A photographer’s search for identity coincides with that of her parents’ home country – as her work goes on display in London, she shares her memories of the Arab Spring
There was one view in particular that photographer Laura El-Tantawy was eager to capture on that day in 2011. But to see it, she had to climb the stairs of a nondescript Cairo building all the way to the roof. From there the dusty metropolis spread out into the horizon... Only that’s not where she pointed her camera. Instead, she cast her eyes down to Tahrir Square – normally a typical city roundabout, but now the churning reactor of a revolution.
This vantage point, overlooking the city, became very popular in early 2011. Thousands of Egyptians had swarmed into Tahir Square to protest against President Hosni Mubarak and the military government. The spot provided the perfect view. In fact, it became such a draw for media outlets that the building’s guard set up an entry charge. Admission was paid for in Egyptian pounds, euros or dollars depending on what currency you had and what language you spoke. “It was outrageous, but it was also Egyptian sense of humour and enterprise in its most basic forms,” El-Tantawy wrote on her Instagram – next to her own video taken from the roof, which captured the protesting throng, furiously chanting and waving flags.
Those 18 days in 2011, during which thousands of ordinary Egyptians flooded into Tahrir Square to march against the corruption of President Mubarak, remain special to the 36-year-old British-Egyptian – not least because the photographs she took there led to her nomination for the 2016 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize (DBPFP). Sitting in The Photography Gallery’s cafe in London, her current home, her brown eyes light up as she explains the turn of events that almost overwhelmed her five years ago. How, as soon as she heard about the protests, she rushed back to Cairo to witness them herself. How she checked into a hotel but soon ran out of money and had to move in with a friend assisting the New York Times near Tahrir Square. How she would start each day pushing her way through the crowds till she reached the edge of the protestors’ barrier: police arresting those around her – or people “not even dressed as police just taking people”. How she was “constantly terrified” but just kept taking pictures, kept documenting, kept searching for answers through the lens of her camera.
“I wanted to see what was happening and be a part of it and photograph it, but I didn’t want to be arrested or beaten or kidnapped. I’m not that kind of person and I’m not brave really. I’m terrified. So basically it was very scary,” she explains. But once she had managed to push through the barriers and enter the Square the atmosphere changed. “You could just kind of chill out,” she smiles. “I could bring my camera out of my bag. I could have the most amazing deep revealing conversations with people that I would have probably never met. (People) who came from all across Egypt because they wanted to be part of what was happening in the Square.”
She decided to turn the results of her photography into a book. Something that juxtaposed her own journey of discovery with that of Egypt’s. In The Shadow of The Pyramids, which she self-published last year after initial negotiations with a publisher fell apart, is essentially a journey from innocence to awakening. The first part of the book is occupied by vintage family holiday snaps from the 1980s: shots on the beach complete with parental hugs and sandy towels. Alongside these are photos of everyday Egyptian life captured by El-Tantawy in the years leading up the events of 2011.
“You see pictures from my childhood – and the larger picture of what was happening on the streets,” she explains. A child on a swing, for example. A line of washing being carried by the hot Cairo breeze. A picnic. Shopping. Mundanity. Then the book moves into the swell of the revolution. The crowds. Fists raised aloft. Smudges of fire and haunting eyes. Tears and celebration. It’s harrowing in parts, but El-Tantawy’s impressionistic photographs are beautiful too.
“It was a real story about the human condition,” she says, explaining how people had suffered to such an extent that they took the risk of coming out to the square, putting their lives on the line in the process, in the hope of changing the future for their children. “For me, this is what the Tahir Square was about. It was very important to show the faces that were contributing to that change.”
“I started to realise that actually I am questioning my identity when in many ways the country is also looking for its own identity” – Laura El-Tantawy
Of course, the other big story in the book is El-Tantawy herself. “What I wanted to do with the project was juxtapose my personal journey with what was happening in the country,” she tells me. “Because I started to realise that actually I am questioning my identity when in many ways the country is also looking for its own identity.”
Born in Worcestershire to Egyptian parents in 1980, she grew up in at least three different continents. Her father, a doctor, moved around the globe in search of work. First stopping in Cairo before eventually settling in Saudi Arabia when El-Tantawy was ten. She then moved back to Cairo for university before eventually studying journalism and political science at the University of Georgia in America. Then Europe, the Middle East, America, now back to the UK. Each new location taught her enough to question who she was. But in the process left her with no obvious place to call home. Her female family members wear a hijab, but she does not. Her father wanted her to choose a “sensible” job, El-Tantawy opted instead for photography. Her work is now fuelled by the questions of identity that naturally followed: Who am I? Where do I fit in?
She uses her photography to try and make sense of it all. El-Tantawy’s pictures are full of searching and in them, you become her eyes. You’re peeking through branches. Seeing things through windows. Watching people as they pass by you in a crowd. You sense the profound love and respect she has for her subjects. But it’s also the view of someone looking in from the outside.
“I connect more with Egypt because that's what I know. I understand the subtleties, I understand the culture, the sense of humour,” she says talking about her work. “I feel like these are all things that make you what you are. But I am officially… I mean, I have a British passport and that's what I travel with.”
When she returns back to Egypt she is regarded as a foreigner, a situation that pains her. El-Tantawy tells me about the first time she heard someone in Egypt ask her: “where are you from?” It was a shock. Did she really stand out so much, she wondered? She told them that she was from Cairo and lived “right there” pointing in the direction of her home, but they batted it away. “No no no – there’s no way.” These experiences always pushed her back, she says somewhat sadly. “I felt like I have to justify my existence here (Cairo) and justify that this is my home or this is my country.”
For now the journey of discovery continues. She’s currently working on a new book made up entirely of pictures taken with her iPhone. “It’s really questioning the idea of home. It’s very quiet and the images are taken slowly,” she explains. But El-Tantawy’s mind is still in Egypt. In February, she commemorated the fifth anniversary of the Tahrir Square protests by posting a previously-unseen-images on Instagram to mark every day she was there. And she still has a desire to distribute a newsprint version of the Tahrir Square project in Cairo. (It’s already printed, she just has to work out a way of smuggling it into the country.)
“I'm very defensive when it comes to the Egyptian Revolution,” she says. “Particularly with the western conceptions of what's happening. I remember very early on – maybe a few months after the revolution – one major magazine posted a visual of the military saying ‘The Revolution that Wasn’t'. And that really made me very angry because they are already deciding that this is a failed revolution – it's not a failed revolution.”
“It was a real story about the human condition. For me, this is what the Tahir Square was about. It was very important to show the faces that were contributing to that change” – Laura El-Tantawy
She explains that Egypt is currently polarised into two camps: those that are with the military and those that are against. But that may change in the next few years, she says. People will start to reflect back on the events at Tahrir Square. Questioning why it happened in the first place. “People were in the Square demanding bread, freedom and social justice,” she explains. “It’s really that basic and I think people will realise that this is not happening.” She then looks at me and her eyes burn. “I question whether the government right now is genuinely trying to do things that are positive and if we’re actually going to see the fruits of that in the next few years. I hope so. I hope that I would be wrong. But judging by the narrative and by what’s happening right now, I think in one, two, or three years, people will protest again against the military.”
Work by El-Tantawy and the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2016 shortlisted photographers will be exhibited at The Photographers’ Gallery from 16 April until 26 June 2016 and subsequently presented at the Deutsche Börse headquarters in Frankfurt/Eschborn