10 - 16 February 2000
Issue No. 468
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
photo: Randa Shaath
History has passed before his lens -- and what's an image, if not a thousand words?
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Shooting in sunlightProfile by Fayza Hassan
His back ramrod-straight, Antoune Albert sits behind his desk in his office at Al-Ahram's photography department. He has been expecting us. He is surrounded by scores of enlarged photographs in simple black frames, vivid testimony to a long career that has involved capturing crucial moments of Egypt's history during the past 50 years. Albert, an elegant young man, is quite demure about his age, knowing well that he does not look a day over 50. He laughs heartily when we tell him we don't believe he is pushing 70. To his chagrin, he had to stop smoking 10 years ago, and "that should prove that I am getting on", he says. If he had felt as young as he looks, he would have ignored the doctor's warning, as he did so many times before, he insists. He has always scorned danger; avoiding harm has never been among his most pressing preoccupations. On the contrary; in his heyday, he loved taking chances. Even now, sometimes...
Albert with Mohamed Naguib;
photographing Hosni Mubarak;
Mrs Suzanne Mubarak hands Albert his prize;
The Press Syndicate prize given by Ibrahim Nafie
Albert with a young Arafat;
He opens a drawer and the photos of military camps, tanks, settlements and men in combat pour pell mell out of several large envelopes. All the conflicts to which Egypt was a party in the past half-century are documented here. Albert is today Al-Ahram's technical adviser on photography, a less dangerous occupation than the one to which he was once accustomed. Still, he has not been domesticated entirely, and smiles nostalgically as he recounts how he was captured in Rafah with several colleagues who were covering the Arab-Israeli war; how he was kept hostage in a small cottage for a number of days and how his main worry was carefully to bury in the sand the rolls of film he had already shot, in the hope of retrieving them later. His verbal recollections of the precise circumstances are of little interest to him and he appears almost bored recounting them, but his face lights up as soon as he begins describing the sites and people which he managed to include in his pictures before being caught.
His photographic skills are not exclusively devoted to capturing images of armed conflicts and the plight of displaced people, however. Albert has found plenty of events on which to train an uncompromising lens: General Mohamed Naguib at various public functions, Gamal Abdel-Nasser in all his glory and in his less buoyant moments, Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre visiting Nubia, Ramses II at Abu Simbel and the moving of the temples by UNESCO, popular demonstrations, the bread riots, Anwar and Jihan El-Sadat at diverse social events, distinguished foreign diplomats and politicians, singers and actors (among his favourites: Abdel-Wahab, Farid El-Atrash and Abdel-Halim Hafez), and many, many others. The shots spill from hundreds of envelopes and seem to come to life suddenly, crowding the office with voices and laughter, shouting and tears. For half a century, whenever something has happened in Egypt, Albert has been there -- he has always made sure of that.
"Abdel-Nasser had just completed his speech on the breakup of the UAR and the crowds were waiting for him outside the Television Building," he recalls, pointing to a photograph in which thousands of heads fill the frame. His lens captured the leader descending the steps of the television building, the adoring public waiting anxiously for his exit on that momentous summer day of 1961. In another photo, a huge crowd is in mourning. "It was Abdel-Nasser's funeral. Everyone was crying." Faces stand out in the grieving, jostling mass, contorted by the terrible sorrow that engulfed the whole country that day.
Was Lollobrigida as beautiful in real life?
With Brando, envied by all the girls
Umm Kalthoum and Kamal Al-Mallakh
Albert shakes his head in wonderment, as if slightly surprised himself to have witnessed such momentous events. Finally, he chooses another photograph. He is the subject here, on the other side of the lens for a change: it shows him receiving his most recent first prize (for a view of the Nile and its bridges; he entered it in the "Cairo Today and Tomorrow" competition, organised by the Armed Forces in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture), from Mrs Suzanne Mubarak. He says, a little sadly perhaps: "I am now taking part in as many competitions as I can, because I realise that this is the only way I will be able to reach the public."
Albert has a great deal to say about the tragic plight of the photo-journalist, who ultimately has few opportunities to acquire a measure of lasting fame. He insists: "People read the newspaper, glance at the photographs, often not even bothering to read the name of the photographers in small print, then throw it away. The following day, no one remembers the events, even less the names of the photographers. Who ever stops to think of what we go through, elbowing our way through a crowd, climbing onto rickety scaffolding, crouching in narrow passages, braving the weather or the police to get a scoop? What good is it to me if I have recorded faultlessly a crucial moment in history?"
We talk about archives, the conservation of photographs and the historical value of his work, but Albert remains unconvinced. He is awed, almost stunned by the ultimate futility of journalistic photography -- which, moreover, unlike a painting, cannot even stand on its own: "Unless the photo is placed in its proper context, it completely loses its meaning after the fact," he says, proffering a handful to illustrate his point. They represent conferences, the laying of cornerstones in various parts of Egypt, art gallery openings, the visits of foreign dignitaries... On the back, Albert has carefully dated and captioned each event: "Without the written word, my work is often useless," he concludes, shrugging.
He finds solace in taking pictures of the environment. Scenic spots can be quite spectacular, and the Nile is one of his favourite subjects; but he never abandons himself to the facility of the purely picturesque. He has also taken countless photos of his daughter, documenting her life, and making her quite famous in the process. Here, too, he has a bone to pick, however: "Photographers' rights are not well protected," he says morosely. On several occasions, he has seen his own pictures, published in other newspapers under other names. "What can one do?" he asks. "Get involved in protracted lawsuits that one never ends up winning, and attract the kind of publicity a good photographer has no use for?" There is more dignity in silence, he thinks. There is bitterness too.
He pores over his precious mementos, pointing out landmarks that have ceased to exist, people who have disappeared. There is one envelope, however, that he fingers absent-mindedly, then pushes back into his drawer unopened. It contains dozens of photographs of Umm Kulthoum, Albert tells us; but he does not seem inclined to share them with us. He is one of her most devoted admirers and is preparing a book on her life, which will include a large number of rare pictures of her. Over the years, he took unique shots of the diva: in concert, walking in the fields around her native village, relaxing alone on the balcony of her villa, practicing a new song with her musicians or meeting friends. He has pictures of all her main concerts, including the last one, during which her voice gave way. He witnessed her career, almost from beginning to end; many of these testimonies to his fascination have never been published. His dilemma now is whether to entrust the narrative to a renowned writer "in which case it will no longer be 'my' book," he explains, "since my photographs will yield to the text"; or he could write it himself, giving his personal work the prominence it deserves. "Still, will anyone buy a book of photographs with little text?" he wonders. He is not sure that the Egyptian public will welcome such a purely visual work.
Sartre and de Beauvoir
Pope Shenouda III
Writing, at any rate, is not really what he likes to do best. Albert admits that he loved both at first, composing the text and illustrating his written account of the events with his camera. He always wanted to be a journalist, and that is how he started out, cumulating both functions back in Damanhour when he became a reporter for Al-Ahram, and later its bureau chief, in this city. His permanent appointment to Al-Ahram followed a stint during which he had worked by the piece for two other papers, Al-Misri and Al-Zaman. In 1952, he went exclusive, becoming Al-Ahram's correspondent, and focusing in particular on the Free Officers who frequently visited the provinces.
Those were the days of cumbersome cameras, and Albert always seized the opportunity to upgrade the tool of his trade, buying whatever was available on the market at the time. He soon became famous for refusing to use a flash; when he was finally moved to the paper's headquarters in Cairo, becoming in 1958 one of the three appointed photographers in the department headed by Archek Masraf, he launched the trend of working without sudden and unnatural illumination of the scene. By 1959, Albert's best shots had pride of place on the last page of Al-Ahram, dedicated to photographs.
Transporting the sweet potatoes;
The best vantage point
Long before joining Al-Ahram's permanent staff, Albert had discovered that composing a text did not give him the rush he felt when looking at the world through his lens. When he was filling in his application, he neglected to mention any other talents. "I knew by then that I had been born to be a photographer," he says without false modesty, "seeing things where others detected nothing out of the ordinary; I was always ready for the signal in my head that told me 'now', propelling me to capture that magical instant with my camera." Once, driving across Abul-Ela Bridge, he saw a sweet potato vendor riding on the roof of a bus, his oven balanced beside him on the rickety vehicle. "I was at the wheel of my car," he recounts, "my camera ready as always, beside me. I leapt out, took the shot, and was on my way without having even slowed the traffic down." The result of his swift action was well worth the trouble; "the next day, the picture was the talk of the town."
Albert denies that his interest in photography was kindled by the fact that his father owned a studio in Suez in the '20s, before moving to Damanhour. It was not his main career anyway, he explains. "My father was an employee of the Suez Tribunal, following in the footsteps of his own father, who had been a high-ranking judicial official in Sudan. In those days, photographers were few and far between, and my father thought of opening the studio as a way of supplementing the family's income. It was more a business than an artistic endeavour."
Albert rises from his chair and locks the drawer containing his treasured possessions. "You need another setting to take a good picture of me," he tells photographer Randa Shaath, who has been contemplating the artificial lighting of the office sombrely. When she admits that she is intimidated by his professional judgement, he chuckles. "You needn't worry, I am quite photogenic," he assures her.
Chatting, we reach the 12th floor of the Al-Ahram building, which is normally flooded with light pouring from the bay windows. The day is overcast, however, and Albert tries to find the best spot. He is quite attuned to Shaath's needs, changing seats and presenting his face at different angles to allow her greater freedom, but when she suggests that he remove his glasses, he is adamant. No amount of cajoling will make him change his mind. "You will have to manage with them, I am afraid. I never take them off," he says firmly; "besides, I look quite good with my glasses on," he adds with a smile not entirely devoid of coquetry. Almost on cue, the restaurant manager comes out of the kitchen and greets Albert effusively, then steps back in confusion, claiming to have mistaken him for a film star. The protests of our photographer extraordinaire do not completely conceal his satisfaction.