Burn has just contributed $2,000. to the crowd funding effort for Laura to photograph her homeland, Egypt. This funding for Laura comes from you. From your generous contributions to Burn and by purchasing our books. This is our pay back/ pay forward. We will be doing more assignment work with photographers of all kinds, cooperating with organizations like www.emphas.is and doing some on our own. One way or another we will do our part to get photographers working on projects of significant importance. Either in journalism or in art.
Our big push in 2012 will be to only be publishing original work done specifically for Burn. As we just did with much of the work now in Burn02. Burn readers will have the first look at Laura’s new Egypt work. Both Laura and all of us at Burn thank you for your support.
Below is an unedited skype call with Laura:
DAH: Well Laura, we’ve known each other for a long time and I know your Egypt work. We are anxious to get involved with you on some new Egypt work. I think the readers of BURN already know a little bit about you – they’ve seen your Cairo work during the revolution, you were an EPF finalist, and they know you from the India farmers suicide project – basically they’ve seen some of your Egypt work in general, so tell us what you’re getting ready to do if your funding comes through for Emphas.is? What do you want to do this time?
LET: The main reason for the funding is that I want to go on a one-year trip across the country. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do – just for my own self and I think this is the best time to do it to get a sense of what’s happening in the country in terms of everything, the way people are thinking, the way the country is looking. I think it’s that phase where there is that transition happening right now and some people are thinking…they are still coping with that, what just happened with that change and has that change filtered into anything real that people can sense in their day-to-day lives and compare it to what it was before?
DAH: When you’re looking at Egypt, are you driven more by current events or are you driven more by the overall history and culture of Egypt in general – or some combination?
LET: The overall culture and history is mostly what I’m interested in precisely because I feel like Egypt has always been..you know every photo book that I have seen about Egypt has generally been about the Ancient Egyptians and the Pharaohs, the whole archeological aspect. We rarely really see anything about modern Egypt –what people look like and what life is like in Egypt. That’s what has always intrigued me from the beginning about Egypt: I want to show that aspect to counterbalance that exotic image that we have because it’s not all exotic, that’s in our history but now it’s a different reality. Of course with the current events, well you know, I think all current events happening right now are important, but for me, the ones that are really important are like the elections, because these are decisive and they’re really going to affect what’s going to happen next. Something like the Mubarak trial, which is happening right now, while I’m in Egypt, if those hearings are happening, I’ll definitely go and stay outside the courtroom to get those pictures, because that’s part of the story. Regardless of what people are saying that the hearings maybe staged or whatever, I think it’s historic to see these people, who were realistically owning and running the country, behind bars.
DAH: well, if you were looking down the line and I know you have mentioned this to me before, but maybe our audience doesn’t know about it in general, I know that you have looked towards doing a book on Egypt, is that right?
DAH: The only thing I am thinking is that let’s say three or four years from now when hopefully your book will still be sitting on everybody’s coffee table around the world, how important are the current events that are happening now going to be in a book that’s sitting on a coffee table three or four years from now?
LET: It’s a good question. I think it’s all part of the history. When we look at it at that moment it’s kind of like a historical document and it’s not just the current events, but really any picture in that book because everything is changing everyday and I think any picture in that book at that moment is going to be part of the history. I think particularly those current events, like the trial of Mubarak the former President of the country for 30 years, I think it’s going to gain more relevance and importance then than it even has now, in my opinion. That’s why I wanted to go to Egypt during the revolution anyways, it was because it was important for my own history and I think that is something that I’m feeling obviously a lot more with this work than the other stuff I do because it is about me – it is about how I feel and how I feel about the country and where the country is going and the kind of memories that it brings back to me. It’s about my childhood, my future, you know, my current time. Everything.
DAH: As an outside observer looking at your work I find you to be a very lyrical photographer – you’re a very artistic image maker and at the same time I have seen you take on news events, like the revolution in Cairo, and you’ve done a brilliant job with that as well. It will be interesting for me to see which way you lean in terms of a book on Egypt – whether you lean more towards events or whether you lean more towards everyday life. What do you think?
LET: Well, I’m not going to concentrate on current events all the time, you know what I mean? I started the work in 2005 and when I started the work in 2005 it was about everyday life, mostly from a street perspective. I think what I really want to do more now is actually gain more access to people’s homes and look beyond the streets. I think the streets are extremely important because I feel like for me, the sense that I got about Egypt in terms of the turbulence, the isolation of the people and that something was about to happen – I got that from the streets. It was catalyzed by conversations I was having with my family and my friends about the situation behind doors, but the streets can give you a very good sense of what’s happening in the country. It’s the body language and everything about the people – I mean people were walking on the street talking to themselves, literally. But I don’t know. If you are talking about current events like a 50/50 balance between current events and day-to-day life, then it’s hard to say now, but knowing myself it’s going to be like 20 percent current events and the rest daily life because for me that’s what is more interesting anyways.
DAH: Well, I can’t project my feelings about your work onto what you’re getting ready to do, but if I were going to sit down and appreciate a book on Egypt by Laura El-Tantawy, I would be thinking more of everyday life rather than current events because it takes one hell of a current event picture to last more than a few days or a few weeks at least, so…
LET: To be honest with you, I don’t necessarily feel I’m really a current events photographer – like from a news perspective, I’m not sure I am somebody you can put where a current event is happening and really get one picture that tells the story. I don’t think I’m like that and I don’t really feel like I do that very well, maybe it’s a weakness, maybe it’s not, I don’t know, but I’m not really a current events photographer.
DAH: well, I think you handled the Cairo revolution very, very well. I think you did do very well with current events and you got certain kinds of current event pictures that nobody else got, so I think you can do it and I think there are some current event pictures that you have in that take that lift way beyond the current event. You know my favorite of the guy in the palm tree – you say he’s not really in the palm tree, but it looks like he’s in the palm tree, the guy standing up on top of a statue I guess is what it is with the palm tree in the background – that’s a symbolic picture that was taken at a current event but could be good anytime.
LET: yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what you mean.
DAH: No, I don’t think of you as a current events photographer either, I look at you as better than a current events photographer in the sense that I think you are able to interpret the everyday life in a very special way, and so that’s probably what I would look for if I were going to buy a Laura El-Tantawy book.
LET: well, I hope I can keep that up! Actually, one of the things I should add is that I am going to also be shooting video this time. I started to do some experimenting with video when I was in Tahrir and that was actually fun and I think it added a different dimension for me. So I’m going to try to be doing that as I travel around the country.
DAH: Do you think that you’ll be able to concentrate on your normal style of photography and be able to do video simultaneously?
LET: I think in this particular situation, yes, I mean hopefully. It’s hard to say when you’re not in the situation and just projecting what’s going to happen, but I think yes – yes, even more than in Tahrir because in Tahrir you were bombarded by stuff around you the whole time and eventually it became a question of should I use my phone (I was taking video on my phone because it was the only thing I had at the time), but I was like, should I do this or should I be taking a picture? It was really a conflict at that moment, but I think on a long one-year journey like that, I’m going to have more time to reflect and think. There’s definitely more time to think about it.
DAH: That will be interesting to see how you handle that because I’m not so sure about that because you know how it is, it never seems like every picture situation seems like, OK, you’re going to have to work on this now, there doesn’t ever seem to be like long periods of time for one to reflect on things – usually you have to make a decision very quickly whether you’re going to go one way or the other…
LET: yes, but I think you are thinking of taking a video of the same situation that you’re photographing, whereas I’m thinking that the video is going to be something to compliment the pictures but not repeat them. So the video is going to be of different things that I am not really inclined to photograph, you know what I mean? I would like to really use both platforms to compliment each other rather than, OK, this is a video of the same situation that I photographed, so in that way I see more of a balance.
DAH: Yeah, well, it’s obviously the trend, it’s what more and more people are trying to do and you’re in a new, younger generation than am I, and I think that is definitely the trend. I’m still very curious to see how that’s going to work out. I haven’t seen very many good examples of where people have been able to do both No doubt I have missed some great work out there..
LET: you’re shooting video at the moment, right? I thought you said you were
DAH: No, I’m not shooting video
LET: Ah, I thought you said at some point you were
DAH: No, I haven’t…for me, shooting video and shooting stills on the same subject would be, I think, very difficult unless I took two weeks off and just did video and then, I would probably think, oh my goodness, I wish I had a still of that situation, or the other way around. No if I’m doing video and stills I’m going to have somebody else who is doing the video just because for me it’s too big of a jump to go back and forth from one to the other. But again, as I said, you’re from a different generation and I think a lot of young photographers, just like you, are combining those two things, but I just haven’t seen great examples of that – I’ve seen people do it, but I’m always frustrated by 99 percent of what I see. Just when I’m starting to watch a video it turns back to stills and just when I get into the stills, it all of a sudden turns into a video and for me, most of the time it’s annoying, but I would love to see somebody do it right. So I’m hoping you can be that person.
LET: Well, yeah, we’ll see. It’s a one-year journey so there will be time to think about stuff. We’ll see how it goes.
DAH: Well, you’re a brilliant still photographer and I think you could do the whole thing with stills, but as I said, there’s so many people doing the video and so many people that are trying to do the video, that I think somewhere along the line somebody’s going to come up with a really interesting way of putting the two things together. But you do see a lot of it that it’s done because they can do it, rather than they should have done it.
LET: yeah, I know what you mean.
DAH: In any case Laura it’s going to be fascinating to see what you do with this. You obviously need some more funding somewhere along the line to spend a whole year in Egypt, this will just get you started and we’re happy that we can be a part of this – we were happy to be a small part of your Cairo revolution photography, where I think you really did show a very special vision of that revolution that was different from what a lot of news photographers did, and I have every confidence that you’re going to be able to do the same thing in the whole country.
LET: Thank you very much. You know, I’m wondering – just putting it out there – as a BURN reader I would be curious to know how I can get a project that is up on Emphas.is part funded by BURN?
DAH: That’s a very good question and yes, I think you will be the first one that we’ve sponsored through Emphas.is, but we got a little bit of sponsorship money for you last time, as you remember as well – somebody just saw what you were shooting in BURN and they gave you some money. But then we started thinking, wait a minute, you might be able to do much better if it’s crowd funded on Emphas.is and they can raise more money so that you could do more work and if we can a big piece of that, then we can publish more pictures of yours. So we thought that this might be the best way to go, so it’s a little bit of an experiment on our part but we like the Emphas.is people and I think, yeah, we will entertain suggestions from everybody. One thing that you don’t know is that we are changing a little bit the way that we are going to work with photographers in the future. We’re going to work a little bit more like other magazines have always worked, where we will get to know the photographers a little bit better than just having them submit work and then us reconfiguring a few pictures – we’re going to really look at their websites, really look at them and their personalities and think in terms of having at least a little bit of a cadre of photographers that work for us on a pretty regular basis. I mean you know, we can’t have a staff, we can’t have contracts or anything like that, but we can have a few photographers who we like, who like us, and we can develop a little bit of a relationship for the future in terms of working on specific projects. So I think, we’re going to be doing more portfolio reviews as a group and we’re going to be studying photographers more and spending a lot of time with them and working a little more with other people in the same way that we’ve worked with you, actually.
LET: Yeah, I think that would be great. I think a lot of people would be interested in that.
DAH: I think so, I mean we’ll see how it goes. Again, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. We’ve been extremely successful with BURN02 as we were with BURN01 and so that would sort of spin your head around a little bit because we’re selling books at a phenomenal rate – I mean we’re selling 30 of those a day, so it’s a rather amazing thing. But just because you can do that doesn’t mean that you should do that, so that’s what we’re trying to figure out, how we manage our own personal careers and how we also help to manage other people’s careers. Yeah, we’re really kind of into career management kind of a thing with BURN, as much as, you know, putting out a book and a magazine. We’re interested in the photographers and who they are and what they want to do. We want to make it as personalized as we possibly can, which is what we’ve actually always done, we just want to even make it more so. Sorry , I digress. My enthusiasm gets carried away sometimes…
DAH: Just one other question for you, Laura. Explain to the readers one more time, you are of an Egyptian nationality and yet you have lived about 75 or 80 percent of your life away from Egypt. How does that affect you working in Egypt – do Egyptians know that you haven’t spent your whole life there? Does that have a positive effect or a negative effect? How does that affect you and how does that affect the people that you’re photographing?
LET: This is a tough one for me even to look at, to be honest with you. I don’t know – I mean when I’m in Egypt sometimes people don’t think I’m Egyptian and yet I tell them I am Egyptian and I speak to them in Arabic and their like, yeah, whatever, you’re not Egyptian. You know, I really don’t know what to make of that, to be honest with you. It’s totally confusing, even for me. I do feel that obviously I have changed a lot as a person and the way I think about stuff. I feel like I am Egyptian heritage wise, but whether the fact that I have lived abroad is a good thing or a negative thing when it comes to photographing Egypt, I don’t know. It makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, to be honest….
DAH: How do they know? Can they just tell by the way that you dress? The way you act?
LET: yeah, maybe the way you act, the way you dress, that kind of thing. I don’t really know what it is. In Egypt you see all kinds of people, so I don’t think it’s particularly that, but people know, or maybe it’s just the kind of places I hang out. I like to go to an area in Old Cairo where a lot of tourists hang out, but that’s just because it’s really beautiful and I feel it’s really Egyptian in a way, so maybe because their used to seeing tourists, they think I am a tourist as well. I’m really not sure what it is. But basically my point is, whether me living abroad as an Egyptian for so long and coming back to photograph, I think a lot of people can look at me and say, you know, what right do you have? You’ve lived away from the country for so long, so what do you really know? But in many cases I look at people who have lived away from Egypt, like myself, and they’re a lot more connected and educated about what’s happening in Egypt now than people inside Egypt themselves. You know when people live in a situation they can become completely blind to it and I actually saw that a lot during the revolution with people that I know – they were completely blinded by what’s happening. It’s kind of like they were under the spell of this place that they’re surrounded by, whereas when you live abroad and you come back you have something to compare it to. You know this is not the way it’s supposed to be and that the way people are walking on the street talking to themselves, this is just not normal. It’s a sign that something is fundamentally wrong in the country.
DAH: Do you think they might think that you’re not Egyptian just because you’re photographing as a professional photographer? Is being a woman photographer a really unusual thing to see for most Egyptians?
LET: I think it used to be, but when I was in Tahrir Square there were so many people with cameras, particularly women, so I don’t really know. I mean, yeah, it’s still sort of new trend kind of thing and yes, of course, if you are walking around with a camera, they probably think you’re a tourist, which is fine by me. I actually rather people think I am a tourist when I’m photographing because, you’ve been to Egypt, you’ve seen immediately pointing the camera at something makes people paranoid. So in many cases I have actually played it to my advantage and pretended that I am a tourist just to that I can work. But generally, I don’t know, it’s a touchy area for me because I feel that I can comfortably talk about it but at the same time I feel like I haven’t lived there long enough and I feel uncomfortable about maybe what people are going to say. You know what I mean? I think that I have probably confused the whole question!
DAH: No, No, No. I think you have answered it well. You don’t really know exactly how that’s going to play out. I mean I have photographed in my own culture, like I was just in Iowa photographing my own culture, where my family is from, and they knew I wasn’t from there either. My mom and dad are from there , I look just like everybody there, but they knew that I wasn’t really from there, you know. So I felt a little bit like a foreigner in Iowa where I actually grew up as a little kid at one point and where my family’s from and I got the same ethnic mix as the people who live there, right? But I was a little bit of an outsider. I’ve also gone and spent a lot of my time photographing in countries where I have no connection –different religion, different culture, different color and been very much at home and hanging right around and taking pictures that I think are very natural to the people of that culture, so it’s an interesting equation. You can be very close even if you are from another place or you can be totally apart even if you theoretically belong.
LET: yeah, definitely . I never used to think about this. If you had asked me this question before what happened in January or February, I probably would have very comfortably said, no, there is no question, I am Egyptian and there is no problem, but I really started to question this more and more when stuff was happening in Egypt and you had these people who were protesting, sleeping in Tahrir square and they’re the ones that really instituted this change and so I started to feel like, yeah, I’m Egyptian, but I didn’t actually do what these people did – they did it. So I’m kind of Egyptian, but not really as Egyptian as they are.
DAH: Well, that’s a good honest answer and I think that’s all we’re looking for here