Boulaq photography studio tells a story of protests, kings and bellydancers

Angy Essam , Saturday 14 Apr 2012

The 70-year history of the San Francisco photography studio, located in the central Cairo district of Boulaq, contains many interesting pieces of Egyptian history

San Francisco studio in Cairo

San Francisco photography studio is a time machine that will take you back 70 years.

In the rundown neighbourhood of Boulaq Abou-Elela, located in the centre of Cairo, behind street vendors showcasing second-hand clothes, you will find the San Francisco studio, founded in 1942.

Despite the changes in time, in the nature of the place and in ownership, the old studio stuck to its first name, San Francisco. The name was chosen by the Armenian founders of the studio who lived in Boulaq during the Second World War.

As you take your first steps into the old building which houses the studio on the second floor, you will smell the odour of the past. While going up the crumbling stairs, you will feel that you are returning to the lost Cairo of the last century.

On the wall of the studio hang pictures of the kings of Egypt and former judges who were its customers.

The studio is characterised by its old unique style and its simple decor. In the background of the studio there is a dim lighting system that matches its ancient spirit, and the walls are full of pictures of the Egyptian royal family.

The current owner of the studio welcomes you with a smile - Saad Zaghloul Ahmed, 53 years old, who holds the name of the well-known leader of the 1919 Revolution.

“My name is not a coincidence. My father gave me this name because he was fond of the deceased leader. Our family belonged to the Wafd party and my sister’s name is Safia Zaghloul, like the ‘mother of the Egyptians’, the wife of the great leader,” said Zaghloul.

Zaghloul explained that San Francisco was the name of a famous saint, which is why the Armenian founders of the studio chose it. Both Mohamed Mostafa, the next owner of the studio and Zaghloul were proud of the name as a successful trademark and refused to change it.  

Zaghloul remembered how the now-deprived district was once a cosmopolitan neighbourhood where Armenians, Italians, French and English people would live in harmony with Egyptians.

On discussing his work, he remembers one of the landmarks of Boulaq, the French church. When you look at this church from above, you see that it is cross-shaped.   

 In one of the corners of the studio you'll find a wooden old camera. “This camera is a unique antique that is over a hundred years old, and was imported especially from Britain.”

Zaghloul added that the founders chose the studio’s location because Boulaq neighbourhood was a vital place for customers. Royal vehicles would go en route to the Abdein palace, and the studio used to take photos of such events.

“The studio continued for several years after the Second World War; then its ownership in the late forties moved from the Armenian founders to the Egyptian photographer Mohamed Mostafa.

“This man was active and loyal to the profession of photography. He worked hard to develop the studio; he made an effort to work with members of the government, the police, army and members of judicial bodies.

“He was also hired to photograph school students and their teachers. In this period there was a tradition that each grade should take a photo with the school principal as a kind of souvenir.”

Zaghloul added that Mostafa was a friendly person with a charisma that allowed him to gain the friendship and the confidence of many of his customers, making the studio more like a social forum. The majority of celebrities did not attend only to be photographed; there was a room in the studio dedicated to their chats and meetings.

“Many celebrities attended the studio, most notably the artists Mohammad Reda, Ibrahim Safan, Sayed Zayan and the dancer Nabawya Mostafa, who was a dancer of great fame who appeared in several old films. Also the Armenian ballerinas attended to photograph their latest dances. But the unforgettable customers were the great artist Roushdy Abaza and the star Samia Gamal, who used to come to the studio until her death, as her nephew was a close friend of mine,” said Zaghloul.

 Zaghloul explained that he joined the studio in his youth.  The studio in the past was like a photography school that a lot of photographers graduated from.

“Mohamed Mostafa was the father of my best friend. In the past careers were inherited, but because his son was not fond of photography I went to the studio to assist Mohamed and learn the trade. I came here when I was 14 years old, in the middle of the seventies.”

With the transfer of the ownership of the studio to Zaghloul, he tried to maintain the respectable and professional image of the studio.

“I prefer things with true artistic value; that is why I stuck to the studio’s traditional decor, as well as the name that reflects the identity of the place and its honourable history.”

One of the most important events in Zaghloul's life is photographing the judges’ demonstrations in 2005 and 2006, when Egyptian judges demanded judicial independence and condemned the inheritance of power in Egypt.

As for the studio’s customers, Zaghloul added that although the studio is located in Boulaq, the majority of his customers are intellectuals who appreciate the value of the place. They are journalists, artists, ambassadors and judges. This is because of the presence of the studio near the Maspero state television building, the Egyptian foreign ministry and the Supreme Court.

Zaghloul considers San Francisco like a photography museum that tells part of the history of photography in Egypt. It contains rare and precious photos and ancient photographing equipment such as old cameras and flash lights and lighting, making the studio an amazing heritage place.


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