INTERVIEW: Egyptian photographer Salma Olama explores family, connection in 'Touching Lineage'

Amina Abdel-Halim, Friday 4 Jun 2021

The photographer brings her own work into conversation with pictures taken by her late grandfather, Fathy Saleh

Touching Lineage

Young Egyptian photographer Salma Olama’s exhibition 'Touching Lineage' opened 26 May and runs until 10 June at Cocoon Cultural Centre in downtown Cairo.

The twenty-two-year-old artist is a fresh graduate from the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) Film program and has had a passion for photography since childhood.

In high school, she created an Instagram page as a means to share her work and engage with fellow photographers. It was through social media that she came to view photography as a serious undertaking.

“Instagram became a hub where I could share my work and be inspired by other people’s. This allowed for mutual appreciation and feedback, which made me feel motivated to take pictures and try new things,” she revealed to Ahram Online.

During her time at AUC, where she enrolled in 2017, Olama was able to study film and photography in an academic setting; form an offline community of artists and take part in group exhibitions.

Touching Lineage

“The first group exhibition I took part in was during the summer of 2019. It was this tiny space in Heliopolis. I had one picture up: a portrait I took of my mother and my cousin in Fayoum,” she recalls.

The portrait in question is also displayed at Cocoon as part of the Touching Lineage exhibition.

Olama’s works have since been showcased in a number of spaces in Cairo and in New York City, where she studied for one semester at the Parsons School of Design in NYC.

Most recently, several of her photographs were featured in the Cocoon’s Conversations with Cairo exhibit in March 2021.

Touching lineage is Olama’s first solo -or in her own words ‘solo-ish’- exhibition. It brings the photographer’s own work into conversation with pictures taken by her late grandfather, Fathy Saleh.

The idea to exhibit their photographs side by side came about two years ago, when she first learned of her grandfather’s love and talent for photography.

“My uncle brought over this big box to our house. The box, which we never knew existed, was filled with cameras, photo slides, film reels and albums. I became obsessed with them, I would literally stay up until 4am just looking through them,” she recalls.

Touching Lineage

Saleh was a medical doctor who travelled internationally for his work. His photographs capture areas as diverse as Calcutta, London and various parts of Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s.

When she first came across the artworks, Olama immediately knew she wanted to share them with the world, but pondered the best way to pay homage to her grandfather’s legacy.

“I didn’t want to just digitise them and put them on Instagram, I wanted to share them physically. I initially thought of making a book of his photographs but I have this strange, intimate connection with seeing a picture on the wall. I wanted people to experience my grandfather’s photos in this way,” she added.

The title of the exhibition, Touching Lineage, is a reference to the experience of finding tangible relics of Saleh’s memories and Olama’s family history of, quite literally, being able to touch her lineage.

For two years, Olama used Saleh’s Canon AE1 as her main camera; but the two photographers’ artistic kinship extends far beyond this shared tool of execution. The resemblances between Olama’s work and her grandfather’s are striking; whether in terms of subject, composition, or their shared love of people, colors, and movement.

Touching Lineage

The carefully curated display at Cocoon highlights those visual similarities that explore questions of family, lineage and intimacy.

At the gallery entrance, visitors are greeted by two vastly different and yet complementary images. The first shows a large celebration in Calcutta, India, captured by Saleh. The second shows a public Eid gathering on the streets of Cairo, captured by Olama. Though the pictures were taken forty years and two continents apart, they look like two halves of a single image.

“The two words I used most while planning the display were “dialogue” and “connection.” I didn’t just want the pictures to marry each other, I wanted them to talk to and complete each other,” she explains.

Though many of them feature family members, Saleh’s pictures are not traditional family portraits: the subjects often do not face the camera, or are captured from a great distance at unconventional angles, among crowds of strangers. The images echo Olama’s own style and observational eye. This is something which the artist attributes to her mother, Manal Fathy Saleh, who is also a painter and photographer.

Touching Lineage

“My mom is not just the link between us, she’s part of the conversation. It’s a table with three chairs. A common trait between mine and my grandfather’s work is how we capture people, or really how we see them, because the camera is an extension of the photographer’s eye. I attribute a lot of this to my mother, who always taught me to be appreciative of life, people and to see and observe the world around me,” says Olama.

A second surprising link between Olama and Saleh’s works is the historical significance they have come to bear. Saleh’s work captures the world at a time of unprecedented global turmoil: the Cold War period. Some of the pictures taken by the late doctor in Calcutta, said his granddaughter, were captured the year Indira Gandhi was assassinated, a time of nation-wide upheaval in India.

“I have diaries of his where the entries start with things like ‘I’m sorry I haven’t written in a while, I was caught in the whirlwind of people mourning',” the young artist recounted.

Many of Olama’s own pictures displayed at Cocoon were taken during her time at Parsons, between January and March 2020. As part of a portraiture course, Olama, still new to the city, would head to public spaces and ask to photograph complete strangers.

She recounts a particularly fond memory of a day spent photographing people at the park; the first day of sunshine and warm weather after a harsh New York winter, “the park was super crowded and no one wore masks. There were people playing music, a couple laying down beside me, people eating ice cream and people cycling. It was magical. I had my diary with me and I wrote ‘this feels too good to be true.’ And literally the next day, they announced that everything was closing.”

Touching Lineage

Olama’s stay in the United States was cut short by the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. One picture taken on the last day before the lockdown, where three young women dance in a crowded park, now seems like a relic of a different age. Olama’s documentation of a sunny, vibrant New York is almost as much a historical piece as Saleh’s pictures of 1970s London, where family members pose beside strangers clad in bright-colored flare pants.

Saleh and his granddaughter both strive for intimacy and connection in their portrayal of strangers; for a strange nostalgia in the way that they capture spaces foreign to their audience. Through their shared love for photography, Olama found an unexpected connection to her grandfather. Though the two never met, Saleh became one of her greatest teachers.

“Before that, I had never realised all the artistry that goes into taking pictures, or specifically documentary pictures that are not composed by the artist. The more I looked at my grandfather’s photos, the more I learned about art, in a way.”

Olama is currently working on a documentary film about the exhibition, in which she will pursue her exploration of her grandfather’s photography and the familial and artistic links that unite them.

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