The Shadow of the Pyramids: Laura El-Tantawy’s Egyptian Journey.
I met Laura El-Tantawy in Cairo in 2012 but strangely, I was there to write about a Rolex mentoring project with Gilberto Gil, Brazilian superstar and former Minister of Culture, and Gaza’s popular singer, songwriter and musician in Cairo, Dina El-Wedidi. I sat in on their rehearsals in an indie studio watching preparing new songs for the Cairo Jazz Festival, and their work ran curiously in parallel with Laura’s photographs and writing.
Laura El-Tantawy, photographer, writer, artist.
For our meeting, Laura and I headed to the grandiose Zamalek district where we caught a Costa coffee because cafes on the banks of the Nile were closed or abandoned. Emptied tourist boats bobbed while we discussed the current crisis in Egypt and studied her photographs from the Cairo protests in Tahrir [Liberation] Square. That vast space is known to everyone there for January 25th, 2011 where hundreds of thousands of protesters began to shake the country just two months after Tunisia’s birth of the Arab Spring. Tents and flags and masses of people singing and shouting filled the air with joy and hope, but later on, fear. The intention was to eradicate the corrupt, brutal President, Hosni Mubarak and it worked: he was imprisoned in 2013.
On another January night as Laura moved amongst the crowds, the city’s ‘Underground’ bands and singers including Dina, were radiant with her new songs and the traditional ones from elderly women in desert villages. Singing to the crowds, she said, “It had been “The beginning for me.” And similarly, Laura told me of her life’s new identities.
Laura’s background shifted across countries from birth in England to grown teenaged years, then the family moved back to Cairo, then Saudi Arabia, then Cairo. She studied and graduated in the US, and in 2002 began her career in newspaper Photo-Journalism. Hearing about the growing protests in Egypt, she fled home and entered the Square – with her camera. “It was a moment when my past, present and future came together as never before,” she said. “In the Square, I found my dreams and I found myself again; the essence of Egyptian identity and my desire to reconnect with a country I no longer knew, my country of origin.”
Victims of attack cluster together on the ground under dark, reddish lighting, one with a bloodied hand, another a bandaged head, and the scene resembles a Caravaggio painting for its colours, lighting and composition.
The beautiful blur of waving flags and the chaotic vision of the distant women, almost suggests double exposure.
These tents in Tahrir Square are reminders of the vast numbers being lived in around the entire world today.
Faces of a Revolution; A Room of Faces.
From 2011 to 2005, Laura worked close to the crammed people to capture expressions. In 2012, the Liverpool Photography Festival “Look!” invited her to exhibit her portraits of protesters in Tahrir Square. She lined the room with her small prints which expose their intimacy, emotion, sadness, anger, loss and hope. I asked Laura how she got permission to get such close shots with people in such distress and were they aware of the camera. She explained that most were captured at candid moments and most unaware of the lens. “Usually I try to get through the crowds,” she said, “And always try to speak to the person I photographed, to understand the story behind the emotion I captured.” After that description, she added: “In their faces, I see my own.”
Safeya Sayed Shedeed
One person stands out amongst the room of nine prints. The woman she talked to, the elderly Safeya Sayed Shedeed, was mother to a young son shot by the police three days after the 25th January. “I want to avenge my son,” she said, crying, “Who will get my son’s rights back?” What is so moving and unforgettable is her frozen, tragic gaze and the tear-drop standing out like a pearl. Laura’s installation of her recorded soundtrack from the Square ricocheted around the room the protesters singing, chanting and shouting. Like the portraits, it brought the room to life.
“IN THE SHADOW OF THE PYRAMIDS.”
This large and hefty self-published book, “In the Shadow of the Pyramids,” carries stories over time and includes Laura’s fantastic photographs from her year-long journey of exploration around Egypt. I asked if the title is literal: she sees it as “a metaphor for my own feelings and for the larger narrative of what was happening…. [it] anchors the title. a place I once called home where everything ends up buried in the shadow of its greatness.” On the cover of the book, family photographs fill a chapter, emerging with obvious pleasure and happiness with sisters sitting on a camel, tiny Laura on a beach – all memories from before today’s chaotic, frightening years.
An addition to the book of the Pyramids, Laura moved to publish and write for the newspaper “The People الشعب stories of contemporary history. She was apparently filled with excitement. At the same time, her mother stencilled and printed on jute beautiful calligraphic designs for tote bags and book covers. https://instagram.com/p/597z-KmQR4/
The People الشعب
From the newspaper to the jute back, Laura now describes her life’s shifts. She explained “I have work that I am doing very slowly, exploring ‘our’ history and where we go from here, very different from the “In the Shadow of the Pyramids.” But the Visual Diary chapter is packed with a wonderful selection of images chosen from Laura’s collection of photographs. She describes them as ‘the intimacy with subjects which worked out’. http://lauraeltantawy.com/my-visual-diary
The stencilled jute bag and lid of a box & the blur of flag waving in Tahrir Square
And finally… the most incongruously beautiful and emotional of Laura’s photographs from the Tahrir Square’s protest.