Obituary: Veteran Al-Ahram photographer Sherif Sonbol passes away at 67

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 24 Dec 2023

Al-Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online paid their last respects on Sunday to a founding member of both news services and a leading Al-Ahram photographer, Sherif Sonbol.

Sherif Sonbol
Sherif Sonbol prepares for a photo exhibition with his daughter Hannah in Downtown Cairo.

 

At a somber ceremony at Kasr El-Doubara Evanglical Church, the family, friends, and colleagues of Sonbol gathered for a good-bye mass.

Sonbol had peacefully passed away at the very early hours of Sunday at his house in the comforting company of his wife Samia Fakhry, a journalist at Al-Ahram Al-Iktsady (the economy weekly magazine of Al-Ahram).

For over 40 years, since he first joined Al-Ahram as a fresh and young photographer, Sonbol had made an enormous contribution to every publication he had worked for: Al-Ahram daily, Al-Ahram Weekly, and Ahram Online.

His photos captured the essence of the vibrant Egyptian society without ever falling in the trap of déja-vu or cliché line of photography.

Sonbol had been averse to predictability, looking constantly for a unique shot. He always wanted to take a shot that no other photographer had ever attempted to get before.

Originality was key to Sonbol. However, he was also equally keen on getting pictures that were “real”. When he did his photos of Cairo neighbourhoods, for a series that Al-Ahram Weekly published a few years ago, he would walk for hours around a neighbourhood before deciding on a building that he would feel spoke for the neighbourhood.

At an earlier phase of his life, in which he was strictly devoted to Opera photography, he would wait patiently behind the lens of his camera to capture the prime move of a ballerina’s performance.

Egypt’s late prima ballerina Magda Saleh once said that “Sherif knows when a ballerina is excelling at the performance and it is then and only then that he would shoot”.

Art and culture stories were very close to Sonbol's heart and mind, and it was his photos for art and culture pages that were strikingly beautiful. However, for Sonbol, art and culture were never just about an Opera performance.

They could equally be a typical Moulid – he particularly loved Moulid El-Hussein, Moulid El-Sayeda Zeinab, and Moulid El-Adra. These three moulids were always marked on Sonbol’s calendar. Around people, around beautiful buildings with stories or around artisans, Sonbol would just be happy to keep on shooting for hours.

Sonbol’s pictures were the ultimate essentials of the Features and previously Profile pages of Al-Ahram Weekly. They were the highlight of the LifeStyle and Heritage sections of Ahram Online.

Sonbol did not much appreciate shooting political stories. However, when he did, as he sometimes had to do, the pictures would ‘say it all,’ revealing his characteristic focus on facial expressions and body movements.

An internationally recognized and professional photographer, Sonbol always took impressive photos. However, shooting subjects he loved, he produced images that closely resembled art works.

Besides decking the pages of Al-Ahram and Al-Ahram Weekly and the website of Ahram Online, Sonbol’s photos were produced in books -- which he referred to them as photo books instead of  ‘coffee table books,’ a term he found demeaning -- published  in Egypt and other countries. His book “The Churches of Egypt- From the Journey of the Holy Family to the Present Day” is an ultimate masterpiece with over 300 colourful illustrative photos. The book was put out in 2012 by the American University in Cairo Press, which had published other books of Sonbol’s.
 
Some other pictures of Egypt’s exotic Christian houses of worship were put out by Sonbol in the occasional exhibitions that he had held in Egypt and overseas.
Sonbol dreamt of doing a series on the world’s most famous and most unknown love stories around the world. “There is nothing like love that makes a place memorable; would Verona have been so memorable without Romeo and Juliet?,” he would argue in the presentation that he would put out for his proposals.
 
Death hit before the inspired project saw the light of day. On 7 December, Sonbol celebrated his 67th birthday.

He was tired and exhausted in the wake of cardiological interventions. However, he still wanted to do more; his passion for photography was there even as he was walking his last few metres in life

Sherif will be dearly missed by his wife Samia and daughter Hannah and friends.

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