laura el-tantawy – cairo

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Laura El-Tantawy


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Editors note:
After a week of shooting and updates, this is an edit of Laura’s work…she leaves tomorrow to return to London….this is her final essay.

February 11, 2011

Cairo, Egypt

I was in Tahrir Square when it happened.

Two weeks ago I arrived in Cairo determined to tell a story. I came here to document what I now know is the most significant chapter in my generation’s history as an Egyptian.

Friday February 11, 2011 felt like a normal day in the square.

Crowds slowly filtered in to join the weekly Friday sermon and prayers. The night before had ended in utter devastation as news had spread the Egyptian President would resign his post — a much anticipated cause for joy for the hundreds of thousands (at times estimated in the millions) who had made Liberation Square their home for the past 18 days. But their hopes ended in tears as Mubarak once again asserted his authority and military pride as a former member of the Egyptian armed forces and refused to meet their demands.

I was in the square photographing as I had been for the last few days. I chose to take the square as my focus, trying to highlight the human element and the square as a symbol of a new Egypt. Moments after crowds took part in Maghrib (sunset) prayers, people tuned into their radios, televisions and mobile telephones to listen to a statement from the Presidential Office. Given the chaos of the last few days, it was hard to predict what this statement might unveil. Anything could have happened.

But for the resilient protesters who were determined to have their demands met, they knew it was a matter of days before the regime gave in. For days their chanting had changed from, “The People Demand the Regime Step Down” to “The People Have Already Toppled the Regime.”

In my line of vision, I saw a group of five or six youths silhouetted by the glimmering sunset jump and strike their fists in the air. They said, “We did It! He’s Gone.”

Seconds later the entire square joined in, chanting “Allahuakbar” (God is Great) and “Lift your Head Up high, Your Egyptian”. Their echoes could literally be heard throughout the entire city and surely the country.

I never really grasped the extent of people’s determination to topple the regime. The two weeks I spent in Tahrir Square were an education. The more time I spent there, the more I realized something big was about to happen. Looking at the people sleeping in makeshift tents in the cold, under the rain, eating bread and boiled eggs for days on end showed me a sense of resilience I thought we had long lost as Egyptians. The stories people told, how they had lost their dignity, pride and their dreams during Mubarak’s 30 years of ruling the country.

Friday, February 11, 2011 is a day that will never be forgotten. It’s the day when the people’s persistence for change forced a dictator to step out and let a dream in.

I was there…


February 6, 2011, 3:17 p.m.

Everyone has a story to tell at Tahrir Square.

For nearly two weeks, thousands of protesters have made this former bustling part of the Egyptian capital their home–literally sleeping in makeshift tents on the ground and along the pavement. Some don’t sleep at all, but take turns guarding the roads leading into the square from attacks by pro-government supporters, or hired thugs.

Tahrir (Liberation) Square has become a microcosm of Egyptian society. The protesters here represent all classes of people, from the art world, politicians, engineers, lawyers, bankers, school teachers, government employees, construction workers, plumbers. They all came here to fight for something.

Abdel Rahman Mohamed Atif and his wife, Dalia, cradled their two babies as they walked through the square on a recent morning. Their faces were beaming as their eyes searched around, hearing the booming loudspeaker broadcast anti-Mubarak chants: “The People Demand the Regime Step Down.” They armed cradled their babies higher, lifting them up into the air so they could breathe the spirit of freedom echoing throughout the square.

On the other side of the square sat Ashraf Abdelhami, an Arabic teacher at one of Egypt’s most prestigious universities, the American University in Cairo (AUC). He has been at Tahrir Square since Tuesday January 25th, a day the protesters dubbed the ‘Day of Rage’. On that day, his body was sprayed by bullets fired by the Egyptian police, their traces still bruising his body. “I don’t want Mubarak’s regime. I don’t want the police” Abdelhamid said. “We are suffering and I’m here for freedom,” he added.

Across the other end of Tahrir Square sat a young farmer, Qutb Ali Ibrahim al-Sayes. He traveled from the town of Kafr al-Zayat in western Egypt to support the anti-government demonstrators. He said he was there “…for the freedom of my children.”

There are many more stories on Tahrir Square. I have seen many people weeping in the last few days and heard heartbreaking stories from people I have never met before. Protesters here vow not to leave the square until Mubarak has stepped down, seeing him as a symbol of a chain of corruption that has plagued the country for generations to come.


February 3, 2011.

My name is Laura El-Tantawy and I am an Egyptian citizen.

Twelve years ago my life changed dramatically. I still remember the day—the exact moment. It was just after sunrise had ushered in a new morning. I stood under Cairo International Airport’s flickering fluorescent lights, my heart pounding ahead of what was about to happen.

I knew my life was about to change forever.

My whole family surrounded me. My weeping mother and worried father. My ailing grandmother—my uncle, aunts, sisters, cousins. I will never forget the moment my mother and father had to let go of my hand. Their eyes holding back a silent pool of tears.

That was my reality.

This is not just my story. I am merely one of thousands, if not millions, who had to leave Egypt to pursue a better life. My family and I have endured a diaspora that has affected many Egyptian families who had to be broken apart in pursuit of a better education, better career, better treatment and ultimately a better future.

I have now lived away from Egypt for more than a decade but my heart has always been here and I know it will forever stay here. I am 30-years-old and Mubarak is the only President I have ever known. In his years of ruling this country I have seen so much injustice happen to the people. Many times I wondered how the human spirit can be so mean—so corrupt. I have wondered how the obvious sadness I saw in people’s eyes could go unnoticed by the government. I wondered how the Egyptian people were so put down socially, economically and politically that their defeated spirit had lost the natural ability to dream.

I do not represent all Egyptians but my opinion is certainly shared by many. When people took to the streets more than a week ago I felt like I had to be among them. This was my story: my present, past and future. This is the story of my generation of young Egyptians who have felt like foreigners in our own land.

Today I stood in Tahrir (Liberation) Square where a unique spirit echoed throughout every corner. I saw men and women weeping: “We are loosing our country,” they muttered. I saw men bleeding, saying they would rather die on Tahrir Square than have Mubarak remain in power. Today I saw Egyptians beating each other, saying they will kill one another. Today I saw an Egypt split apart by political turmoil.

I stood bewildered and confused. This is not the Egypt I know. The Egypt I knew screamed in silence but today people screamed at the top of their lungs. I was torn between photographer and protester. I wanted to scream and at moments cry. I wanted to hug people and thank them for their courage. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs with them.

Today I stood in Liberation Square and for the first time in my life I said: My name is Laura El-Tantawy and I am a proud Egyptian citizen.


Laura El-Tantawy is an Egyptian photojournalist and artist based in London, UK. She studied journalism & political science at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia (USA) & started her career as a newspaper photographer with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Sarasota Herald-Tribune (USA). She became a freelance in 2006 and has since exclusively worked on self-initiated projects. Her work has been been published & exhibited in the US, Europe, Asia & the Middle East. Laura lives between the UK, her country of birth, and Egypt, where she associates most of her childhood memories.

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120 Responses to “laura el-tantawy – cairo”

  • a civilian-mass audience

    The god abandons Antony

    When at the hour of midnight
    an invisible choir is suddenly heard passing
    with exquisite music, with voices ―
    Do not lament your fortune that at last subsides,
    your life’s work that has failed, your schemes that have proved illusions.
    But like a man prepared, like a brave man,
    bid farewell to her, to Alexandria who is departing.
    Above all, do not delude yourself, do not say that it is a dream,
    that your ear was mistaken.
    Do not condescend to such empty hopes.
    Like a man for long prepared, like a brave man,
    like the man who was worthy of such a city,
    go to the window firmly,
    and listen with emotion
    but not with the prayers and complaints of the coward
    listen to the notes, to the exquisite instruments of the mystic choir,
    and bid farewell to her, to Alexandria whom you are losing.


  • Safety? Is it the same for tourists, strangers, and the natives? I know I never felt as secure in Beijing, police in every corner.. does that make for a true safety?

    I do know it’s different to be a Naples native and going out by night vs. being a tourist.. Egypt lives from tourism, not really a point in scaring them off, no?

    Plus we are looking at this from our angle, of course.. that is why reports from native journalists, people like Laura here, are so important, they come from a different angle, from one that knows things from the inside, who can understand the nuances better..

  • If what Walter Rothwell relates about the camel charge being unrelated to regime thugs, that’s yet another demonstration of how nearly hopeless and often counterproductive it is for journalists to parachute into a foreign situation and provide accurate and meaningful(in a good way), information.

    Of course I’d like to be there and get photos of a camel charge, but in that situation the caption is everything and if it tells us that regime thugs charge crowd when it’ actually pissed off tour guides, those photos are worse than useless. The former is a simple, ultimately false story that a lot of people want to hear. The other is a complex, complicated narrative that fits neatly in nobody’s facile propaganda.

  • The safest places are those with the best combination of economic security and a professional police force. I live deep in Brooklyn, NYC and can safely walk around any hour of the day or night. If I look out the window at 3 am, I’ll likely see some single young woman walking either home or to the subway and she is in little danger as well. That’s not true a kilometer or two down the road where unemployment runs high and opportunity is scant.

  • Like Bob Black said, referring to Laura’s work, “the fever and richness of its intellect, passion, and insight.” Right on.

  • I am always surprised to see that when upheaval arrives in a country, expats, whom many profess to love that country, leave it in a rush. rats leaving the ship?…. I suppose some crossed by Laura on the way to the departure terminal, and her direction showed where real love stands.

    On some of the comments above:

    1)Burma is the safest place I ever walked thru, for some of the reasons David mentions about Cairo, no doubt.

    2) mw: “It’s meant to suggest that plenty of non-whites (and females) still suffer from racism and oppression”.
    Apparently not enough that people end up on the street (other than rampaging their own neighborood, citing Panos’s LA example) to ask for the removal of the oppressive regime. food for thought….

  • Herve, true…when “local-neighborhood- anesthesia” is not working then we have looting and some confuse it with the revolution..
    i might be one of those.:(

  • WOW!!!!!! simply fantastic. Love the energy these photographs have, as though you are really there.


    Just to underline what I had been talking about earlier: Quote from above piece,“Limbaugh has spent the last two years railing against “tyranny” and “fascism,” and when confronted with it, in one of its purest possible manifestations, he can’t take it seriously, because he has no idea what either of those things actually are.”

  • Many of us are aware that Laura is a superb and courageous photographer, yet if I may, I hope for pictures that show a bit of “behind the scenes” psychology (even away from Tahrir square) which would attempt to set the events as clearly an egyptian moment, more than street mayhem ones, which are often generic of such events anywhere in the world. I must say for that reason, the one with the man returning a quizzical look at Laura gets my suffrage. It does makes us reflect, not just react. Thank you, Laura.

  • I see now the photo is part of a video, too bad I do not have a connection with the speed allowing to watch videos. Great image, nonetheless.

  • a civilian-mass audience

    Mostly True…KENJ…
    and welcome aboard as my BURNIANS would say…

    LAURA…you are out There…Inside…Outside…
    may the spirits of safety and strength be with you … with All of you…!!!

    back to my aisle…

  • Laura… great work! Very unique.. because of your personal relation with the subject and because of your talent! Stay safe, please!

  • Hello all – please accept my apologies for coming in late on all the comments here. I have hardly been on the internet while here and the bit of online access i do is through my phone.

    I would really like to thank all of you for your wonderful, encouraging comments. Obviously what’s happening in Egypt is a very important story for me and I have been frustrated at times because I forget I am a photographer and spend many moments admiring and breathing in the energy and the spirit of Tahrir Square. I am glad the pictures somehow resonated with you and I hope I can continue to do so.

    I will come back to specific comments as some of them raise really interesting issues, but now I must upload pictures, write text and go out take pictures.

    Hugs all around ==> Laura.

  • LAURA,

    I have to say that I very much enjoy seeing how your visual story/reporting of the event is developing…. I absolutely love 2 of the last 3 images that David has added… the ones at night…. the one in particular with the side face of the woman is a truly beautiful pic…. What I find remarkable is that you are shooting this event with your own very specific eye and photographic style… this story is of course a story that we see all over the news but you offer your own interpretation, different that what we see everywhere else…. Keep going Laura….we are all eagerly waiting for your next pics hoping that the situation develops in a positive way for the Egpytians and that while shooting you stay safe!!!!


  • ERIC…

    yes, this is what of course i knew Laura would do…she has a journalists sensibility but sees with an interpretive eye as few can do…i just wish we had some tech way of alerting when new pics come up, because i think few readers know when new work is posted…we will re-package on monday or tuesday…anton has been on the move and not able to fix all of this the way only anton can fix…so it is a bit hodge podge at the moment with anna and i doing it all ..but at least it is up….

    cheers, david

  • Laura

    Live and breath first, the photographs will take themselves.

    I agree with Eric about the photograph with the beautiful profile of the young woman. It absolutely stopped me in my tracks.

    The profile itself appears almost as a bas-relief, an echo of Egyptian profile art. The features are classicaly Egyptian. It reminded me instantly of images I’ve seen depicting Nefertiti. The lighting pattern on her face, is a pure classic “Rembrandt” pattern, a favourite for studio shot profiles, with the main light skimming the eye on the shadow side, and a perfect triangular highlight on the cheek below the eye.

    This beauty is in brutal contrast to the chaotic scene behind, the woman nevertheless moves determinedly forward.

    This is an iconic image.


    Laura just picked up a small but very significant sponsorship…a model for us in the future…we will take the so called audience funding to a new level..whenever possible..anyway, Laura who is shooting exclusively for Burn will at least be compensated….this will create a whole new aura and arena for Laura and for us here at the magazine…and maybe we can use the same model for books…anyway, baby steps….cool Laura!!

    cheers, david

  • Laura.. thank you, for the photographs, but also for the words.. this is what I was hoping for, glimpses of life from the people there, the story from the inside.

    Needless to repeat you please be careful!

  • laura–

    powerful work from a full courageous heart.
    so proud of you.
    be careful, hun.

    yes, the woman in profile… stunning.

  • Laura,

    A very fine example of showing us what you feel rather than simply what you see.
    It is amazing to see your vision unfold and great to see you have support.
    All good things.

  • DAVID,

    This is great news for Laura! I am very happy for her and I hope this extra help will enable her to stay there and carry on with the story… Laura is such a talented and strong person…. This support is so deserved!!!! I sense she could be up to something very very special… When great vision is matched with very moving words from someone intimately involved with the story, this is a unique combo….



    PS: LAURA, I keep coming back to this woman in profile!!! this is THE one for me!!!!!! That is the photograph I would like :):):)


    I must thank you first of all for your courage. Not only did you dare to go into Tahrir Square with a camera when attacks on and arrests of journalists had become all too common, but you did more, much more, than just take pictures: you talked to people with such fearless compassion that they opened their hearts to you. Because your heart was breaking open, so does mine as I look at your photos and read your words.

    You offer the most powerful view I have yet seen into what is really going on in Egypt today. Your photos are so personal and beautifully shot that I feel I am there. The heartfelt connection you have with your people shows in every image, especially, as has been noted before, the one featuring the profile of the woman’s face. It feels like a self portrait, although it probably isn’t. And the feelings you express in words give a depth and poignancy to events that can sometimes seem too distant to be understood by those of us who live half a world away.

    Laura, whatever you do, please stay safe.


    I thank you for assigning this story to Laura and then finding a sponsor so she will be properly paid. I just hope she can stay and show us how these next days and weeks will unfold. It is all about the people and Laura El-Tantawy is the perfct person for the job. Burn is flaming today…



    Powerful and emotional work.

    I can feel your heartbeat in every frame.

    This is developing into an excellent series…

    Very Well Done!



    thank you for your comment..and welcome back to Burn…Laura and you are two of the strongest forces i know….so pleased you are both here sharing this space right now

    cheers, david

  • Laura,

    This work is amazing…the photo of the woman in profile, and the man sleeping in the treads of the track just took away my breath. While other photographers there are showing us the chaos and the riots, yoru images are bringing a personal, layered, contextual view – as david predicticed you would.

    Many thanks for showing me – us – this…and prayers go out to you to be safe, and to continue this valuable observation…

    You are a shining example of good light in a challenging place….

  • Laura, you rock, big time! Just seen the latest additions..

  • Glad to see another update today..

  • These are some of the most unique and effective photos I have seen of the Cairo uprisings, bar none. I hope more of this kind of reportage is able to be funded and that Burn is blazing the way for it. While the work in the MSM is good, well, I find the edits a bit sterile and “safe.” I say edits, because if you were to go into the Magnum archives and look at Alex Majoli’s full take from Tunisia, I think you might be surprised at what you see there versus what was published.

    All of this is just to say, great job Burn and, especially, Laura…


    i am only speaking for myself of course and just a small part of your compliment and sometimes i am embarrassed to take a compliment, but not this time…this particular sequence of events and the matching of Laura to this story and having it all happen on Burn, will indeed be a significant milestone i think in the development of content on the web and how it might get financed….of course the beauty of it for me was just good old fashioned seat of the pants flying…….i think i can do the same for others …..thank you for your comment…

    no doubt Laura feels the same, but we will let her answer in her own eloquent way….

    cheers, david

  • LAURA,

    Another big night tonight on Tahrir square…. thinking of you…. hope all is well and that Mubarak will announce his resignation…. Hope you are still there and capturing what will happen tonight!!!!

    Keep us posted.


  • DAH

    “will indeed be a significant milestone i think in the development of content on the web and how it might get financed”

    i so hope so. ive been freelancing now for 9 years and while it has always been difficult just to get an assignment (nearly impossible for me now, despite awards, cover shots, front page pictures and numerous double trucks) being able to publish work with a voice has been even more not alone in this, i know. and at any rate, that is why Laura’s work is really shining like a beacon for me here. And sometimes the people in the MSM need an example like what Burn is doing here in order to show them that, yes, people do want to see work with a voice and, yes, it is effective, and yes, you can come out of your comfort zone….

    and of course one last thing in light of Mubarak’s latest speech. Laura and everyone out there in Cairo, take care…


    just went to your website now ..i just had no time before……you have some very interesting work indeed… please send us some for publication here…we will treat you right…..

  • DAH

    thanks. ive actually submitted like six different stories….maybe there is a glitch somewhere. i would love to submit again!



  • Hoping to see more of Laura´s work especially last night. It´s funny because I have practically given up on viewing television… sometimes the odd film and no news at all. Anyway always been a bookworm! So thanks to Burn I have sort of kept up with current foreign news!

  • Breaking News Alert
    The New York Times
    Fri, February 11, 2011 — 8:57 AM ET

    Mubarak Leaves Cairo as Military Asserts Control

    The Egyptian military appeared to assert its leadership
    Friday amid growing indications that President Hosni Mubarak
    was yielding all power. A Western diplomat said that Mr.
    Mubarak had left the capital.

    As protesters were swarming into the streets Friday morning
    for what was expected to be the biggest and most volatile
    demonstrations in the three-week revolt here, the Supreme
    Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces issued a statement over
    state television and radio indicating that the military, not
    Mr. Mubarak, was in effective control of the country. It was
    unclear whether the military would take meaningful steps
    toward democracy or begin a military dictatorship.

    Western diplomats said that officials of the Egyptian
    government were scrambling to assure that a muddled speech
    Mr. Mubarak made on Thursday night that enraged protesters
    had in fact signaled his irrevocable handover of presidential

    Read More:

  • Thank you for these images, Laura. Stay safe.

  • Just coming across news channels: Mubarak resigned as president and handed control to the military on Friday after 29 years in power, bowing to a historic 18-day wave of pro-democracy demonstrations by hundreds of thousands.

  • It’s incredible to watch and listen.. they really did it!

    “This is the beginning, not the end, it is the beginning of the new Egypt”

  • Yes, Mubarak finally resign, Mubarak is history!! Laura, stay safe! Next days will be awesome and overhelming for Egyptians after 30 years of military power. History in the making.
    Shoot deeply from your (egyptian) heart as a photographer… hope to see THAT kind of images from you soon here in burn.

    As George Orwell said : “Rebellion is in the masses”

    LIVE Stream:


  • Bravo Egypt!!
    Obviously this is just the begining of a couple very delicate days…but the people have managed it.
    I wonder if the CIA have got their fingers crossed hoping the next middle east country could be Iran.

  • Next days will be awesome and overhelming for Egyptians after 30 years of military power.
    Much to be happy about but the military is still in power. If I understood what was said about the Egyptian constitution, elections must take place no later than 60 days after the presidency is left vacant.
    Awaiting the next photos from Laura about this historic day.

  • That was the easy part now comes that hard slog many will have their long knives out watching.

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