25 - 31 July 2002
Issue No. 596
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Living in Cairo affords few opportunities for artistic self-expression. Not that photography is really about art, judging by the haughty tone with which most contemporary photojournalists dismiss the question. But in striving to capture a visual signification, if not recount a story in pictures, and in relying on procedures that involve subject, point of view and eventual object of contemplation, even the most casual photographer, whether knowingly or not, engages in a creative process. As it turns out one defining aspect of the specifically photographic process is that it has extremely wide implications for the aforementioned living. Practicing photography in Cairo, one acquires knowledge about the state of technological know-how, of the economy, of work ethics, of political awareness and of prevalent attitudes to public interaction.
My interest in the discipline developed gradually over time; but it wasn't until I had achieved results with an instamatic that my faith in the manual SLR grew: the virtues of an automatic SLR (Nikon, I was repeatedly informed, though never very convincingly, is preferable to Canon) finally began to dawn on me. An investigation of Cairo's overabundance of photo labs (with the exception of a few electronics stores and Alpha Market, these are the only places where new cameras can be purchased) yielded the occasional, amateur's overpriced SLR, it is true, but instamatics (some of which admittedly have the advantage of zoom and spot metering) were by far the only available option. I was advised to go digital (not a bad option if you can afford it); no cameras were allowed into the country, somebody else ludicrously counselled; one has to seek out enthusiasts for the old, all- manual models, insisted others. I felt lost.
Only the newly opened branch of the Alexandrian specialty shop Al-Shinnawi, located on Digla Street, Mohandessin, offered a range of second-hand SLRs and range-finders. Haggling proves essential even here, though: a futile exercise, considering how Al- Shinnawi, small as it remains, is a virtual monopoly. Combined with the overbearing aggressiveness of the manager, the staff's limited understanding of the machinery of light and the stifling, neon-lit atmosphere, the experience is not as pleasant as it might be. The economic marginality of photography and professional ineptitude encountered during the first stage of the photographic exercise would resurface during the last: procuring reasonable- looking prints -- a procedure that entails the incredibly tricky task of working out whether exposure and focus errors are really your fault or the lab's -- proves almost as difficult as purchasing a good SLR.
Antar Photo Stores in Bab Al-Louq is the professional's colour lab of choice, though considering the hassle of parking and the inevitable inattentiveness of the lab's predictably overworked staff -- once you realise that, ultimately, it is really the negative that counts -- it is not always instantly clear what the advantage of Antar over same-day automated Kodak and Fuji labs might be. They do have an eye for detail at Antar, but contrary to their professional designation they print black-and-white negatives on colour paper. Philip in Doqqi, by contrast, has the obvious advantage of being -- the persistent claims of Kodak and Fuji staff notwithstanding -- the only lab in Cairo that employs both black-and-white chemicals and paper, having retained the Ilford franchise from the good old days. The preferred medium of most photojournalists and some art photographers, black-and-white in Cairo seems to be a dying art. Which is why black-and- white professionals invariably do their own printing.
Exposure and focus aside, the infinitely intricate dynamics of seeking out and composing subjects make for an amusing glimpse into Cairo life. Contrary to the appearance of a historically exotic locale -- something that applies to traditional coffee houses and souqs as well as ancient and Islamic monuments -- subjects in Cairo are nowhere near as forthcoming as they might be. To police and passers-by alike, wielding a camera is more like wielding a machine-gun than a drawing book and charcoal pencil; and while responses range from blank amusement to hostile surprise, it is in the most interesting settings that people most often maintain the inexplicable link between cameras and espionage. So much for outdoor photography. Indoors there is the problem of insufficient light; and however keenly honed your portraiture might be, those who are most eager to be photographed are the least likely to appreciate their own pictures. That said, however, it is the process itself, rather than any single achievement or positive response, that proves rewarding in the long run.
Letter from the Editor
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