Book Review Fire in Cairo By Matthew Connors Reviewed by Adam Bell While aspects of a revolution can be disclosed in iconic images of crowds, dramatic standoffs and confrontations, real political change unfolds over a long period of time and is impossible to reveal in photographs. In January of 2013, Matthew Connors traveled to Egypt to witness the dramatic events in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.
Reviewed by Adam Bell
Fire in Cairo
Photographs by Matthew Connors.
SPBH Editions, London, England, 2015. In English. 130 pp., Lithograph illustrations, 7¾x10".
While aspects of a revolution can be disclosed in iconic images of crowds, dramatic standoffs and confrontations, real political change unfolds over a long period of time and is impossible to reveal in photographs. In January of 2013, Matthew Connors traveled to Egypt to witness the dramatic events in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Arriving two years after the initial protests, occupation of Tahrir Square, and eventual deposition of former President Mubarek, Connors was present during the peak of opposition to then President Muhammad Mori and returned several times leading up to the eventual escalation of protests in June of 2013. Distilled from thousands of photographs, Fire in Cairo is the result of Connors’ time there and an evocative portrait of an unfolding revolution. Using Tahrir Square and the whole of Cairo as a stage, Connors has crafted ambitious and thoughtful book that is at once humanistic, yet also expansive and metaphoric in scope.
Read from right to left, Fire in Cairo mimics a traditional book in Arabic and begins in what most Western readers would consider the back. The book opens with a full-bleed image of a robed cleric and proceeds with a series of paired sequential black-and-white portraits of protestors and a single pair of different policemen. Taken moments apart, some portraits differ subtly, whereas others are nearly identical. The mostly young protestors stare directly into the lens and address the viewer with eyes that are hopeful and determined. Gradually their gaze becomes diverted, masked or veiled, and more visible signs of the conflict appear. The intimacy of the portraits makes way for the chaos and fragmented view of the revolution on the ground.
While the book can be read in either direction, which allows for subtle shifts in the sequential flow and meaning, it proceeds most logically from its front, where one also finds the title page and short story, inspired by Donald Barthelme, by Connors. In another subtle design choice, the images in the book slowly reduce in size as the book progresses. In contrast to the opening series of intimate portraits, the book ends with an image of the night sky, flared with light, and clouded with smoke that resembles a distant nebula. Moving from the ground outwards and then up to the sky we slowly telescope away, through the haze and turmoil of conflict, from the individual faces and drama on the streets to the celestial elements above. Read in reverse, we’re brought back to the ground and reminded of the source and reason for the upheaval.
After the relative calm of the portraits, a palpable tension enters the work. The figures become masked and a sense of anticipation and tension lingers — a fire burns in the darkness, green lasers cut through the night sky, and men hurl teargas canisters, or stand shrouded in smoke. Connors studiously avoids showing direct conflict and instead concentrates on moments before or after the drama like a blood-splattered wheel of a BMW or a torched and graffitied van. As Connors recently noted, the book “swings between the familiar and unfamiliar, and it maintains tensions between beauty and threat and historical consequence — it’s meant to keep you off balance.”* In one interesting sequence about two-thirds through the book, an image of crossed plywood on the ground precedes and echoes the two following upside down images of helicopters circling above. A distinct break in the sequential flow of the book, their meaning is not entirely clear, but its hard not to see it as symbolic not only of the constantly shifting allegiances and positions of the various political factions still vying for power in Egypt, but also our own confusion.
Fire in Cairo has its roots in a previous body of work by Connors, General Assembly, which was shot in Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011-12. It was during this time that Connors met some Egyptians, who had participated in the initial uprisings in Tahrir Square and inspired him to travel to Egypt. Composed entirely of similarly formal black-and-white portraits, the images in General Assembly are both compassionate and revealing and call to mind the poignant portraits of Iraq war protestors by Judith Joy Ross. Holding up signs or standing defiantly, the portraits, like those in Fire in Cairo, give identity to the people involved and defies the urge to dismiss them as faceless radicals. Although Connors expanded the scope of his images in Fire in Cairo, both bodies of work grapple with the nature and visual presence of revolutionary change not only in the participants, but also in the surrounding landscape.
Although the world has largely turned away from Egypt, the ongoing repercussions of the 2011 protests continue to this day. Throughout this time, Tahrir Square has remained an epicenter for the political struggle between the largely secular protestors, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Egyptian military. Mubarek and Morsi are both gone, but now a new strong man, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, is in power. As power shifts back and forth between various factions, the people continue to hope for peace and meaningful change. While none of these factual details are present in Connors’ work, he is nevertheless able to capture the chaotic unease of an unfolding revolution — a revolution where change can quickly turn bloody and frightening, but can also offer moments of surreal beauty and urgent hope.—Adam Bell
* Lucy Davies, “Fire in Cairo” in British Journal of Photography, June 2015, p. 47.
ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer. His work has been widely exhibited, and his writing and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Afterimage, The Art Book Review, The Brooklyn Rail, fototazo, Foam Magazine, Lay Flat, photo-eye and Paper-Journal. His books include The Education of a Photographer and the forthcoming Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts. He is currently on staff and faculty at the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department at the School of Visual Art. (www.adambbell.com and blog.adambbell.com)
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