FURTHER CONVERSATION BETWEEN YASSER ALWAN AND SHAMOON ZAMIR
Zamir: In all the publications of your images so far you eschew excessive textual apparatus. There’s no introductory essay that explains the social context. It seems that it’s very much part of the project that the pictures have to speak for themselves, rather than being illustrations of the larger sociopolitical argument.
Alwan: Yes, absolutely. That’s what I would prefer. I’d prefer for all of you to engage with the work directly. I’m very happy to be speaking. But I don’t think that I necessarily add very much to your experience of these
Sura, the little film that I made after January 25, 2011, was an experiment in putting a context to these images. And I did that after the events of January 25th last year, particularly for Egyptians, to sort of re-contextualize my images in the course of those events. But I would much prefer that you engage directly with the image. And I would hope that the image somehow speaks to you directly.
Audience: Tell us a little bit more about the family portrait project that you’re trying to begin. Is this not something that just is going to be impossible in the context you are operating in?
Alwan: Well, I’m hoping that it’s not impossible. I’ve been working– quite hard for the last three months trying to make it possible. And if it would be possible, it would be possible based on trust.
Each time I make a successful image, I show this image, to the family. And also to other families, if I’m working in a particular community that’s fairly closed, where the families are all the families of laborers who work in one particular company. And are therefore all in touch with one another. It’s a step-by-step process.
My hope is that if I can end up making one successful family portrait, it might lead me to the next one. And then I would have ten that I could do something with publicly. Right now, I don’t have ten. I don’t even have one.
Audience: Are your potential subjects concerned about where the images go afterwards?
Alwan: They have every right to ask those questions. And it’s incumbent upon me to try to answer them. One of the things that I’ve done with the family portrait project is to show people the film that I made, Sura, to try to get them to understand why I’m making these images, to see that, while I may not make the most flattering image of them, the image that I make is important in this context. That’s only been possible since January 25th of last year. But I still haven’t reached anywhere. I’m still at point zero.
Audience: I’m interested in the idea of putting these photos back into the communities where you photographed. I know that a few new galleries have tried to open up in places that are not in the usual places and are more accessible to the communities you are actually photographing. Do you think that they are sort of fetishized? Or do you think they’re actually a space for that kind of mixture of the classes?
Alwan: I know of the galleries that you’re talking about. And I have a very hard time seeing my work in that context. I have a real serious problem with those galleries and with all the private galleries in Cairo. I don’t care for the general philosophy of The Townhouse or of the (FOREIGN LANGUAGE WORD).
There is a gallery in Coptic Cairo, on the edges of quite a poor neighborhood. And in fact, those two photographs [pointing to wall], the diagonal men, who are in the working limestone, they are from that neighborhood.
This gallery has made very little inroads into the local community, very little. Fifty per cent of their shows are of foreign artists who are showing in London and Paris and– and Barcelona. And these are now being taken into this community without any kind of intermediary. I’ve had my disagreements with the gallery owner about that. It’s a fantastic space. But I’m not very happy with what’s been done with that space so far.
Audience: Are these galleries showing exclusively photography? Or do they show all kinds of work?
Alwan: Even up until today, I’d say that most Egyptians don’t think of photography as an art form. Certainly, when I began photographing in Egypt in ’86 and in the mid-’90s, nobody thought photography was an art form. There hadn’t at that time been any young Egyptian photographer who had succeeded artistically. That’s happened since, but still, for the overwhelming majority of Egyptians, no. Most of what’s shown is other kinds of art, not photography.
Audience: Where do people go when they want to have a portrait made of themselves today? Do the studios you were describing still exist?
Alwan: They do. And there are studio photographers for every social class. They do exist. And it’s de rigueur in Egypt not only to have a wedding portrait, but to have a wedding video. And you can be dirt poor, but you are not going to get married without the video being there.
Visit Yasser Alwan’s website for further information about his work.