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Imagining Tahrir

[Tamer, mason from Beheira province. Tahrir Square. Photo by Yasser Alwan.] [Tamer, mason from Beheira province. Tahrir Square. Photo by Yasser Alwan.]

I.

Egyptians saw themselves for the first time through their own eyes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January and February 2011, and reveled in that encounter. Participating in and recording that experience was to become part of the consciousness of a community that was ready to move heaven and earth to restructure Egyptian society for the better.

The consciousness was individual in that it established one person’s experience among the crowd, it was moral because recording everything became imperative for a community working so hard to sustain itself and build a new society. And it was collective. No one refused to be in a photograph or a video before the “Battle of the Camel” on 2 February brought infiltrators and thus suspicion into Tahrir. People often sought out the cameras because we felt – as the Salah Jaheen/Abdul Halim song declared every day – that we were part of the same picture, that divisions within Egyptian society mattered less than the ties that bound people together in that community. (To photograph on the streets of Cairo like this before 28 January would have met with a hostile response). That collective consciousness also asserted itself through the internet as individuals and the groups they formed then and there uploaded material to show the world the who, what, why and how of Tahrir, and to motivate fellow Egyptians to come down and join them.

The consciousness of Tahrir intertwined with image, sound and word in a cathartic expression of dizzying proportions. Uneven in focus, low-resolution, super-fast, choppy, and artless to the extreme, ranging from the mundane to the heroic: in that stream-of-consciousness material a powerful sense of wonder and discovery and of being there emerges.

The amount of recorded data is so enormous that all attempts to gather and organize it have failed. This material comes from innumerable and rival sources – for everyone who owned a mobile phone used it to record something of those first eighteen days. In this material – scattered throughout the four corners of the country – lies the collective memory of the revolution.

II.

The center of world events for a short time, Tahrir also captured center stage in the international media. Photographers, journalists and camera crews parachuted in from everywhere. The televised revolution these professionals produced was telegenic. It consisted of 1) a simplified, visually coherent story of easily recognizable good guys and bad guys, 2) courageous, attractive, industrious, and well-spoken protestors, 3) violence turned into spectacle (fighting and bloodshed without any of the pain), and 4) correspondents who take risks to bring you the news. The revolution had a neat beginning and a neat end. End of story. Everyone goes home, except for the locals who are still living through the fallout.

The professional photographers were conspicuous in Tahrir because they usually carried the largest, most sophisticated cameras, and often more than one. They produced those hi-res, sharp, colorful, stop-action images that the world saw almost immediately. They worked hard to play substitute for our eyes.

They came from everywhere. They competed intensely to get the most exciting shots. They sought the best vantage points from above, or from within the action, and they took risks that some demonstrators would not. I met an articulate freelance photographer from Japan who knew nothing about Egypt but knew that Tahrir would get him published. A French camera crew that had just arrived wanted to photograph and interview those bloggers who had already appeared in the French media. They did not have time to look around and explore. Most revealing was that so many of the photographers I met already had a good sense of the photos they hoped to make – as if they were working from a prepared visual script: as if the unfolding of the actual events was secondary. Almost none of them spoke Arabic.

These photojournalists could very well have cared about the protestors and the future of Egypt. The point is entirely irrelevant to their raison d’etre and modus operandi. They are the foot soldiers of the mainstream media – an international system of visual management. News is a bureaucratic process in which the photographer provides raw material for the finished product – a visual façade that shows us day in and day out that the only drama in life stems from the dramatic: revolution, war, famine, natural and man-made disasters, spectacular discoveries and incredible athletic feats.

Technological developments have taken our eyes to the heavens, the depths of the oceans, the heart of matter, and the infra-red and ultra-violet spectra. Even to that oxymoron, night vision. We even see through disembodied cameras. We see more, but less introspectively. We are rarely able to see beyond the precisely controlled façade that surrounds us. The façade has convinced us, through the realism of photographic images, that they are a shortcut to the truth -- and that there is nothing else worth seeing.

III.

Late evening, 28 January 2011, the southern border of Tahrir along the Mugamma: The fighting here continued long into the night, long after I had any energy to give. I did not photograph the clashes, the courage, recklessness and restraint of the demonstrators, the injured and the suffocating. I did not know what I could do with a camera: not yet, perhaps not ever, certainly not during. When I sat down to rest, it dawned on me that my first photos would focus on this Interior Ministry stronghold and hub of bureaucratic coercion. I had been harassed and warned umpteen times by hardcore security personnel that photography was prohibited here – even though I never considered it – over the last twenty years. This would become my very personal revolt in the wider revolution.

In fact, I have been photographing the revolution for twenty years. The daily struggle of the average Egyptian has underpinned my portraiture. Bread! Freedom! Social Justice! The main slogan of the revolution is at the center of that struggle. My portraits in Tahrir are the tip of an iceberg. In them you will not find outright references to political protest precisely because the long revolution unfolds at a pace and in forms that the media are unable to recognize or represent.

My photography suggests (and the revolution confirms) that the Egypt we have been presented with is a preconceived projection – whether in the nineteenth-century photography of Maxime du Camp, through today’s (state-controlled or international) media, or the tourism industry. Photographs merely added an aura of truth to that illusion.

I photograph in order to see for myself, to try to see through the façade, and thus to deepen my own understanding of the world. I rarely leave Egypt to do this because discoveries are just around the corner – if you look carefully, if you elicit photos rather than produce them, if you are willing to interact instead of just observe, and if you are willing to seek and tease out rhythms in life that do not appear as soon as you show up with a camera. My work suggests that there is plenty of drama in daily life, that photographs can depict human encounters based on solidarity, and that they can plumb more than the immediate moment.

Photographing in Tahrir Square was a new challenge. Time compressed and things happened too fast, but since everyone was using a camera, no one was about to arrest me for photographing the Mugamma. With the withdrawal of the security apparatus and the establishment of a community, the taboo against photographing strangers (and anything other than a glossy touristic scene) evaporated and hostility toward photographers disappeared for a while. People were coming toward me for once, people who once would have regarded me with initial suspicion. No matter from what walk of life, Egyptians were proud and wanted to record their newly discovered sense of citizenship. Young men – Egypt’s greatest abandoned human resource – found self-respect not based on swagger and bravado, but on their willingness to protect the square at the cost of their lives. In turn they earned the respect and gratitude of everyone in Tahrir. But all in all, it took me too long to make sense of these changes - I had internalized the taboos, especially that of photographing unrelated women.

The future is collaboration. Across culture, social class, and gender. We all see the Arab world – including most of us who live here – through the occupied territories that the media have made of our eyes. Only together, through an expanded sense of ourselves, by exploring the world that we are all complicit in making and by acknowledging the pain we have caused others, can we create a better world. That was the promise of Tahrir for eighteen amazing days.

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