TALK with Laura El-Tantawy
Gulf Photo Plus
Alserkal Avenue, Unit D36,
Street 8, Al Quoz 1 PO Box 62111
On the 15th of January I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Egyptian photographer, Laura El-Tantawy, hosted by Gulf Photo Plus in conjunction with VII Photo Agency .
About Laura El-Tantawy
El-Tantawy is an Egyptian photographer living between Cairo and London represented by VII Photo Agency as a talented emerging photojournalist. She was born in Worcestershire, England to Egyptian parents and grew up between Saudi Arabia & Egypt. El-Tantawy started her career as a newspaper photographer later moving on to freelance so she could focus on pursuing personal projects.
On the evening, El-Tantawy took the time to share her images and insights from her previous and ongoing projects, which include photo stories on Egyptian identity and also The Veil, which is on exhibit at Gulf Photo Plus until February 18th, 2013.
The free to attend evening was well subscribed. El-Tantawy began by relaying a brief account of how she initially began her studies as a journalist but after one photography class fell in love with photography. Her huge interest in social issues and politics teamed with her personal connection to Egypt led her to work on the project, In the Shadow of the Pyramids. This project is part of work El-Tantawy has been progressing since 2005, to inform a book about her native Egypt. The book will explore the essence of Egyptian identity from the time of Mubarak, the revolution and the country’s looming future.
El-Tantawy talked about images she shot in Tarhir Square, Cairo, Egypt over several days during the revolution and how her aim was to capture the emotions of the Egyptian people, which varied from hope, joy, excitement and fear. She spent time talking with many of the individuals she photographed, asking them their thoughts and personal stories. She relayed some of these stories to us briefly, the personal anecdotes enabling me to connect more with the individuals.
An example being a photograph of a man carrying his young son on his back, amidst the crowds celebrating the resignation of President Mubarak a day earlier.
El-Tantawy spoke to people in the crowds and asked why they had their young children present, the response being, that it was such an important occasion that the children should see it.
Many of the photographs taken in Tahrir Square make use of motion blur and unexpected focus, which, I feel, adds to the feeling of chaos and uncertainty that this period of time must have held. An audience member asked if these were elements of El-Tantawy’s signature style. She argues that if they are, it is not something she is conscious of, preferring to think of her process as psychological and her style as somewhere between photojournalism and fine art.
Following the Tahrir Square project, El-Tantawy began a project titled Casualty. The project focuses on Egyptian woman whose sons, daughters and husbands were killed by police during the revolution. Each pair of images contains a portrait of the woman, paired with a photograph of their dead loved ones. The photographs are accompanied by extracts from interviews, each relaying the story of each family’s loss.
The portraits are mainly low key-images, which create a dark-somber mood, reflecting the project theme. I found the images very powerful and became quite absorbed in the expression and emotions relayed by the women’s words and faces. Possibly, due the high importance attached to any image of the face, particularly the eyes (Freeman, 2007, p82) but also because the women have shared their tragic stories in an attempt to gain some sort of justice for their families. The overall experience of viewing the images and hearing El-Tantawy speak made me feel great sorrow and sadness, emotions that also seemed to be felt by others in the very quiet, but attentive audience.
The Veil– This exhibit shows a selection of 15 of El-Tantawy photographs from her project The Veil. Her aim was to capture images that represent the veil as she remembers from her childhood; something soft, beautiful and completely feminine. El-Tantawy grew up in a family of strong-willed woman many of whom wore a veil, through this project she wanted to dispel misconceptions that portrays the veil as a symbol of oppression
Through The Veil El-Tantawy wants to show that the practice of covering a woman’s hair, and sometimes face, is not restricted only to followers of Islam – from India to the Middle East women have traditionally adorned some form of head cover as a public display of modesty. Also female followers of other faiths have traditionally covered their hair as part of their religious practice, such as with Catholic nuns.
According to El-Tantawy, The Veil can bring women and cultures together – it doesn’t have to divide them.
On first view of the exhibition my initial thoughts were of beauty, colour and blurring. Blur and unsharp-focusing could be seen in many of the images, which made me thing I was seeing only glimpses of the woman.
This feeling was quite strong in the image Varanasi, India, 2010 . The blur suggested activity, direction and energy in the photograph. I also noticed the use of diagonals within the image, which bring dynamism to the photograph. The stairs create diagonal lines when shot from an oblique angle while the figures on the stairway form points, which create an implied diagonal line. The use of colour in this photograph also draws the eye in a diagonal line across the image, while the blur seems to soften the colours making them appear more delicate. The figures in the photograph appear to be heading in the same direction, which makes me wonder where are they going and why the need for such haste?
Several photographs on exhibit had been taken through windows and/or fabric, giving a soft focus effect and adding to the feeling that I was only getting a quick glance of the women pictured. One such photograph that I really enjoyed viewing was Pushkar, India, 2008. El-Tantawy explained that she took the photograph of the woman through a fine red curtain decorated with sunflowers. The flowers now seem as important to the image as the woman’s profile. The overall effect, for me, is softness, beauty, warmth and delicacy. The hustle and bustle of the street scene is all but hidden in the dark shadows to the left of the frame.
Mumbai, India, 2010 makes use of motion blur to show a woman wearing a veil to cover her hair with only the slight suggestion of her out-of-focus profile on view. Her eyelashes, nose and mouth can be seen against the pale-green background light.
A few photograph in this series also show just a glimpse of a woman’s facial features such as Jodhpur, India, 2008 and Kolkata, India, 2010. On contemplating these viewpoints, I wondered if El-Tantawy had chosen them to show respect for the woman’s modesty and privacy or was the angle and cropping intentional to persuade the viewer to pay attention to other elements within the frame.
Präkel (2006, p165) discusses Hoe Culture by Dorothea Lange (a snap shot from Präkel’s book taken with camera phone is below) and notes that the exclusion of the head and subsequent facial features of the figure makes the viewer pay more attention to the clothes and hands. He also suggests that this type of crop makes Hoe Culture not just about the man in the photograph but about the hardship of all migrant workers.
Bearing this in mind, I wondered if El-Tantawy had a similar thought process by showing just a few facial features. Perhaps this draws the viewers’ attention to the colours and fabrics of the veils? Perhaps it also makes the image not just about the individual woman being photographed, instead an interpretation of all the women around the world who wear the veil for various religious, traditional or cultural reasons?
Prior to the evening’s event closure El-Tantawy also spoke about the challenges she has faced in developing her photography and raising funds for projects. Her advice was for budding photographers to seek out and work with a mentor and also to work with crowd-funding sites to raise revenue. El-Tantawy still holds a part-time job out-with her photography.
Overall, I found the opportunity to listen to a photographer explain their work both valuable and of interest. El-Tantawy stressed that while a connection with a subject/theme is helpful for a photographer it is not essential.
However, El-Tantawy’s passion for her work was evident through her enthusiasm and commitment to the projects. When questioned about her photographic style by Michael Freeman in a 2009 interview, El-Tantawy responded, “I will never photograph anything that does not trigger a feeling in me”.
Find more interviews and work by El-Tantawy at www.lauraeltantawy.com
To learn more about VII Photo Agency visit www.viiphoto.com
An interview with El-Tantawy by Michael Freeman http://thefreemanview.com/featured_photographer/laura-el-tantawy/
Freeman, M. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye. Lewes: ILEX
Präkel, D. (2006) Composition. Lausanne: AVA