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Interview: Laura El-Tantawy

Interview Laura El-Tantawy Nominated for the 2016 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, Laura El-Tantawy’s 2015 self-published book In the Shadow of the Pyramids leaves an indelible impression. On the occasion of her new publication Post-Script, El-Tantawy speaks to photo-eye Bookstore Manager Christopher J Johnson.

Post-ScriptBy Laura El-TantawyRRB Photobook Publishing, 2016.
Nominated for the 2016 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, Laura El-Tantawy’s 2015 self-published book In the Shadow of the Pyramids leaves an indelible impression. El-Tantawy happened to be visiting family in Egypt at the start of the events which eventually brought on the Egyptian Revolution. She spent the next few years extensively photograph the protests in Tahrir Square, eventually pulling her images into the impressive book. Despite her background as a journalist, In the Shadow of the Pyramids is more impressionistic than journalistic, resulting in an atmospheric document of experience. El-Tantawy did not attempt to create a comprehensive summary of events, rather she interwove her personal exploration of identity with that of a country in turmoil, creating a layered record of the protests in Tahrir Square. In his review for photo-eye Blog, Colin Pantall wrote: “The phenomenal thing about El-Tantawy’s book is that she captures this subconscious dream-life of a nation where fear and distrust form the basis of everyday life. She tells the story of Tahrir Square but she also visualizes a way of thinking and how that affects both herself and a people."

The PeopleBy Laura El-TantawyNameless Publishing, 2015.
The book was exceptionally well received, quickly selling out its 500 copy print-run. El-Tantawy followed this up with The People, which presented her work from a different angle, pulling outward from the personal to focus on the individuals who made up the revolution. Designed to resemble an Arabic newspaper, The People beautifully merges journalism and art into a dynamic and moving document.

Just out last week, Post-Script completes the presentation of El-Tantawy’s work from this period of shooting in Egypt. Conceived of as an intimate pocket-sized edition, the accordion fold book combines previously unpublished images with textual reflections on the making of the photographs. Published by RRB Photobook Publishing, Post-Script coincides with an exhibition of El-Tantawy's photographs at The Photographer’s Gallery in London in conjunction with the 2016 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize.

On the occasion of this new publication, photo-eye Bookstore Manager Christopher J Johnson spoke to talk to El-Tantawy about her background in photography, the power of the image in book form verses an image on the wall and where her work is headed.


Christopher J Johnson:     You have a background in journalism and political science. As far as journalism goes, did that involve photography — how to be a photographer for journalism or documentary?

Laura El-Tantawy:     Yeah, absolutely. Basically in my undergrad years at the University of Georgia, I did a double major in journalism and political science, marrying two disciplines that I'm really quite fond of. Politics, which has always been in my life since I was a child, and then journalism, which brought out my love and my passion for writing. Then while I was doing that, the intention was to be a newspaper reporter. That was my goal. Then I did one photography class in my university, and I just fell in love with it and it just took me in that direction. I did three courses but I’m mostly self-taught. I learned a lot working at newspapers. That was the most experience that I got, working in newspapers in the states. Then the rest was just discovery and just going out and doing it.

CJJ:     You say you mostly self-taught, but you do have these degrees. Does that mean that you feel the education you provided for yourself and through work experience was more than the education you received in institutions?

LET:     No. I think the education I received in the institution was so, so important because coming from a background where I knew absolutely nothing about photography, particularly photography and photojournalism specifically, as a way of life and as a profession, that carries a very big weight. The ethics of photojournalism, the ethics of working in the field, the ethics of post production and what you do with an image and what you can and cannot do with an image. I come from that discipline, which I really respect, and I really appreciate that way of working. But then I think there's also merit to just going out and doing it and failing and experimenting and seeing what you can do with your camera, and knowing how far your camera will go and what it won't do, but what it can do. I think that's also a way. I think it's actually quite a balance between both.

from In the Shadow of the Pyramids self-published by Laura El-Tantawy

CJJ:     Given the books that you've put out so far, your focus has been on Egypt. Is this because of your interest in people and your background? I know culturally, you're Egyptian, from Egyptian descent. Is your focus on Egypt for you a personal investigation? "Where do I come from? What is the background of me, Laura?" Or is it something different? Is it something more communal, more cultural, larger than a personal investigation?

LET:     That's a really good question, actually. I honestly think it's a bit of both. The beginning of that journey in 2005 was really, really personal. I went back to Egypt after quitting my newspaper job, and it was right after my maternal grandmother unexpectedly passed away. I just felt at that point I really want to go back home, reconnect with my family, have some sense of stability. It was still early on for me with photography. Can I do photography? Maybe I should try to establish myself as a freelancer here. I had all these questions that are personal, but also quite professional.

In many ways, I felt like I had to prove something photographically to myself and to my family. I had a lot of things going on I think at that point. But the beginning of the journey was very personal. I went back and my grandfather was really ill. The first work I started to do was to photograph him as he was going through that stage. In many ways, photographing my family and how they were coping with it. And then the backdrop to that was the streets, I discovered the streets. I was going out and trying to make pictures and trying to balance my personal emotions of my grandmother's loss, but also how my grandfather was deteriorating. Then looking at the streets as a backdrop to all of that and where I fit in and where all of this fits in.

Then I think later on with the revolution, the project took on that second aspect, that it's actually not just looking at me. It became so much bigger than me, but I think what really became interesting and serendipitous for me was that my own journey for looking for my identity became a parallel journey to an entire country looking for its identity, which is what culminated in 2011. I think where it started and where it's ended is quite interesting. It ties into what you were asking.

The PeopleBy Laura El-TantawyNameless Publishing, 2015.

CJJ:     That's interesting, I actually had that suspicion. I wondered if you were in Egypt as the revolution was occurring – that would be a major shift in perspective for anyone. I think, strangely, of John Reed in the book, Ten Days That Shook the World, when he sees the Soviet revolution. He's a journalist already, but he's just not expecting to be there when that happens. He almost has no sense of the enormity of the event in front of him.

LET:     Yeah, absolutely. The enormity of the event was something that carried a really, really big weight for me. There was always the question of, am I a protester or a photographer? Which role should I play and which role do I want to play at this moment? This was always really a question. Roles were alternating for me. I really I wish I had been a protester more than a photographer in many cases. I wish that I took a larger role in what was happening. You can argue that maybe through photography I was playing that role, but I don't know.

Being with the people and standing with the ranks of the people is something quite different. I think I missed out on that a little bit, particularly the night Mubarak stepped down. I was frantic, trying to make pictures and not really doing anything well.

But the second part of it is that I was really always wondering, am I really photographing the magnitude of this? Are my pictures actually capturing the magnitude of what I'm seeing? This is really history in the making. I don't think I was. I don't think I do. I don't think my pictures carry that weight, but it was always a question there.

CJJ:     Do you feel that way because you've seen many images from the same series of events in Egypt that felt more powerful to you?

LET:     No, not necessarily. I think it's just because of living in the moment and looking around and seeing the depth of the emotion and hearing stories from people saying, "Oh, I came out. I told my parents they may never see me again. I'm going to be here until Mubarak is gone," and seeing people chanting, seeing women fighting the police and seeing men crying, I think seeing these moments were so revealing and so... I don't know. They just changed my perspective on Egypt in so many ways. I was really quite skeptical about the future of Egypt. When the revolution happened, I was like, "Wow. This country's potential is finally coming to surface." I think everybody in Tahrir Square felt that way.

No image can ever capture that. You can capture glimpses of it and impressions of it, but... I'm not going to speak of other people's work, but I argue that my own work, I don't think really captured the magnitude. I don't think it ever can.

from In the Shadow of the Pyramids self-published by Laura El-Tantawy

CJJ:     It sounds like what you're saying is given all of your senses, given standing there amidst the crowd, given the fact that these events happened daily and, like I said before, given the sense of gravity and enormity, that that's untranslatable. I hate to say this actually, but I think through a single image, that is untranslatable. You don't have the heat of the bodies next to you. You don't have all of that congress of voices and sounds in the streets.

LET:     It's interesting because I think it also reflects on photography itself, right? It reflects on the idea of if photography really captures the magnitude of historic moments. I don't know that it does. I know that it can reflect certain elements and certain aspects of what's happening, but can one image really express so much about what's happening? The story of Tahrir Square is really a story of a country that was under the same president for 30 years. People endured torture. People endured having to leave the country. My family, we have a huge diaspora because basically, our family didn't see a future for us in Egypt. A lot of us are living abroad, making a future outside our home. That's not a normal way of living. That discrepancy of home and being away from home, that's not normal. There's a multitude, there's a layered thing of what was happening at Tahrir Square and to capture that in an image, I just don't think it can happen.

CJJ:     I could be totally wrong, but my guess is that because of your background in journalism you feel more powerfully about the book presentation than gallery presentation. Taking single images and showing them in a gallery, what is the effect of that for you? Do you feel that it diminishes the work that you've done or do you feel that it's just a new way of looking at it, that it has its own power?

LET:     Essentially, I think you mean also the presentation of the work as a series rather than single images.

CJJ:     Yeah. Thinking even of sequence, and how can you unfold a story as opposed to present maybe a single image. Does that seem powerful in and of itself?

LET:     I think that's a really good question because actually, even with my photography, when I have to edit to submit for a grant or for whatever, it's really, really difficult for me not to look at the work as a series and as a sequence. I find it really hard when a grant requires five images or three images. I find it really hard looking at the work as isolated images, because I feel like they speak more as a series. There are probably three images in the entire work that I think can stand as single images, but that's because the stories behind them are really, really strong. The visuals are quite strong as well, but also the story behind it is strong.

Post-ScriptBy Laura El-TantawyRRB Photobook Publishing, 2016.

I also look at the work as an experience, particularly when we look at it in the book. I really wanted to create a book that is more of an experience rather than something that is a historic document. I think I wanted to create something that's an experience, that when people are flipping through it, they actually feel something. Because for me, that's actually essentially what photography is about. That's what I wanted to do. I think working in a series, I feel like that comes out more. When the work comes into a gallery, it also takes on a different life because I usually present it in different ways. There's the experience of the book, but I think the experience of the work in a gallery space should also be quite unique and not replicate the book because the book is done in many ways. How do you present it in a gallery space and allow people to engage with it on a very different level?

CJJ:     Now when you say engage with it, do you want them to engage with it as if they are discovering a story, a situation, something like the book but now in a 3D environment on a wall?

LET:     Yeah, and maybe bring in different experiences than what the book is bringing in. For me, when I first started working on the book with the designer, there were basically three or four keywords. I told them, "This is what I want my book to say. I want my book to be sentimental. I want it to express a sense of passion about a country that I'm hugely conflicted about. It's not a happy book. This is going to be a sad book." These were essentially the three words that we were working with as the base when we started the book. I think this also carries through when I try to bring it into a gallery space, but then how do you work within the gallery space to do something different? I try to by maybe printing the images a different sizes and exhibiting them on dark walls, maybe play with the idea of chaos and claustrophobia, which also comes out in the book, as people have told me.

Right now, the exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery includes audio, as well. It's a projection, which is something I've never done. It includes my own voice reading the text in the book along with street sounds from Tahrir. It's a different experience, where I tried to bring in the element of memory and thought. The way a thought sounds in your head is what I tried to create the audio track to sound like. Again, working within that space to translate the work in a different way. This for me is very exciting.

Post-ScriptBy Laura El-TantawyRRB Photobook Publishing, 2016.
CJJ:     I want to ask you a question, because it's something I get asked a lot. What are your thoughts on paring images with text?

LET:     That's a really good question, actually. I rarely work with text to marry it to certain images. I think from the Egypt book, there's one particular bit of text, perhaps the last one, "A Boy Named Contentment," where it's directly related to that image. But text usually for me is its own thing. I write my text separately, sometimes a year or even a few years before even making the images, which is what happened with the Egypt book. I think text and images are different experiences and they should compliment each other, but not repeat each other because it becomes redundant in many ways. In the Egypt book, there were some passages in there towards the end that were describing the images. I think that was really overpowering and too much, because I believe viewers and readers are really, really intelligent. People can see and feel without you having to handhold them through the experience.

I work very separately with my text. My next book, which I'm working on right now, has again little passages of impressionistic texts that I wrote. In some cases they are attached to certain images, but actually they could marry with a number of other images because they're really quite abstract and open in many ways. Does that make any sense?

CJJ:     Yeah. Actually, from the perspective of a journalist, I think that makes a lot of sense. Text is something that comes and stands on its own. Photography sometimes comes along and helps add a visual cue to what that text may be about. Were there books that pair images and text that were inspirations for you, pushed you into wanting to create books?

LET:     That's a good question because actually, I have a very young life as a book creator. Less than a year, maybe. This is fairly new territory for me. I'm just discovering the whole thing. I did look at books before, but mostly what I was looking at as I was considering publishing my book was the structure of a book. What do I want a book to be? Maybe I was looking at text, but not necessarily, more I was looking at the structure of the book, and how does it flow? How are the images laid out? But I think for me, any book that I can describe, and this is not going to be anything specific, is again one that creates more of an experience, rather than really too informative.

I think I've learned also from my book that people don't actually read the texts. The text is there, but most people don't actually read it. They look at the images. Maybe after owning the book, they can look at it after some time and spend some time with it, but most people don't really read texts. They just look at the images, which again, I think is why I think I prefer texts that are really short, like easily digested. Not stuff that's really long. Personally, when I see books with texts that are like two, three pages, I can't read them. I feel suffocated somehow. It doesn't do any justice for the creators, because obviously that took a lot of effort to put that in. But that's just my personal reaction.

Post-ScriptBy Laura El-TantawyRRB Photobook Publishing, 2016.

I just published Post-Script, which is a reflection on Tahrir Square five years on. It's my third publication on the Egypt work. I think it's really done. I can't really do anything else with that work that I haven't done, which is why I'm really excited about my next work, which is called Beyond Here is Nothing. It's a very different work. It picks up from where the Egypt book left off, with this phrase that, "A place that no longer feels like home." The next book takes a very broad, a very impressionistic look at what home is and what home feels like. These emotions that you carry with you in that search for sense of peace and maybe stability, but more a sense of peace and belonging, really. It's a very different book. Again, my parents play a role in it. Yeah, it's a very different book. I think people might hate it. That's okay.

I shouldn't think about that, but I think the challenge after the Egypt book is that there is now an expectation whereas before there was zero expectation for me. I probably shouldn't reflect too much on that. I just want to do stuff that I really believe in and think really adds to what I want to create in books and in photography. I'm really excited about this work.

Post-Script designer Victoria Forrest and Laura El-Tantawy 
putting together the first copies of the book
CJJ:     Is this work transacting in Egypt or is it somewhere else?

LET:     No. It's basically post-Egypt. It's photographed over the last year or maybe two years since Egypt ended. It's actually just from my travels all over the place, and looking for something. I think I've said this recently, that this feeling of not really feeling like I belong in Egypt and not feeling like I belong anywhere else, really, leaves me constantly searching. I just feel like I'm constantly looking for something and I think some of it maybe comes out or these images are reflecting on that feeling.

CJJ:     It seems to me that for you, home might be other people. Being a part of a community or culture, wherever it might be.

LET:     I think it is, actually. I think it very much is attached to that. I think the more friendships I make and the more there is that sense of community, I feel that. That's very interesting, actually. I've never thought about that. I need to make more friends.