Photographs by German University in Cairo 2014 Photography Students, text by Yasser Alwan.
After a one-semester introduction to photography, first-year Applied Arts students at the German University in Cairo had three weeks to formulate, carry out, and edit a photography project of their choice. Our students could explore any issue and work in any style. Some of the more successful projects explored personal and social issues, the local environment, and the role photography plays in how we perceive the people and world around us. Students experimented with photography and their digital images were presented “straight” and with post-production manipulation. One project even mimicked the effect of old, color analog photographs.
Mohamed al Banna’s photos are infused with a sense of absence brought on by the death of his grandfather, but there is little sentimentality in these images. His effort to remember becomes a meditation, in fragments, about his grandfather’s habits and sensibilities, and about Mohamed’s memory, which comes to life in his mundane yet charged scenes and recreations. These photos are intimate in the way personal memory is always intimate. Mohamed’s choice to make them appear “vintage” adds another sense of (photographic) presence, that these were prints carried around at times in a trouser pocket. The two sensibilities at play – Mohamed’s and his grandfather’s – made me smile in the way some of William Eggleston’s photos do. Significantly, we never see a photograph of Mohamed’s grandfather in the entire series.
Absence, memory, time are also part of Donia Sallam’s project to photograph the apartment where she spent much of her childhood. With her grandfather suffering from Alzheimer’s and her grandmother no longer alive, Umm Ahmed has become both caregiver and caretaker. Donia’s grandfather, born in 1927, is perhaps a fragment of his former self. We see him through his home, which he can no longer take care of, his tools, which he can no longer use, and the game he taught his granddaughter to play when she was young. He is an absent presence in this project.
Basel Yasser explored the neighborhood of Maadi by bicycle for his series Cairo in Plastic. He wanted to transform Cairo into a “manageable scale model, clean, functional, orderly, planned-out,” quite irreconcilable to what this mega-city of some 20 million people actually is to many of its inhabitants. Like so many Cairenes, Basel lives in but not with Cairo. Knowing that he would use Photoshop to create a tilt-shift perspective, Basel chose the highest vantage points he could find to maximize the tilt-shift effect. Cairo is, literally speaking, a fantastic city, but the cartoonish, caricaturesque sensibility brought about by the selective use of out-of-focus offers another perspective without diminishing its life forms. In Basel’s fantastic recreation, it is the viewer who remains in control in these photos rather than feeling helpless and exposed, the way I do sometimes when I step outside.
Haya Mohamed’s As Like As You Can Stare became a challenging social experiment for her. None of her sitters were convinced by her premise that they shared facial features, and it was those reservations that transformed her project from making straight family portraits into the manipulated combinations above. She photographed siblings and parents with their children – most of whom she knew well – in the belief that their shared characteristics indicated more profound commonalities.
“We are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. Not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.” This quote from American astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson is how Mariam Wael Ibrahim summarizes her series. She chose her sitters – focusing on eye and skin color and hair style – to match images of the planets that she researched on the internet, hoping to express in her photographs what the quote above expresses so eloquently in words.
Dina El-Zeneiny asks a different kind of existential question: “Am I satisfied with who I am? Am I the person I show myself as? What do others see when they look at me?” Are the factors that affect our self-image the consequence of social constraints, personal choices, or a combination? In a society that remains traditional, conservative and skeptical of change, the younger generation confronts issues of self-expression in ways that most of the older generations do not. Dina admits that the polarized characters and their arrangement simplify the issues. Still, for a young photographer with only two months of experience, this is a serious attempt to grapple with issues that sometimes lead to a combination of social isolation and/or existential angst. As a young woman whose awareness is maturing, Dina is trying to reflect a realization that who and what we become is very often not a matter of choice, no matter how much we may think that we are in control of ourselves. To simulate the control (or lack thereof), Dina chose to create her portraits without any digital manipulation whatsoever.
Anan Raafat Yassin describes herself as an introvert but nevertheless chose strangers as her subjects. She photographed women she encountered on the streets of Zamalek and Maadi (two upscale neighborhoods), a nod to her background and comfort zone. Yet nowhere on Cairo’s streets is photography a comfortable venture, especially during this time of intense paranoia and xenophobia when photographers are, by definition, suspect. So Anan’s choice was a personal challenge underpinned by strong nerves, poise, curiosity and a certain faith in people. “It was quite strange to find there the women whom I took pictures of … but this made the process more interesting to me. I became keen to show that there are two sides to the same coin.”
Aly Soliman photographed on the street with a model. He eventually shifted to monochrome after recognizing that color rendered his images as discrete, unconnected units. I interpreted his isolated subject in public space as a commentary on stifling social norms, and the inability of young people to make their voice heard in Egyptian society. They are invisible strangers – albeit the majority – in a society that often does not accept the changes that their generation embodies. Aly revealed that the photos represented a part of his personality. In the past, he was afraid of communicating with others, and he chose to make that fear tangible with the box.
It wasn’t easy for Aly (and his models) to make these photographs in public today. Curious looks and questions were among the more benign responses from onlookers and passersby. Teaching photography at this time in Egypt is particularly challenging. Interest in the field has increased exponentially among young people while there is still no intellectual, commercial, journalistic or even art institution that can deal with this interest in full. So, some young Egyptian photographers are experimenting, while others are busy reinventing the wheel.