Laura El-Tantawy’s debut self-published book, In the Shadow of the Pyramids saw the UK-based artist set out to explore her Egyptian identity and then embark on a search for wider meaning during the tumultuous years brought on by the ‘Tahir Square’ revolution.
By deftly fusing family imagery depicting her childhood with her own unique brand of darkly impressionistic photographs of the protests, the innocence of her past is contrasted with the obscurity of the present, all filtered through a singular sensibility.
Such is its complexity that she offers a dreamy, layered record where time and memory simmer, in which she contrives not to provide an ordinary, straightforward recital of events but a personal document of experience.
The work has earned her a nomination for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2016. As part of the associated exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, London she has produced a pocket-sized, accordion-folding book of previously unreleased photographs and texts from the series entitled, Post-Script, in collaboration with RRB Publishing.
Born in Worcestershire, England to Egyptian parents, El-Tantawy grew up between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the States. She has no formal training in photography, graduating with dual degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Georgia before completing an MA in Art and Media Practice from the University of Westminster in 2011.
El-Tantawy’s career began in 2002 as a newspaper photographer with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Sarasota Herald-Tribune. She became freelance in 2006.
How much of your focus is geared towards a sense of conjuring this contentious moment in your country’s history and how much is about your story, your private documentary?
The personal narrative is the main driving force – always has been. The book ended when I felt I had nothing else to say about Egypt. It was an abrupt ending that took me by surprise. I thought this work was going to stay with me for many more years. It was at a moment of heightened violence and a sense of polarisation like I had never experienced. This is not the Egypt I set out to explore – certainly not the country I knew from memory. This overwhelming sense of not understanding what was going on paralysed my sensibility to continue to photograph from a place of empathy and clarity. I can’t photograph without these emotions. Sadness was the only likely conclusion.
Many people see the trajectory of events in Egypt as something positive, so they wouldn’t identify with a sad ending. The way the events unfolded heightened my own sense of detachment from my home. This doesn’t mean I will not photograph Egypt anymore; I have other work I am exploring in Egypt that picks up from where this book left off. I’m interested in our collective memory as a people and how quickly we choose to forget because it relieves our sense of responsibility.
Looking at the image of Safeya Sayed Shedeed, who is pictured with a tear trickling onto her cheek, what was her story?
I saw many tears during those days. It was sorrowful but celebratory because it revealed the magnitude of the historical moment at hand and its impact on people. I had to photograph the tears to show how much Tahrir meant to people. In my role as a photographer, my natural instincts are constantly put to the test. I believe crying is a private act, even if it happens in public. I am never comfortable photographing someone crying because I am very much aware of being intrusive. Safeya happened to be sitting on the ground and there was no direct eye contact between us. It didn’t seem too confrontational to photograph her, but of course I was still intruding on her private moment of grief. I spoke to her and understood why she was crying. Police killed her son on January 28, 2011. She was sitting among a small group of women outside the trial for the Minister of Interior, who was being charged on giving orders to shoot protesters.
What did she represent for you?
For me, Safeya’s photograph has come to symbolise the sad legacy of the revolution and the unhealed scars it left behind. As long as those wounds stay open, the revolution is unfinished. People’s lives changed in finite ways and her story has to be told as part of the history of our country to keep our conscious as Egyptians alive.
For your exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, you have created an installation, comprising multiple projections in a blacked-out space, small light-boxes displaying your family photographs and audio of your voice and street sounds. What does this add to the experience of your work?
I view an exhibition as an extension of the work rather than a final destination. I’m excited by the challenge of presenting the same set of images across different platforms – whether it’s a website, a book, a newspaper or within a gallery. Each platform warrants its own curatorial interpretation but more importantly, each platform is an opportunity to explore an innovative way to present the same images differently and perhaps to a different audience. This gives me a new window to re-engage with a body of work I am hugely familiar with.
In Egypt’s case, I have lived with the images for 10 years. I also hope it allows viewers who know the work through the book or have seen it elsewhere, to see it with fresh eyes. The work has to stay alive. I find this immensely inspiring. With this show, I was pretty adamant from the beginning to work in installation form, building across layers of sound and still images. I wanted to work with the space as a manifestation of the experience around making the images – essentially to bring the emotions I felt in Tahrir Square and the ones highlighted in the book to the gallery space: passion, sentimentality, sadness, intensity, fear, chaos and a sense of claustrophobia. In this process I was also interested in sound as a layer of emotion. What does a memory sound like? What do thoughts sound like as they circulate in our heads?
How did you go about the process of creating a new encounter with existing work through Post-Script.
It started out with a series of posts on my Instagram account between 25 January and 11 February, 2016 (the 18 days of Tahrir) to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the revolution. I wanted to celebrate the revolution in my own way. I didn’t want to do this by posting images I had already published, so I looked back into my archives. I have thousands of images. The text was a matter of digging into my memory of those days and placing myself back in those beautiful moments. I am always happy to go back to Tahrir Square, even if it’s just in my head.
I am surprised by these new encounters with the work. I know the images so well and have been talking about the work non-stop for more than a year now since the book was published. I thought I had nothing else to say. So to have new manifestations is exciting for me, but I also realise I have to let it go.
The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2016 runs at The Photographers’ Gallery until 3 July. The winner be announced at a special ceremony on Thursday 2 June. thephotographersgallery.org.uk
1-4. Photographs from In The Shadow of the Pyramids, El-Tantawy, self published edition of 500
5. Post-Script, El-Tantawy, 2016, limited edition of 750