scene in order to realise the poetry in their surroundings,” Abdel-Aty adds.
Turning the subjects into the art-makers, Abdel-Aty faced the challenges of trying to change society’s paradigm.
He targeted the younger generation for his workshop, starting off with a number of participants that eventually reduced to the five who committed to sticking with the project.
With most of the 14 to 16-year-old participants maintaining jobs to support their families, many of them lost interest in the workshop, feeling they had more useful things to spend their time on. Others were hindered by family members who saw no value in the workshop.
Abdel-Aty said it was challenging convincing them that photography doesn’t require stopping their lives, but rather that it should run in parallel.
“The biggest struggle was dealing with them emotionally and not just artistically, trying to convey the value of photography as an art and the role it could play in their life if they allow it,” Abdel-Aty says.
His role was to introduce them to a possibility, through art, of adding a richer dimension to their current life and seeing it with a fresh perspective.
“I hope to plant in them the seed of something that might develop later on, maybe simply make their life more enjoyable, or perhaps one of them decides to become a photographer someday,” says Abdel-Aty.
After months of experimenting and documenting their surroundings, A Day in Gamaliya exhibition is now showcasing the results of their efforts.
“It was important that their effort leads to something; the exhibit boosts their confidence and places it in context where other people can view the work and discuss it,” Abdel-Aty said.
Despite the challenges, and his occasional doubts about the workshop fulfilling its ambitious aim, Abdel-Aty says the final photos produced by the participants were better than he expected.
“Some of them surprised me with a sudden progress in the quality of their images,” he says, noting that he intends to leave the cameras with the participants as gifts of encouragement.
“Two of them still don’t deserve the cameras yet, they have to earn it! I’ll give them to them later,” he jokes.
The project was supported and funded by many organizations, including Studio Emad Eddin Foundation, Orient Productions, and Madad. Shams Photography stores supplied the compact cameras used during the workshops.
The exhibit runs for three days, opening 22 February at 6pm, and continuing on 23-25 February from 1-5 pm.
Friends of Environment & Development Association (FEDA), Al Moez Street, near Al Aqmar Mosque, Cairo.