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Egypt Unwrapped

Street, Camera, Action

The looting of the Hoyate and French schools in Cairo in January 2013. Photograph taken by Egyptian photojournalist Amru Salahuddien.
The looting of the Hoyate and French schools in Cairo in January 2013. Photograph taken by Egyptian photojournalist Amru Salahuddien.

It was during the January 2011 uprising that street photographer Mohamed Elsayyed realized how important a newsworthy image is in conveying the truth. He was a novice when he first shot images of the revolution—but he did know that a good photograph should show raw emotions and reflect the real motives behind behavior. Elsayyed believes that anyone holding a camera has the potential to make a difference.

But how can street photography have any real, positive influence in a changing Egypt? The country’s emerging street photographers hold some of the answers to that question.

Photojournalist Amru Salahuddien considers himself an ambassador to the streets—someone who is there to tell people what is really going on. The unique, varied nature of Egyptian streets is what pulled him into street photography in the first place. He seeks to show contrasts in the country’s urban diversity.

Estimates differ, but the national poverty rate in Egypt is considered to be around twenty-five percent. Salahuddien focuses his work on this neglected section of Egypt’s population: the ignored communities living in slums, graveyards or villages. He is currently working with the World Press Photo on a project about the growth of shantytowns after the revolution.

Slums in Egypt are commonly depicted as unsafe areas full of thugs, thieves and drug addicts, as places where nobody should go. Yet, there are families that live in the slums who are in desperate need of help, including hard-working women, many of them single mothers with children. Salahuddien went to cover the daily life of these women and show how they manage to feed their families.

There is a very wide network of activists and NGOs who are now using photography as a tool to have an impact on society. As a direct result of his investigations, Salahuddien has also raised awareness of isolated communities living in villages in the Delta region. His images have attracted the attention of local organizations and individuals, and some humanitarian campaigns have been initiated as a result of what his photographs revealed.

Salahuddien recently discovered a Palestinian refugee camp located in the village of Gezirat Al-Fadel, approximately 55 miles (90 km) from Cairo. The camp houses over 3,000 refugees living in desperate conditions. Salahuddien decided to embark on a public awareness project to spread the word across Egypt concerning the dire conditions in the camp.

He later found out that Egypt is not on the list of host countries with recognized refugee camps. “Why does UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] exclude Egypt as if it was a country without refugees? We alone serve tens of thousands of them,” Salahuddien exclaims.

For Salahuddien, the camera has become a weapon in Egypt today. He almost risked his life to take pictures when the French high school in Cairo, the Lycée Français, was burned and looted by a group of teenagers who called themselves revolutionary protesters after clashes broke out around Tahrir Square in January. Salahuddien’s pictures caused a stir in the local media, and gave the community a moment’s pause to reflect on the violence.

Elsayyed hopes to organize photo contests, seminars and print sales, donating some of the proceeds to charitable causes. In April, he created a Facebook group open to street photographers in Egypt to collaborate on various projects. He recently worked with another photographer in capturing homelessness and those struggling with mental health problems.

Farah Souames, a Cairo-based Algerian journalist, always has her camera on her. She considers street photography to be very important in Egypt, since Egyptian life revolves around the streets. “If I want to send a message effectively, I do it through photos,” she says. She regularly reports on culture and art, and is now documenting the movement of street performers and musicians in Cairo and their struggle against the authorities who are clamping down on street art.

The fast-changing society in Egypt is what drives young street photographer Marwa Sameer Morgan to document everyday life on Cairo’s streets. She is interested in what is going on behind the headlines. Morgan is keen to show the great diversity found among Egyptians and their lifestyles. In one of her photo essays, she captures the diversity in women’s clothing through shots of shop displays of ladies’ fashion along 26th of July Street, one of the longest streets in Cairo, running across several different neighborhoods.

As evidence of the impact of photography in bringing about social change in Egypt, Morgan points to a new project inspired by the Kazeboon (Liars) Campaign, an initiative designed by activists to expose the dishonesty and brutality of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) through film screenings. The upcoming project will entail setting up photo exhibitions on the streets and outside public spaces that explore the issues affecting the wider community.

Hasan Amin is another photographer who has reported on the slums inside Cairo, the poor areas in Upper Egypt, and women’s fight against sexual harassment. As an independent photographer, he says he simply wants to spread the truth from an unbiased point of view. “I first let people know through photos, and I let them make up their minds after,” Amin points out. Amin, like many of his counterparts, is convinced that photos can make a paradigm shift by breaching the huge gap between social classes in Egypt.

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Alessandra Bajec
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. She has contributed to An-Najah University's Voice of An-Najah radio broadcasts, the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, IRIN and The Progressive, among others. Follow her on Twitter @AlessandraBajec

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