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EPF 2011 Finalist

Laura El-Tantawy

In the Shadow of the Pyramids: Egypt

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The revolution of Jan. 25, 2011 revived a long lost sense of pride and strength for Egyptian people.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen Egyptians live under a totalitarian regime pressing down against their dignity. People lost their national pride and unity. Wealth and power rested in the hands of a few who seemed the only ones with the right to live. The masses felt isolated and with this isolation people became foreigners in their own land.

Over the past three decades this country of nearly 85 million – the Arab world’s most populous and traditionally its most revered – became a country of lost souls – ripped apart by political, social and economic turmoil. I didn’t have to go beyond the streets to see the depth of this estrangement.

The signs were this is a country on the verge of an explosion.

“It’s a horrible feeling to realize that your country is weak, your voice is weak, your opinion is weak – to realize that if you sell your soul, your body, your pen and your name, you still wouldn’t be able to afford a loaf of bread,” writes the Egyptian vernacular poet Hesham al-Gokh in “Goha”.

In the 30 years of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, Egypt became one of the world’s top 10 most corrupt nations. Bribery was common practice to get anything done, from a driver’s license to getting employed. Torture & humiliation of Egyptians was a daily occurrence. At least 24 million can’t read or write & estimates say more than 10 million live outside Egypt in pursuit of a better life. Egypt is one of a handful of countries where poverty forced roughly one million people to make homes out of cemeteries, breathing the spirit of the dead to stay alive.

In 2005 I began to document the lives of everyday Egyptians. The purpose of my work has & is to identify the essence of being Egyptian during & after Mubarak’s era. In doing so I aim to show how events in this strategic North African country can give insight into the future of the Middle East.

In parts, this project has been published before in different places, one of them being BURN magazine.


Laura El-Tantawy is a British/Egyptian photographer spending her time between London and Cairo. She was born in Worcestershire, England and grew up between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. She works on self-initiated projects.

She worked as a newspaper photographer with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Sarasota Herald-Tribune (USA). In 2006, she became freelance to focus on personal projects. In 2008, she was nominated and accepted as one of 15 photographers from around the world to participate in Reflexions Masterclass, a two-year photo seminar directed by Italian photographer Giogia Fiorio and French curator Gabriel Bauret. In 2005 she started work on her first book documenting her journey through a changing Egypt. As part of her urge to understand the issues, in 2009 she accepted a six-month fellowship at University of Oxford (UK) to research free speech in Egyptian. Her work has been published and exhibited in the US, Europe, Asia and Middle East.

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44 thoughts on “laura el-tantawy – In the shadow of the pyramids: egypt”

  1. Laura is not just an essayist – she is a novelist. Twenty-five strongly composed images convey an enviable fulsomeness of photojournalism at its highest level. Close-up, middle and distant images, with grab shots and take-outs rounding it all around, makes this one heck of an expert work. It is completely satisfying and remarkably articulate, and is reminiscent of Rodin’s “Gates of Hell”.

    I still am not a fan of the underexposed photograph and this is my only complaint here. I get the idea that it signifies the darkness that is current in Egypt, but seeing Laura’s photographic strength in every other area – and how it makes me so weak-kneed in admiration – diminishes my applause for this fine entry just a jot.

  2. Laura “burning some serious rubber” once again!!!!!
    Laura u inspire me to go back to Athens and continue covering the “Fall of Athens/fall of Europe”etc..
    Although I don’t really have to anymore since we have Vissaria… Smiling.. Smiling..
    Very proud of you.. !!!
    Congrats over and over again!!!!

  3. outstanding photos made in a tough situation!…the images demonstrate an exceptionally deep empathy and concern on your part.. i really appreciate the thoughtful and informative captions-thanks for the education!

  4. “The real malady is fear of life, not of death.”- Naguib Mahfouz

    Laura El-Tantawy is not afraid.

    Neither of death nor of life, in fact she is an acquirer, a swallower, a chaser of life. It has always been there in both the intensity of her speech and gaze; it has always been there in both the flamed-drama of her flower-flame-shadow photographs; it has always been there in her pursuit of both the mystic and quotidian, and the gathering together of the two. She is a seamstress of the two, always building a billowing carpet of bruised reds and bronzes, a tapping tapestry of ochres and smoked browns and incense-choked greens and vermillions. Her pictures, whether about Islam or women or Indian farmers or the quiet lives shuttled loudly through revolution, are about the alchemical transformation of shadow torch-touched by flame…..

    She is not afraid.

    And i love the fever of her vision, always have.

    Here, this work is much much more superior to the ‘at-first’glance’ we received when Laura headed into the belly of those revolutionary nights. At that time, I felt the pictures (but a few) much less El-Tantawy and a good-sheppard journalist. But, for me, Laura’s work is not, has never been, about ‘documenting journalistically’ a moment. She is not about the news. Her work is much too personal, much too lyrical, too tattoo’d by a spiritual fever that is found under the domes of darkened history and bazaars. Her work really is novelistic and shaped as much by what is NOT there, and yet someone blooms in her frame, that by the ‘event’s’ she’d witnessed.

    A Sheherezad feeding us shadow and flower and those magical dresses hung and kiting in the Cairo air like colorful hair and Arabic script…..

    I could write so much about this work and about everything that Laura has produced, but I shall keep it simple. What majors so richly about this work is that it transcends the ‘spot-news’ highlights. It delves into both those feverishly haunted and bloodied nights, but it works its way backward in time: to the Cairo novels and films of the ’50’s and ’60’s, to the poetry that has been churned up around the desert flower and the sea of incense….and in this story, at the fore, is not a story of revolution, but a story of a time and a people, junk’d by change, returned once again to that which always was and shall always be: the settling of life, the embrace of the small moments that make the larger thrusts of history so unimportant over time…it is there in that extraordinary final photograph:

    the color of life, the stained closes hung on the wind like hair and script….to write your life upon the sky, to sew and kite your story upon the wind watering over the city…..to suspend, as if upon a carpet, the right to write your story’d life…..

    who works the foreground better in a photograph than Laura?: that magnificent dream-flower, the bloodied hand, the Quaran as map to a sea of praying, the helio-streetlight burning the night into a woman’s face, the children scattered into multiplicity over a car window, and that magnificent last cinematic loop dream…

    the fuschia script of love/life in arabic….born of a scarf….

    you, who are this life, are unafraid….

    congratulations sister…..:)))


  5. Laura…
    Your work is so hypnotic, the beauty flowing softly rhythmically without pause is . Your photos manages to disarm all cynicism and doubts any viewer sees in the future of those fighting for their freedom. You are a poet with hues, glows and pigments the late evening light hums over all those dreaming of a better existence. The images are like linen which silently shroud us with warmth and a feminine voice slowly whispering your truth, though woe betide anyone mistake that aura of yours for something frail, they will be demolished by the force of your yell. Your images could undoubtedly transform the most devout skeptic into the holiest of believers.
    Good Luck!

  6. You work always blows me away. Such power in your photography nothing at all heavy handed or forced. The respect you have for your subjects is something special. What a gift you have .

  7. Brilliant! Simply outstanding work. This is the year of discontent and this essay beautifully captures the spirit and the tragedy of the uprising in Egypt which after 30 years has bubbled and boiled over giving momentum to other Muslim nations in the Middle East. Congratulations!

  8. this body of work
    i can’t explain it…..
    but I sure feel it!!!!!!!
    Congratulations Laura!!!!!!!

  9. Hello all – thank you for taking the time to look at this work & for responding to it with such generosity that has really left me totally humbled and in most cases blushing in slight embarrassment!

    I am very happy this work has been selected as a finalist for anything considering that by now you all know how precious and close to my heart Egypt really is. But I am particularly happy it was here on BURN that this happened as this community has been so good to me — it has helped me get my voice out when other venues didn’t want to hear it.

    The work of all the finalists has really been very special and I am happy to be among them. Can’t wait to see the rest.

    Thank you for believing in my work ==> L.

  10. Laura… thanks once again for having gone where your heart was back then in February.. glad to see your essay up here among the finalists.. looking very much where forward to where you will take it from here, hoping you’ll be able to witness a positive change in your homecountry.. photographs to dig into, through the layers of texture and light, warm despite the difficulties.. thanks..

  11. Congratulations Laura on being a finalist: well deserved. The photography is wonderful, as Pete says, layered and complex. The subject matter is, well; history in the making. The humanity of the subjects and the photographer shines through. Bravo!


  12. Something I’ve always wondered–if a set of images that have been known to be powerful, would they be so if taken out of the context of the source? If these images were taken in some non-descript foreign land, and were not plastered all over the news for weeks, etc., would these images be received so grandly? Would they be able to stand on their own?

  13. Congratulations. Great to see this here again in this form.

    Laura’s style is very recognizable, kinetic, chaotic, dark, graphic, raw, extremely visceral,..exciting. As before I find #20 absolutely pure dead brilliant, and #22..ditto.

    Good luck

  14. Brian – I like your question and found it thought provoking. I think if a picture is good it should be so regardless of the context. But I think your question is more about an entire series and I am not sure you would really be able to remove the context (binding thread) from a series and still somehow make it work. Single images possibly but not the whole series, I think. It would seem like you would be depriving the images from that common denominator. Some pictures here for example, I can’t see myself using entirely alone. I see them as an essential component of the whole work. Other images I can easily see as standing alone – isolated moments.

    Although actually I can see myself reacting to a strong body of work even if I don’t know what the pictures are about as long as they touch me somehow.

    I don’t know if I answered your question but I suppose it’s open for all to chime in. Would be interesting to see what others think.

    Thanks for asking ==> L.

  15. Laura…

    I think one of the beauties of your essay is the fact that each photo on it’s own, is as powerful as the essay as a whole.

  16. My two cents — the images in this essay pop because the gestures are all universal and so they work as part of a story and on their own, quite an amazing work.

  17. Laura,

    Congratulations. Happy to see you included here.
    I see you are participating in Review Santa Fe.
    I live in Santa Fe…will look forward to meeting you at the public evening.

  18. Cathy:)
    biggest hug…Laura’s work is by faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar the very best , so far? ok? gotta be honest…all that……so far!!!!!!!!!!:))))))))
    thank u Cathy!
    thank u lady Laura El Tantwy

  19. Am I missing something? Everyone is gushing about this set of images, but I do not see why. I can’t be the only one, can I? Can someone please explain these to me?

  20. Brian…

    May I suggest if you haven’t yet, go and take a look at Laura’s other work on her site. You’ll see in my humble opinion a very strong and definite style throughout her work. I find it vey interesting to see her style come through all her Egyptian essay, especially knowing the stress and danger she must of experienced. This is for me the mark of a great photographer and this essay is unlike any other that came out of Egypt.

  21. Good morning all

    Cathy – I arrive Santa Fe tomorrow afternoon. I think the public reception should be on June 2. It will be lovely to meet you. I look forward to it.

    Brian – I respect your opinion and everyone is entitled to one. I mostly appreciate your honesty, really.

    I never expect anyone to care for the pictures I take. This is totally honest and this is because for a long time I was entirely hung up on what others would think of my work — it was emotionally and creatively destroying me. At the time I was particularly interested in what editors thought because I wanted to be an accomplished freelance photographer. My work didn’t resonate with conventional publications because it’s experimental and in many cases the pictures just didn’t make it. Even I knew that. But eventually I got to a place where I just took pictures that meant something to me. It was only then I started to feel free and I am very happy I got to that place. I am still learning many things, I still have struggles believing in my work and I feel like I don’t know very much about what I’m doing in most cases. I just react emotionally and think later and technically I know very little. So when any of the pictures I take do resonate with people, it surprise me because I don’t expect anyone to care. Of course when they do I am very happy and humbled but there is never any expectation. I self finance all my work and have raised money only once because I really had to and because I want to do work I really care about emotionally. The work here is about a place that means a lot me. I have spent most of life wandering between places but Egypt is etched in me. Every picture here has a memory and I can literally smell and hear things triggered by looking at each photo. For example, the picture of the woman with the red hibiscus in the foreground was taken with my mother standing right over my shoulder as I knelt down to take it. She was embarrassed because people looked to see what we were doing. Her embarrassment made us look more suspicious and for me it’s a funny memory and speaks of my mother’s support for what I do – or try to do. The last picture in the series (laundry) is taken from the balcony of my family’s apartment where I grew up – the laundry is in fact ours and this is the view I grew up looking at. How can I expect anyone to care for any of these intimate details but for me? By the way I am not trying to defend the work because I don’t necessarily feel people should explain stuff too much. It either speaks or it doesn’t. I am just giving a bit of insight into my thinking process – that’s all.

    Paul – thanks for your support. By the way, these pictures include work from the revolution but also from pictures taken before. My revolution work was only in Tahrir Square. Many of the pictures here from around Cairo between 2005-2011.

    I really appreciate this platform and sorry I don’t contribute to other people’s work as often as I should, considering everyone’s readiness to respond on my own work ==> L.


    i think this is the basis of more or less the same conversation that you and i have had all along on Burn..the work you seem to appreciate most, and i always read your comments, is of a very traditional photojournalism mode..yes? …for example, you liked recently the story here on the boot camp for prisoners…textbook newspaper photography….i liked it too or i would not have published it..however, i think the difference is in the more interpretative documentary as is Laura’s and the traditional newspaper style could be wrapped up in your head by just comparing these two stories…

    perhaps it is just in the “eye”, in the visual acuity…her pure “seeing” ability..this is a rare ability …while boot camp “told the story”, i doubt few would consider it an example of a personal style or vision…it is the difference is between an explanation and a vision…. the way someone tells a story is as important as the story itself with photography as a language just as in writing, or movie making …the “way” a story is told is what sets apart the special talents..

    i think with Laura we go way beyond pure storytelling and into a more lyrical nuanced vision, or as i always like to say, a real authorship…..

    this is quite literally Laura’s story to tell….

    it is this pure personal vision that will clearly in the long run give Laura a long term international respect afforded very few…i am sure there are many who wonder as you now wonder…fair enough…but i think as time goes on and you reference more introspective work, you will come to appreciate this author more and more…

    cheers, david

    p.s. i see now i posted simultaneous to Laura….interesting

  23. Brian a lot of people feel that they are safe grounds with this style of photography. There is need for “rich” still imagery of world events as it has to compete with so many other forms of media. To many a quick overview on a mobile a twitter is enough others feel the need of a exotic come personal feel to events. Storytellers have very liberal licenses.

  24. Brian, Larry Towell’s take on the documentary essay is that a strong idea can allow the use of weak photographs, but a weak story requires strong images. (This was a source of immense enlightenment for a documentary photographer friend of mine.)

    Another teaching of Towell is the importance of accessibility to the people of any given location – David speaks often of this as well. In Towell’s case, his secret is patience and polite persistence.

    Laura shows abilities to surmount both these problematic issues, even if she admits the difficulty to do so.

  25. IMANTS..

    i do not think this essay has anything to do with media coverage and what people want or don’t want or what is safe ground or not safe ground…i think if you go back and look you will see that this photographer has been working on Egypt pictures long before the recent news coverage and most of the pictures here having nothing to do with that “coverage”…Laura is Egyptian photographing in Egypt…you are English photographing in India…yes, storytellers do indeed have very liberal licenses…

  26. My comment about media is still images compete with media as in movies, video clips, advertising, youtube, ice cream wrappers, domestic cleaning bottles etc not about media news coverage

  27. IMANTS..

    ahhh yes…my mistake reading too fast…you threw “events” in there and i was confused……yes i totally agree in that sense of overall media…

  28. Paul, I will look at the rest of the work later, but what I am offering an opinion on is what’s in front of me. Don’t want to taint that.

    Laura, Thank you for the response. I respect the hell out of people who respond to criticisms, especially ones that come across as blunt as mine sometimes do.

    LAura and DAH, So this is a Rothko? We are just supposed to “feel” it? There have been plenty of introspective works I have enjoyed on Burn. I even like the new essay, “Fatalistic Tendency.” The struggle I have is when someone takes such a creative license on a potent actual event.

    Again, I may not appreciate this set, but I do feel better about it after a bit more explaining. Hope my comments did not cause any offense, that was not my intention. I always try to take an extra moment when writing something critical on someone’s work. Congratulations on being a finalists. Best of luck. Cheers.


  29. And it is really stiff competition, I remember as a kid my grandfather who traveled infrequently told me stories about the old days in Latvia. My uncle who traveled to many places like New Guinea, Panama etc told stories that stirred my heart. That was stiff completion for my Grandfather ……….. his stories changed and grew beyond their initial boundaries

  30. Wow. I am awestruck by the depth, power and beauty of this essay. Laura, your voice is unique. May it be heard around the world. This is what can happen when an artist brings her heart and soul to her work. BRAVA!

  31. Laura,

    i really love your photos!

    so good to see them again here and with some additional ‘new’ ones i’d not seen before.
    well done and congratulations on being a finalist, well deserved.

    to marry journalism with poetic artistry as you do takes a special talent.
    much respect,


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