An Immortal River #2

Laura El-Tantawy

I’ll Die For You


On June 11, 2010, 35-year-old cotton farmer Sanjay Sarate stumbled to his home & fell on the ground. “I’ve taken pesticide. I’m going to die” he told his wife. “This is the end of my life.” Sanjay hugged his then-six-year-old son, Sameer, as he journeyed from life to death.

In the past 21 years, nearly 300,000 farmers committed suicide in India. Many borrowed money through government lending schemes or private lenders to plant more efficient crops, but couldn’t pay off their debts. Due to the fast transition India has undergone from rural to an industrial, urban economy with an open market, farmers have been confronted by immense social & economic problems. Most farmers, like Sanjay, consumed pesticide, others set themselves on fire, hung themselves or threw themselves down a well.

Six years ago I began to visually explore the intimate relationship between man & land. My work seeks to memorialize the faces of farmers whose hard way of life led to their death. My paternal grandfather Hussein is my inspiration. A farmer in Egypt’s Nile Delta, his devotedness to his land eventually killed him. ‘I’ll Die For You’ meditates on this unique bond: drawing on a farmer’s dependence on the land for living & the land’s reliance on its farmer for survival. It’s a solitary way of life where man & land are one.

With your grant, I’ll take my series to the US state of California. The largest agriculture industry in the US, severe drought cost farmers in excess of 550,000 acres of fallowed land in 2015, exhausted groundwater reserves & caused billions in economic damage. There are underlined themes here: the erosion of farming as a craft, the human impact of erratic weather patterns & the disparity between rural & city life ‘as busy urban dwellers, do we consider the people who cultivate our produce’.

As of 2014, there were 570 million farms in the world. With more than 90% run by an individual or family, these farms fed the bulk of the world’s 7.5 billion people.



Short Bio

Laura El-Tantawy is an Egyptian photographer born in England and raised between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Her photography is inspired by questions on her identity – exploring social and environmental issues pertaining to her background. In 2002, she started her career in the US as a newspaper photographer, moving to freelance in 2006. She is a graduate of the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia (USA), with dual degrees in journalism & political science. Additional degrees include an MA in Art & Media Practice from the University of Westminster (UK/2011) and a Research Fellowship from the University of Oxford (UK/2009).

She has published three books and is currently working on her upcoming monograph ‘Beyond Here Is Nothing’ – a photographic meditation on the emotional loss of home. In 2016 she was nominated for the Deutsche Brse Photography Foundation Prize for her book ‘In the Shadow of the Pyramids’ (self-published 2015).


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Laura El-Tantawy

23 thoughts on “Laura El-Tantawy – I’ll Die For You”

  1. I very much like the concept of this work, but am a little unsure of the result. In the description, it seems Laura posits a concrete relationship between the farmer and the land, but the essay depicts a much more abstract vision, which, for me, became less effective as the repetitions increased.

    I offer that an observation, not as any kind of harsh criticism; nor do I have any suggestions as Laura has more than proven she has a much deeper and insightful vision than most. I’m thrilled to see someone work with such social and artistic ambition.

    Nothing against the other contestants who have all done fine work in their own way, but I would have been happy to see Laura win, just to be able to see how this project would translate to California. I honestly can’t imagine her style coming to America, and would definitely look forward to seeing the attempt. Hopefully, she will find the funds elsewhere.

  2. I love all your work, Laura – and I love this. I suspect the minds of at least some judges have a hard time translating what is in these pictures to California, but like Mike hope you find the funds. I am certain you will produce something powerful and thoughtful.

  3. “Six years ago I began to visually explore the intimate relationship between man & land.”

    Maybe she needs to live that subsistence life for a while otherwise it is just another “wishy washy” result created by a privileged outsider.

    It all probably works well in her head and a very selective grunge style audience will love the photos thus it serves a purpose as is.

  4. I can’t help but agree with Imants. Additionally I would say that the stories of the farmers make their images powerful, but I assume those weren’t taken by Laura.

  5. “My paternal grandfather Hussein is my inspiration. A farmer in Egypt’s Nile Delta, his devotedness to his land eventually killed him.”

    The plague of so many privileged outsiders parachuting into faraway lands to snap a few pics that tell a superficial story is no doubt a common problem in photo world – but somehow I’m not feeling that’s a problem in this case.

  6. IMANTS..MW…Brian Frank

    in theory you are right…sure, the farmers should tell their own story…yet hasn’t it always been thus? it is always the privileged (me included) who tell the stories of the not so privileged in an effort to make people aware….the not so privileged just do not have the means (in many ways) to tell their own story…and besides, how many from the so called privileged class ( you included) do anything at all to help or make aware?? very very few is the answer….so if indeed someone from the privileged class does indeed do something with their talents, isn’t that worthy?

    characterizing “outsiders parachuting into faraway lands to snap a few pictures that tell in a superficial way” is perhaps a “common problem” in photo world for sure…yet if we discounted those “outsiders” who in fact have done brilliant and powerful essays in the last century we would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater…MW that is a ridiculous comment to make….what about W Eugene Smith “Minamata” for example? you want to throw out his essay because he was not Japanese? i could go on and on with examples and you know it…..

    the whole point of Burn and of grants and of selecting is to honor those who have in fact done a deep dive….we are not publishing the work of those who are not doing it right, we are publishing those who do it right….imo, and the opinion of many sets of international jurors, Laura is one of a handful doing it right….and from a rather brilliant visual perspective that is stylistic but grows with each essay….

    you guys better keep an eye on Laura El Tantawy….she will continue to make a mark i promise….

    Laura is totally recognized in the U.S….she started her career in the U.S…Laura started as a US newspaper photographer in Florida….won a lot of awards…what are you guys looking at? are you not keeping up? please.

    cheers, david

  7. DAH

    To clarify my previous comment, my agreement wasn’t with someone with privilege parachuting in, but what appears to be stylizing of images. I’m fully willing to accept that I just am not one who is able to “get” her photography, but I’ve never been able to get her photography. That’s been the case dating back to the Egyptian revolt that was published here a few years ago.

  8. The key to my sentence about the privileged parachuting in is “to take pics that tell a superficial story.” Minimata, for example, is not a superficial story. Neither is Laura’s about the farmers committing suicide, which I think I made clear, both in the reply to Imants and in the first comment.

    Clearly, I wasn’t talking about privileged people who parachute in and “do it right.” And I’ve heard you warn against photographers going into situations and “doing it wrong,” thus fucking it up for those who may follow. So I truly don’t see that we have any serious disagreements on this issue.

    Nor do I see any serious disagreement on the overall quality of Laura’s work. I make a real effort to be precise with words, and although I sometimes fall short of that ideal, it’s frustrating to be so thoroughly misread.

    When I write:

    “Laura has more than proven she has a much deeper and insightful vision than most. I’m thrilled to see someone work with such social and artistic ambition.”

    How can you read something that evokes:

    “what are you guys looking at? are you not keeping up? please.”



    Laura started her career as an award winning newspaper photographer in Florida…she was born in Egypt, her family lives in Egypt (some in US), and she has really dug in for several years now in Egypt….starting but not ending with the revolution….

    Brian, i know you don’t get her photography…that’s cool…nobody can force you to “like” something you do not like…you are just naturally more linear in intent and in style and in appreciation of styles …totally fine fine fine…on the other hand i feel it is my duty as a curator to expose folks to all kinds of photography…especially that which is so internationally accepted and awarded….my fear for the linear thinkers is that they (i hope not you) will be totally lost in the future…..end up bitter and confused…as has happened to so many every time things evolve….some just do not change with evolution…i guess it is normal…but you are a young man…so that part i just cannot “get”..what happens in my opinion that is very sad, is that 80% of the photographers out there just cannot get beyond the type of work THEY do!!!

    some just cannot open the window and let in a fresh breeze….they feel threatened , uncomfortable if they can’t actually do what they they reject it ….i LOVE lots of things i absolutely cannot do nor even want to do….from my view i learn from what i cannot do and apply it to what i can do…

    cheers , david

  10. One of my biggest issues is, for someone covering important issues that need reportage, her style takes precedence over the substance. It is true here, it was true in the Egypt series, and I see it with the campaign imagery that a photographer (can’t think of his name at the moment) that is using heavy flash to create high contrast b&w. It’s not that I have a problem appreciating things that are non-linear, there are plenty of things here and elsewhere that I see that are completely interpretive that I adore. News organizations that keep editorial staff away from reporters so to keep the integrity of their reporting in tact. Shouldn’t there be a conscious effort from photographers as well?

    Did Laura take the pictures of the farmers? It’s those pictures with the story that is compelling.

  11. BRIAN

    i think this is only considered an “important issue” because Laura made it so…i doubt any newspaper editor would be assigning this story….they just would not think of it…she thought of it…..

    i do not see this as a topic that would require a straight “reportage” approach…i doubt any newspaper would run this story…..

    for sure Brian i think that as we move forward that more not less interpretation is going to be required…photographers with a voice……for the daily newspaper maybe not of course…yet i think the daily newspaper surely cannot be the standard by which we measure fine photography….

    again i live in a world of books, not newspapers nor mainstream magazines….so this is where i am coming from on this approach and work….

    cheers, david

  12. Brian, you say that her style takes precedence over the substance. I think something like the opposite is true. Her style reveals the substance.

    I think that’s true of all ambitious documentary work. Done right, style reveals substance. The people doing it successfully think long and hard about how the style they choose serves the substance they wish to communicate.

    In this case, the repetitive sequencing images of the farmers who died and the land they worked forces informs the viewer to consider that connection. Neither, alone, would communicate what she wants to show.

  13. David, as someone who spent a better part of a year getting told that the media is skewed one way or another (and continuing to hear that rubbish on social media), I’m going to disagree on your assessment that more interpretation is required, and that it’s an important topic because Laura made it so. It was already an important topic, Laura just made people more aware of it.

  14. I’m an admirer of Laura’s book “In the Shadow of the Pyramids,” but this essay makes me think of the difficulty of photography expressing the type of themes the written statement refers to. I don’t see it as the photographer not understanding or feeling the depth of those themes; rather, I think that the bond for farmers for their land needs a more varied approach. It’s hard for me to express this, but I think the feeling needs to emerge from how the photographs are sequenced — a poetic sequence that draws the mind to the space “between the pictures” as much as to the pictures themselves. This poetry, or “music,” if you will, needs to come from a more varied visual approach.

    I’m not trying to be obscurantist, but it’s simply a very difficult thing to do, and perhaps needs a less stylized approach visually and sequentially, not the “one-note” look that Imants alludes to. Having looked at Laura’s book, I’m sure she can do it.

  15. I think we should welcome work like Laura’s with arms wide open. There’s enough straight reportage photography in the newspapers and on the internet as it is. Laura’s approach is rare and it stands out among the crowd. She always manages to add that little extra lyrical touch.

  16. I feel slightly moved by this (which is something pretty unusual) I don’t really see a connection with the land through the pictures but the introduction does that.

    Brian are we not all privileged outsiders?

  17. !!!SPAM ALERT!!!
    My Friend Chris is releasing his next book. I was honored to do the cover photograph.
    You can buy it here. Collectors editions or a bog standard paperback.
    Or if you are in london next week come to the launch in Peckham at The Peckham Pelican 11th August@7PM


  18. I never mentioned parachuting I stated “privileged” big difference.

    images: these images could be anyone steelworkers, criminals, drifters,the uncommitted, males without a bathrooms etc

    style: grunge hipster

    It’s not about defending a favored photographer it is about the content and what is offered ………. a stylized depiction.

  19. ps Some farmers with properties in California don’t even live there they sit back and let the brokers of London do the worrying

  20. It’s good to see that Laura will take her photos to the US.

    I also hope she takes them to Missouri, the headquarters of Monsanto. Instead of using farm saved seeds, Indian farmers are now having to buy seeds every year, and are becoming indebted if their harvest is poor. Sadly, I doubt that Monsanto, Cargill, Syngenta, and the World Bank would care though.

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