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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Laura El-Tantawy

120 Responses to “laura el-tantawy – cairo”

  • I wouldn’t be patting Egypt on its back just yet. In fact I’m surprised so many are shouting hosannas when a dictator’s generals are holding the reins. Just doesn’t make sense. I always felt the story lay within the military…

    …don’t know how that would be photographed, though.

  • Take pictures Laura… DO IT FEVERISHLY and DO NOT STOP.
    THIS is a historic moment not just for you but for the rest of the Egyptian people.
    Show us so we would know how it feels:
    Heart bondage when you are walking freely.
    Supposedly walking but with lead-ened feet.
    How does it smell? What do you hear?
    Are you rejoicing because you are free?
    Or are you rejoicing because for once you all feeling together?

    Photograph feverishly so Egypt will remember and will not easily forget.
    How easy it is to forget how to stand together.

  • Laura..

    I’ve been following closely for the past 3 weeks what was happeing in your homeland. Glued to the screen, watching Al Jazeera live stream, reading twitter feeds, blogs, interviews, looking at pictures, all over the net.

    Happy and scared when knowing you were going in the midst of it, understanding your reasons, being a bit aprehensive, especially when hours and days passed by without any news (sorry for having been in your ears asking often, David!)..

    And most happy about the essay you have brought home, the warmest, closest and soulfull pictures I’ve seen of what have happened in Egypt since January, 25th.. and I’ve seen lots of them.

    Thank you!

    And thank you to the Burncrew who has made it possible.

  • Laura…
    Your Cairo essay is soaked in your very personal style and this is quite an achievement knowing the difficulties photographers and journalists have been subjected to in the last couple of weeks. The simplest thing would of been just to go in and take the standard straight shots everyone else has taken up until now. But you have found the nuances, whispers and textures which help your photos stand above the rest and I hope this essay will in time become a turning point/milestone in your career.

  • LAURA,

    You have made the most personal essay I have seen on the events and like Eva said before, I have seen many…. You should feel very proud of being Egyptian today but proud also of the work you have done…. there are few iconic images in your essay. I already mentioned the number 2 of the women face on the side which I love and, I have to say that the last one is an amazing shot as well… well done all around Laura! and congrats for having stayed true to your personal vision!!!!!

    You were there Laura and thanks to you, we almost felt like we were there as well!!!!


  • Laura, this is certainly one of the best essays burn showed.

    These are really personal and great great pictures.
    Seeing the pictures you witnessed makes me have a high respect of the people there and their way to change the future of their country.

    Congratulations for your pictures and for the great things your people achieved so far in Egypt.

    I think everybody here feared for you after we saw the pictures and heared about reporters being attacked.
    Good to know you are well.

  • Laura

    Well done. Congratulations

  • Laura,

    Wonderful work. Well done.

  • Nice to see something a little different, and personal!

  • Laura, you wrote “My name is Laura El-Tantawy and I am a proud Egyptian citizen” and any Egyptian citizen who sees your work will, I’m sure, be proud of you. This is first class photojournalism, showing insight and empathy with your subject. I’m so pleased that the story, so-far at least, has had the hoped-for outcome for the Egyptian people. Of course the story has just begun and Paolo Pellegrin will now document for Burn and for Magnum. Documenting such stories after the press pack have left is what Magnum does so well and I hope you have the opportunity to return and do the same.

    Congratulations Laura, strong, brave work.


  • That first photo, the one of the guy up in the palm tree, congratulations, best photo I’ve seen about Egypt so far. I just went through the 48 photos that Gladdy suggested at the Atlantic (real Atlantic, RIP) and knew nothing after viewing that I didn’t know before, which was pretty much next to nothing. Guy in the palm tree though, that really captures it. For me at least. As I commented in the other thread, in response to David’s mention that he cares more about the truth of feeling vs any kind of literal truth, most of your photos feel like trepidation, like everyone is deathly afraid of what’s going to happen next. Guy in the palm tree though, he doesn’t give a shit what’s going to happen next. He’s going to take the leap into that ole great unknown. And gonna do it with style. That’s the kind of feeling I like to see. Feels true. And I genuinely hope it works out for the Egyptian people, though of course I have my doubts. But fuck a bunch of me and my doubts, eh. Jump off the palm tree, I say. Go for it.

  • L
    dreams and reality…..

  • This is the best documentary work on the revolution in Egypt, for sure! Laura took photos that will exist eternally.

  • It does come out superbly as an essay, though I definitely would not see it as a documentary of the events, and most of the comments do point to that, that this is about feelings, moments of great emotions, and Laura’s personal stake and fire-hot stance in catching her own people in the midst of long-awaited liberation (if it proves to be, too soon to tell).

    Probably, Laura shot during the days too, as this is one remark that comes to my mind? Did you consciously edit the essay to keep only night shots?

  • Morning all – it feels unreal to be back in London after a really intense few days in Cairo. I definitely agree that the work here is more of a series than an actual story. In fact most of my work is like this, with no definite beginning or end. It’s also still unreal thinking Mubarak is gone. The vibe in Cairo is like nothing I have ever seen before. My last couple of days there the conversation was revolving around whether to stay in the square until the rest of the demonstrator’s demands are fulfilled, or if they should go. There was a definite split and it was very interesting to listen to people debate and of course, at times, take part in the debate myself.

    In the end, the spirit in the city, and surely the country, is one of a new beginning. Most people feel a sense of relief the military has taken over and they feel safe. The military will only be there temporarily until a new government is formed (anytime over next six months). Now there is a sense that the air is purer, the spirits are stronger and dreams can actually come true. It is a new Egypt.

    Thanks for all the support you have shown me here on this platform. When I left for Cairo I didn’t have intention of necessarily having my work published and seen by so many people. Thanks for the courtesy you have shown me and for allowing me to share my story ==> L.

  • Laura,

    I felt pain, sorrow, genuine courage, and passion from your essay.

    Thank you very much for your real works.

    And congratulations on the success of Egyptian againt autocracy.

    Kyunghee Lee

  • just fantastic work. i like that it doesnt pummel me over the head with “this is what is happening” pictures. not merely pictures of record, but more personal, narrative work. much like the best reportage in the writing realm (kapuscinski). anyway, more of what we need. in 29 pictures, only a few of people with hands in the air, whereas that’s what everybody else is showing (at least in edits). i can imagine that more is happening there (or was) than people standing around in Tahrir Square with their mouths open and their hands in the air. Yes, for me, you have shown us, perhaps, a more comprehensive (sensory, etc…) “picture” of what happened and is happening there.

    Laura, your quote “most of my work is like this, with no definite beginning or end” I submit, isnt this kind of what life is like? Superb!

  • Congratulations Laura.. really touching your work. Best wishes

  • Hey Laura, sorry I am a bit late to this party…I have had a whole bunch of of things going on down on this side of the world…this is extraordinary work and I am glad that the will of the people has prevailed…on this side of the world it has been a number of months of the will of god which always prevails regardless… A beautiful essay, my particular favourites are the guy in the palm tree and the guy in the tank treads…but I reckon the guy in the palm tree is a WPP winner! Great to see your work here, cheers Lisa

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