“My photography is always evolving. In the past few years my work has been increasingly introspective,” Laura El-Tantawy says. “It’s about timing and the journey I happen to be on in my life at the moment. Generally my work explores social and environmental issues that have some attachment to my own background. I think this will always be the backdrop in my work,” the Egyptian photographer says. Although she was born in the United Kingdom, El-Tantawy identifies more with her Egyptian heritage and focuses her work accordingly.

Expanding

“I almost never photograph what I’m actually looking at. I read, talk to people on the street and feel, so when I’m in any given situation, I am usually photographing the amalgamation of these things. It’s an approach that sides with the idea that photography is not objective. I don’t believe in neutrality in pictures,” El-Tantawy explains.

Her starting point is to inform herself; she cannot relate information if she doesn’t understand it. “In going out on the street and exploring places I would not have been to if not for my camera and meeting people I would not have otherwise come upon, I am expanding my own horizons. This is the starting point. Ultimately I hope when people see the pictures they will relate, understand or, even better, change their perception.”

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Action

El-Tantawy thinks there has to be a larger goal than something within herself. She has a personal conflict, though, because she is sceptical about photography’s power to change perceptions or to get people to take action. “There are some historical instances where pictures did that, but it is rare. This makes me look at photography, and my work particularly, from a narrower point of view.” In that respect it’s also good that she doesn’t live in Egypt full-time, she says. “I can look at things from a distant eye and I find that this gives me clarity and a fresh perspective. I always work on my own long-term projects.”

An Egyptian anti-government demonstrator waves the Egyptian flag as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets of the capital on Friday, February 11, 2011 to celebrate President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak's resignation. People sang and danced on the street, breaking into chants, saying: "The People Have Toppled the Regime".
An Egyptian anti-government demonstrator waves the Egyptian flag as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets of the capital on Friday, February 11, 2011 to celebrate President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. People sang and danced on the street, breaking into chants, saying: “The People Have Toppled the Regime”.

Relevance

“My ideas are inspired by the news, the vibe I am feeling on the streets or something someone said. The starting point is the idea itself and it has to be something that I believe is relevant, visual and I have something to say about. If I see pictures in my head, then I know this is going to be something I can do. Egypt and the African continent are full of life. They are also full of hardship and years of terrible corruption and injustices. This overlap of beauty and hardship is in itself inspiring for me.” She takes her country as it is; disliking the difficulty of everything in Egypt because it’s unnecessary, but again, the fact that she does not live there full-time gives her an advantage over people who do and have to deal with those daily stresses. “Photographically speaking, Egypt is much richer for me than most other places.”

Thousands of women were in Tahrir Square calling for Mohamed Mursi, Egypt's first democratically elected president to step down. On July 3, 2013, the Egyptian military, under the leadership of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, said they would respond to the demand of at least 33 million Egyptians who took to the streets on june 30 demanding Mursi's removal. Mursi was removed from his post in a military statement on July 3, 2013 and officially removed on July 4, 2013 after the head of the country's Supreme Court was sworn in as a temporary president.
Thousands of women were in Tahrir Square calling for Mohamed Mursi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president to step down. On July 3, 2013, the Egyptian military, under the leadership of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, said they would respond to the demand of at least 33 million Egyptians who took to the streets on june 30 demanding Mursi’s removal. Mursi was removed from his post in a military statement on July 3, 2013 and officially removed on July 4, 2013 after the head of the country’s Supreme Court was sworn in as a temporary president.

Conventional

She has a good explanation for the limitations of photography in her home country—a multitude of reasons: “A lot of it is cultural. We are conservative people by nature and I don’t mean religious, I mean character-wise. We are used to protecting ourselves because we grew up in a society where there were always people telling us what to do. We follow rules, follow conventional educational and career paths. So we are taught to conform and all these factors make us a closed-up people. This of course is changing, slowly. I also feel, as a people, we have not moved beyond the perception of photography as something that is done in the studio. So seeing the camera out on the street is a fairly new phenomenon.”

An exhausted looking man sat on the ground in Cairo's central train station in Ramses Square.
An exhausted looking man sat on the ground in Cairo’s central train station in Ramses Square.

Long way

According to El-Tantawy, the photography scene in Egypt is growing. It is geared more towards photojournalism, but the fact it is growing is very positive. “I think it has a very long way to go. You have to educate people that photography is worthy of respect. You can just look at the front pages of any local newspaper and you see how poorly pictures are treated. We are still very much a culture of spoken words.”

Find Laura El-Tantawy on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and on www.lauraeltantawy.com