The many shades of Sherif Sonbol

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 2 Jan 2024

Dina Ezzat pays tribute to photographer Sherif Sonbol, whose work has added colour, dimension, and personality to Al-Ahram Weekly since its first publication in 1991

Sherif Sonbol s

 

 

This week, Al-Ahram Weekly is publishing its first issue for 2024 in the sad absence of one of its most important members, photographer Sherif Sonbol.

He passed away peacefully at his house in Cairo on Christmas Eve after an illness that had kept him from taking the trade-mark photographs that had always been part of the identity of the paper.

Right from the first zero issues onwards in the winter of 1991, Hosny Guindy, the founding editor of the Weekly, wanted to establish the centrality of photography to the paper. It was something that marked the first issue, published in February 1991, and that has been evident in every issue since.

The contribution of remarkable and dedicated photographers has always been vital to the success of the Weekly, and of these photographers, Sonbol contributed the most.

His photographs were a highlight of many of the stories that appeared on the Features page, reflecting the depth of Egypt’s vibrant, vivid, and diverse society. During his career at Al-Ahram and elsewhere, Sonbol made it clear that he loved to shoot people and places. His work had to be about a story rather than just an event.

The story could be anything, from the urban to the environmental or the social. Preferably, though, it should have some artistic slant. It was this passion for art that caused Sonbol to spend many years photographing performances at the Cairo Opera House. His pictures of musicians, ballerinas, and singers are hard to miss on the walls of the Opera House in Zamalek, just as his photographs of neighbourhoods in Cairo, Alexandria, the Delta, and Upper Egypt have been hard to miss on the pages of the Weekly and on the website of its sister service Ahram Online.

 

The most extraordinary and moving pictures are those that reflect a conflict between hope and fear or pain and serenity. This can be traced in his poignant shots of the ballet Swan Lake, one of Sonbol’s favourites, just as it can on the faces of the Iraqi or Syrian refugees who came seeking safety in Egypt during the first and second decades of this century. They had left their homes and much else behind amid fears of an uncertain future, whether in Egypt or elsewhere.

I was privileged to work with Sonbol ever since I first joined Al-Ahram as an intern on my graduation in 1988. My work for the Weekly would have been incomplete if not outright impossible had it not been for the photographs of Sonbol, which went beyond being skillful and artistic to bringing out the content of the assignments we worked on together.

Sherif Sonbol was a photographer with passion and perspective. He passed away at the age of 67 with so many more ambitious projects to pursue. He will be very much missed by all those who knew him, and his contributions will continue to be a highlight of the archives of the Weekly as they are of Al-Ahram daily, which he joined in the late 1970s.

The Weekly shares the pain of his loss with his wife, Samia Fakhry, and his daughter Hannah Sonbol. We are republishing some of his photographs this week from our archives and from his.


* A version of this frontpage article of the 2023 Al-Ahram Weekly Yearender appears in print in the 4 January 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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