New book by Laura El-Tantawy captures the impact of the Egyptian revolution on daily life
A tear trickles down a teenager’s cheeks. As a single photograph, it’s emotional enough. But Laura El-Tantawy’s profound text that accompanies her powerful image makes it heartbreaking.
Because, she explains, Reda Abdelaziz Mohamed isn’t crying at all. His left eye constantly weeps from injuries sustained when he was shot in Cairo while kneeling over the dead body of a protester.
A second photograph shows his mangled right eye, which is beyond repair. “It was difficult to take these photographs in 2011 – meeting these people felt like aggravating their wounds,” says el-Tantawy. “Now, it’s almost unbearable to look at them. The revolution has impacted Reda’s life forever.” The photograph of Mohamed is just one of a series of outstanding images taken by El-Tantawy, who was born in England to Egyptian parents in 1980 and grew up between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
When she first returned to Egypt in 2005, the idea was to explore her own conflicted identity and work on a book that would chronicle daily life in Egypt. But in 2011, events in Tahrir Square took over and the project became one of the most arresting photography books of recent times.
In the Shadow of the Pyramids was self-published last year. Its combination of the personal and the political caught the eye of Time magazine and more recently earned the book a nomination for the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, to be awarded on June 2.
El-Tantawy understands that not everybody shares the same politics about the events before, during and after Tahrir Square.
But the brilliance of In the Shadow of the Pyramids is that it doesn’t glorify or fall into polemic. These are not aggressive, in-your-face images. Instead, she says it marks how the revolution affected upon “normal, individual people who wanted dignity, respect and a place in their country … farmers, plumbers, construction workers.”
“The revolution changed the narrative of the book,” she admits, “and it did become more about making sure these everyday people had their place in history, that their stories could be told.”
El-Tantawy says the striking imagery comes from taking a detached approach, both emotionally and professionally, to her work.
“I took a lot of pictures from above, and it felt like I was perched on a cloud,” she says.
“It gave me a funny feeling in my stomach, it was so surreal – and it meant the images ended up being quite impressionistic.”
This blurring of the line between personal and documentary photography also comes through in the old family snaps that are dotted throughout the book, adding an extra layer of poignancy and history – particularly when El-Tantawy writes “the home of your memories is not reflected in reality”.
They might not be the most perfectly composed shots – and El-Tantawy admits that she had to work hard to convince her family to use them, not least because her mother did not cover her hair at that time.
“But these delicate, precious and intimate photographs were really important to the book,” she says. Happily, she won her family round.
And yet the Deutsche Börse nomination has undoubtedly changed the work from something intensely personal about the country she loves into something that people from around the world are now engaging with. Mohamed was just someone she met. But now he’s a symbol.
“My book is not hopeful, I know that,” she says. “But there has to be hope for a better Egypt. It might take a few years to get there, that’s all.”
• In the Shadow of the Pyramids is presently sold out. To see images from the book visit www.lauraeltantawy.com