I stumbled upon these guys trying to remove an engine block with a chain tied around the blades of a forklift. It wasn’t a garage at all but just a forklift and a car on the street and a bench against the wall for the spectators. Behind them were a chorus of neighborhood guys, commenting and laughing at things. I had a blast with these guys.
This shot below was taking on a Friday. Spreading their prayer mats out in the street, these men took over this busy thoroughfare blocking all traffic. Some of the muezzin or calls to prayers that I heard blaring throughout the city were absolutely captivating, these strong voices, a plaintive wail calling out through the din.
Life in Cairo means days spent at the cafe, smoking sheesha and drinking chai. I was welcomed at all of these places and spent hours each day, chatting with the men, sharing cigarettes, laughing at their games.
Just a smattering of shots from the Coptic Quarter, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Cairo. There are some amazing sights and buildings there: the hanging church, Babylon Fortress, Greek Church of St. George and a couple of spectacular cemetaries. Of course, I had no interest in old ass buildings.
Send me down any side street and I am happy.
Coptic Christian girls.
This was Ishmael. I met him right outside the Coptic Quarter historical district. His wife had just given birth to a daughter a few days ago and he was exhausted from the lack of sleep and the worry about his future. With no tourists coming into the country and the nation in such turmoil, he did not know how he was going to provide for his family.
His English was excellent but he couldn’t write it so I helped compose a letter for him to his friend in Australia, announcing the birth of his daughter. He bought me a shai and we spent the afternoon, looking at girls walk by in the sun.
Walk down any side street or alley in Cairo and you are entering residential neighborhoods, no street signs, no signs of any kind, dirt streets covered in trash, people drying laundry, sitting on stoops, drinking tea. And since you are entering their domain, swarms of children playing. Kids followed me wherever I went. Sometimes I could take their photo and stop them following me. The real trick I found out was to head into a cafe and order a shai. The cafes are the domains of adult men and the clamoring kids steer clear.
This is by no means a great image, a group photo of smiling kids, but the light was absolutely perfect in that alley and they glowed.
In the Coptic Quarter, I was told by the locals to not enter the warren of side streets without someone accompanying me. It was fine and people were friendly.
This mother and daughter were gorgeous.
The street cats. I have never seen more cats in my life than in Cairo. They rule the streets and live among the trash and rubble in the residential areas. People feed them though there is enough litter that there is no need for that. I was at a cafe somewhere near Tahrir Midan and one of the waiters laid out a plate of food on top of some boxes for the local cats. The kids do not play with them and they are pretty much ignored as I never saw anyone even looking at one, much less petting one. The cats were all extremely clean and healthy looking.
The cat goddess Bastet was worshipped in Bubastis with one temple even having mummified cats. I do not know the significance of the cat in the lives of Egyptians but they are tolerated, respected and were revered. There is a story of a Roman soldier running a cat over with his chariot and killing it. Despite the pleas of the local authorities, the mob descended upon the soldier and killed him.
Regardless of the history with occupying forces, I can guarantee you that Cairo is a vermin and snake free city.
Cairo with a population of around 15 million is the most populous city in Africa. Wandering its streets, it feels like a city of 15 million. I spent several days there and didn’t even crack more than three neighborhoods. It is a massive sprawl of a town; dirty, lively and exciting.
There is trash everywhere. I saw very few trash cans and the ones I did were fairly empty, with the litter carpeting the streets. The legendary traffic is also amazing, a different kind of chaos from Hanoi or other cities where traffic laws are considered more of suggestions.
Taken near a hospital, this father and daughter image was shot in a playground that was literally in the middle of a busy thoroughfare under a bridge.
I did see lots of men and women going to work but I also did see lots of men lounging around, smoking sheesha, drinking tea, playing backgammon.
The tea in Egypt or shai is almost always Lipton. It is very strong and very sweet and always served with a glass of water. I must have averaged around five or six glasses a day and many, many cigarettes. Even when I was at my most lost in many neighborhoods, there was always a cafe to cop a squat and get a glass of shai.
One of my favorite shots from my trip, this young boy was a glow and the dirty alley with the tile floor was typical of any residential side street. And of course, the ubiquitous street cat.
This might not be a great image, it might be full of clichés, rehashing famous images shot over and over the past hundred and fifty years, but I love this shot. This young girl and her flag are a summation of my feeling towards Tahrir Square and all of the events that I was fortunate enough to witness.
Exposing frame zero is a phenomenon that happens a lot with rangefinders and older SLRs that do not have the auto load feature. Many times part of this frame has been exposed to direct light as the film was being threaded with the back of the camera open. Also many times, this frame tends to contain a good image. I find these frame zeros fascinating and enjoy discovering good ones, the blown out negative space adding to the image instead of destroying it.
Here is one from Tahrir Square in Cairo, shot on March 4th, 2011
I had made the decision to bring my Leica MP and one lens, the 35mm Summicron, with me on the trip. There were concessions I made to convenience and fast agile shooting by taking a film rangefinder on this eight day trip to Egypt but I was glad I did so. I prefer to shoot with my Leica always though it does not offer the flexibility of an SLR nor the immediate gratification of shooting digital. It’s inconspicuousness on the street is a massive part of its attractiveness and in Egypt, I received so much unwanted attention with the Leica that I cannot imagine having to attempt to shoot there with my big heavy Nikon.
Additionally, I was continually asked whether I was a “free photographer.” Someone finally translated this for me on the fourth day of my trip. “Free” meant that I was not a photojournalist as there was a healthy distrust of news media and their dangerous inability to tell the truth. I was glad that I had been responding, yes, I am a free photographer.
A man behind me was furious with me that I had taken this shot. I do not know why but he yelled at me and came right up to me afterwards, the little boy sleeping through the whole exchange. I tried to show him examples of my photography but he was not interested. As is the case on the streets there, we were getting the attention of people and a small crowd was gathering around the man yelling at me.
Again, feet do your thing and let’s get the hell out of here.
A couple of teenagers out on a Friday, heading to Tahrir Square to demonstrate or celebrate the new Egypt. I very much love what this image means.
Many women, even the Coptic Christians, dress very conservatively if not completely covered. To see a woman dressed what is normal by standards in the states, is such an amazing and powerful statement, a beacon of femininity and even sensuality.
The food vendor cart he was standing on kept getting jostled by the crowd and this little boy was continually on the verge of falling. I took many photos while I stood by the cart, making sure he didn’t fall.
You can accuse me of being a pollyanna but I am not a combat photographer and have no desire for that. I travel and wander and when I do, I do see a lot of joy and beauty. So fuck off. This girl was gorgeous and shone like the sun.
Not that I am comparing myself to the master, but this image reminds me of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s shot taken during the funeral for Gandhi.
Even the taxis received a festive makeover.
One issue I continually ran into was the presence of hands holding cell phones taking photos. This was a continual issue in Tahrir as the frame within my viewfinder would fill with a forrest of hands holding mobile phones up to snap images of the same thing I had been focusing on.
This is the world now, a single event to be recorded by a dozen of video cameras and hundreds of mobile phones. I just need to jockey for position faster and harder than the other mugs.
Not only for myself but for the average Egyptian or Cairene, Tahrir was a spectacle worth visiting and recording.
This gentleman was amazing. We talked politics in Egypt, Korea and the states for about an thirty minutes. His English was perfect. When I asked how he learned to speak so well, he said that he was a huge admirer or Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. We talked about Emily Brontë for another half an hour.
These young men were especially vocal. They saw me shooting them and told me not to take their photos. The men next to them told me it was fine and to keep taking photos. They started arguing which devolved into a bit of shoving. I left.
These brothers were typical of my experience in Tahrir. They spoke very little English but they welcomed me to Egypt and wanted to know what I thought of all the recent changes there. And to not take their photo after I had talked to them would have been impolite.
Most everyone I talked to had the same concerns: the economy. Egyptians were having a tough enough time the past few years with protests over the price of bread and the job market for the young being one of the more bleak in the middle east. They desired most a democratically elected government and a stable environment that would allow the economy to prosper. Jobs and the quality of life. All other concerns were secondary.
There were two things that shocked the people I talked to: that the State Department was telling US citizens not to travel to Egypt and that the US economy had been in bad trouble for the past couple of years. It is all relative since the average income in Egypt is depressingly low. I’ve heard figures ranging from two dollars a day for a household to $300 a month.
A vendor roasting yams. He spoke no English and I could not find out who the people were in those images.
The Egyptians had overthrown Mubarak but there had been hundreds of casualties and the thousands of political prisoners languishing in jail remained where they were incarcerated.
I had been behind the stage at Tahrir when a security team arrived and this man appeared, the crowd surging the the blockade backstage and swarming over him, hugging and kissing him. I still do not know who he is and I had to leave the backstage area as this man was getting prepared to address the crowd as the crowd became fevered.
Those kids on top of that traffic pole stayed up there for hours. It is hard to tell in the image but that is really high up there. I waited to see how they would get down but gave up after a while.
The peace sign is not just the domain of irony free Japanese girls but also Egyptian muslim men who have the same beardlines as the GI Joe toy I had as a kid.
In February, I had plans to travel to Granada, Spain when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power, resigning on February 11, 2011. The Egyptian uprising that began on January 25, 2011 had done what was previously unthinkable, toppling the authoritative regime of Mubarak. I immediately changed my plans and landed in Cairo two weeks later. After ten hours in transit flying from JFK to Istanbul to Cairo, I checked into the hotel and immediately headed to Tahrir Square.
I was excited to see what was happening in Egypt and a little nervous about what I would find. No matter what, I knew that it was going to be amazing being a spectator to the immediate aftermath of the revolution in Egypt. The State Department’s official travel advisory was for all US citizens to avoid non-essential travel Egypt. All of my friends were worried. A co-worker demanded that I update my Facebook profile once a day or she would report me missing to the embassy in Cairo.
It was Saturday, the second day of the weekend in Egypt. Tahrir Square was filled with people though not the throngs that I had seen on the news on previous Fridays. There were clusters of people engaged in fiery debates, areas where people were listening to speakers, little groups here and there being led in a call and response by a youthful male, exhorting the crowd.
I received lots of attention every step I took. I had not seen another foreigner all day. Even in the hotel, the only other guests were other Egyptians. I began to talk to people and to tentatively start shooting, feeling out the crowd. With my Leica MP which is normally very inconspicuous, I was getting a lot of stares, a lot of hands being waved in front of me. “No pictures, no pictures!”
People began to come up to me. “My friend, where are you from?”
“Korea.” I lied.
“Ah, Korea! Welcome, my brother!” I began talking to many of the men. Each time a dialogue began, a crowd would gather around me, bodies pressed close, everyone listening. This is how it is in the Arab street, so different from the states or in Asia. Heated debates are healthy and how you engage with the world. Clusters of men and women were all over the square, listening to similar discussions, sometimes getting to the point of physical struggles.
I spoke rudimentary Arabic but every time I said, “As-Salāmu `alaykum (Peace be with you)” they would respond with “Wa `alaykum ssalām.” Everyone was overjoyed that I was even attempting to speak Arabic. It opened all of the subsequent doors on this trip.
Over the next two weeks, I will be posting the photos from my trip to Egypt at the end of February 2011. It was such an exciting time and I am truly blessed and fortunate to have been there to witness this great people in this time of change and to have met the people along the way.
To view a general gallery of the images, click here.
This image below was one of my strongest from Tahrir. The challenges to shooting there were the blazing sun which was causing lens flares and deeply backlit subjects, the extreme sensitivity most people had to being photographed especially while demonstrating, and the crowds. Tahrir Square was very similar to any concert with the crush of people moving and swaying as an organic mass.
This was one of the shots I took, a couple of hours after landing in Cairo.
This shot of the crowd was taken on March 4th, the day after Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq resigned, ceding to the demands of the protesters. I was on a rickety wooden platform next to the stage, the single sheet of plywood holding up numerous cameramen and photographers, myself being the only Westerner. It was extremely sketchy up there and the wood was bowing under the weight of all of us. I was happy to have forced my way up there and I was even happier to make the climb down.
These gentlemen had gotten to Tahrir early and reserved the best seats. This was March 4th, a day of prayers. The crowds would soon overrun them as the day progressed. In the early morning when this was taken, it was a great leisurely time. We smoked cigarettes, drank tea and talked events.
The news reports neglected to report that Tahrir was also a place for families. Yes, there were thousands of angry young men but there were also families and children, celebrating the new day in Egypt. This family was beautiful. I snuck up on them but they saw me and I could not get them to stop smiling, especially after I pointed to their son’s shirt and told them I was from Brooklyn.
For very obvious reasons, it is extremely tough to shoot the military in any way shape or form. If you’re Egyptian with a cell phone, sure, the soldiers will come out of the tank and hold your baby daughter on the tank while you take a happy snap. If you’re a foreigner with a real camera, forget it. The military had checkpoints all over the city protecting various locations of value and constricting traffic to Tahrir on Fridays. I had two soldiers descend on me after taking this photo and it took twenty minutes for me talk my way out and keep my film intact.
The demonstrations were not constrained to the square. Walk down any side street and you can hear the call and response chanting of a group demonstrating, walking down the street, stopping traffic and calling to others to join them. The guy to the left with the sunglasses was extremely unhappy with me and let me know afterwards.
Another important facet of these demonstrations that did not make the news in the states was the festival atmosphere. People were celebrating. There were food vendors, face painters, and guys in goofy hats like a Phish show. The face painters were walking around with their cups of paint with the colors of the Egyptian flag and painting anyone who wanted a mini-flag.
It was very rare to see a woman lead the call and response chanting. This woman climbing down had just led a chant.
Like any good festival, there was crap for sale. It was also in the low 80s and brilliantly sunny.
The young men would take turns leading the crowds in chants. Sometimes what they were saying was received very well and the crowd would join in the chorus. Other times, what they were saying would spark counter chants and incite the crowd into yelling opposing views. And sometimes, the young man yelling would chant something that was not received well at all and the crowd would be silent until he climbed down, embarrassed to be consoled by his friends.
It was a great pleasure to see people not wired all day long. Newspapers and books were vital and a daily staple.
These gentlemen in front were amazing and gracious, making sure I had a place to sit and asking if I wanted tea.