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.