African photography is on the rise. Following decades of photographic misrepresentation by observers from outside the continent, African photographers are now showing the world what they see through their lens. This is Africa spotlights them in a series of interviews.
“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 born in the United Kingdom, she identifies more with her Egyptian heritage and focusses her work accordingly.
“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”, Laura 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.”
Laura thinks there has to be a larger goal than something within herself. She has a personal conflict though because she is skeptical about photography’s power to change perception or 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 perspective 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.”
“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 difficulties 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 live there all the time and have to deal with these daily stresses. “Photographically speaking, Egypt is much richer for me than most other places.”
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.”
According to Laura the photograph 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.”
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