The camera's truthful eye
Egypt's news photographers raised the bar at this year's Press Photo Awards, held last week in Cairo. Dena Rashed
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Emad Abdel-Hamid's photo that captured the tragedy of Deweiqa won the first prize in the news category; Ahmed El-Masry's shot guaranteed him the first prize in the arts and cinema section; Osama Abdel-Nabi won third award in the sports category capturing the fall of Ahly's Flavio
Though the second round of Egypt's annual Press Photo Awards was held last week at the same venue as last year's inaugural competition, the Al-Sawy Cultural Wheel Centre in Zamalek, the atmosphere could not have been more different. The hall was crowded and it was obvious to all that after last year's success the Awards have now become a must-attend event. According to Amr Nabil of the AP news agency and the prime mover behind the Awards, this year's competition attracted entries from 86 news photographers, all of them aiming to capture the reality of Egyptian society and the emotions of Egypt's people.
This year's Awards were divided into eight categories, news, sports, the environment, tourism, portraiture, arts and cinema, "picture package" and free shots, the categories aiming to allow photographers to demonstrate the artistic qualities, as well as the news values, of their work. And, as was also the case last year, the competition reminded visitors of the established masters of the field, with prime positions being given to the striking black-and- white work of Al-Ahram 's own Toni Fares, Emil Karam and the late Fathi Hussein. Other photographers recognised for their accomplishments were the late Mohamed Rashwan and Shawqi Mustafa of Al-Akhbar and the late Ibrahim Omar of Al-Gomhuriya. All six were given honorary awards for their accomplishments over recent decades.
Throughout the exhibition of the photographs entered for the Awards, Egyptian society was displayed in all its variety, news photographs from the past year enabling viewers to relive the nation's collective experiences, some of them tragic and others showing the beauty of a country that has a million extraordinary sights and millions of different faces.
First prize in the environment category went to Essam El-Shami for his photograph of a schoolgirl walking across a stream of sewage. Among the other remarkable photographs on display were those by Reuters' Abdel-Nasser El-Nouri of the strikes at Mahala, which also won a first prize, and by Al-Ahram 's Al-Said Abdel-Qader of Alexandria fishermen, which won a second prize. Among the more sensational photographs on display were those of Hisham Talaat Mustafa, who is accused of killing the singer Suzanne Tamim. This case has often been on the front pages of the newspapers in recent months, with the result that no fewer than four photographs by different photographers were on show capturing Mustafa's looks behind bars.
Al-Ahram 's Ayman Ibrahim, a member of the Photographers Society, the photographers' professional association, explained why this year's competition differed from last year's, the entrants now seeing the Awards as an encouragement to their careers and being more focussed in their attitudes towards them. This year there were more than 400 photographs in competition, and, depending on the category, seven to 11 judges picking the best works.
In the environment category, a photograph of rice straw burning by Mohamed El-Said won fourth place, reflecting an environmental problem that has resurfaced every year for the past nine years, filling the skies with the infamous black clouds. The winner of the fifth honorary award, Khaled El-Desouqi, also captured an event that has filled the papers over the past year, this time the various strikes and protests that have taken place across the country. El-Desouqi's photograph showed people in the port of Damietta protesting against the government's decision to build an Agrium fertiliser factory in the vicinity, the photo focussing on a girl holding up a banner that read, "For our children's health, no to Agrium."
Interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly, El-Desouqi, who works for the AFP news agency, said that the exhibition was a way of encouraging photographers to excel and to raise their performances. "They get acquainted with each other's work, and at the same time their performance gets better with the aim of being on the same level as foreign photographers," he said. With two awards in hand, the other for winning third place in the "picture package" category for his photographs taken in Rafah, El-Desouqi said that the competition was very tough, since this year the quality of the work had been especially good, making it very hard for the judges to pick winners.
El-Desouqi also described the day-to-day life of a news photographer as being very hard. "Very often, we have to have permits in order to do our work, so we have problems with many state organisations," he said. The Photographers Society, meets with officials to try to reach common ground, but while the Ministry of Interior has set up a hotline that allows photographers to voice their concerns, for example about the sometimes excessive zeal of the police, "this service has not been properly activated," Ibrahim said. In El-Desouqi's view, news photographers do not take photographes for personal fame or glory. Instead, they work for what they see as the needs of society and in the hope that others will see these needs too.
Iman Hilal, at the moment a comparative newcomer to news photography as a recent mass communications graduate from Cairo University, also emphasised some of the difficulties of photography as a career. Hilal, a good-looking young woman who wears the veil, worked as a journalist for television and newspapers for two years and then chose news photography as a career eight months ago, managing to find her way to many hot spots.
"Some people say that women photographers can't cut it, but I managed to be in places like the Ghad Party headquarters when it was on fire and at the protests of students who were members of the Muslim Brotherhood," Hilal said. While still at the beginning of her career, Hilal has received recognition from the Photographers Society for her work, yet, she says, female photographers can face challenges that are unknown to men. "A friend of mine, also a photographer, is pregnant at the moment, and so she has had to stop working. Women journalists, on the other hand, can work during the earlier months of pregnancy."
Another female photographer, Rania Gomaa, who won last year's first prize with her shot of Emad El-Kebir on the day he won his case against a police officer accused of torture, was also a winner this year but in a very different field. While she was not sure she would win again, Gomaa's photograph of two men performing the tahtib, a traditional dance from Upper Egypt in which men use wooden sticks in a symbolic fight, won second place in the tourism section. Gomaa has a different opinion to Hilal regarding women working in photography. "In any job, women take time off to have children, whether they are photojournalists or doctors. I believe it has to do with the person whether she wants to maintain her career or not," Gomaa said.
When it comes to the hardships women face in such a career, Gomaa believes that both men and women face the same kinds of problems, when dealing with the security forces for example. Yet, she still finds it strange that people are not used to female photographers. "They have got used to women being journalists and men being photographers, so they tend to ask why the roles are reversed," Gomaa said. Participating in this year's Awards also means a lot to her, since "with the increasing number of photographers, they help beginners like us to gain experience."
Another young photographer who won a first prize this year, this time in the portrait category, was Hossam Fadl, 27, of Al-Masry Al-Yom. His winning photograph depicts a young mother shedding tears for her daughter after a thanawiya amma (high school) exam, these exams often being a dramatic time for students and their families as the choice of university can depend on differences of only a few marks. In recent years, the tears and the screams of students and their parents after the exams have given photographers many emotions to capture on film.
After the Awards ceremony, Fadl, who received rounds of applause from his colleagues, was ecstatic. Although he won in the portrait category, he is happy to take any sort of photograph, saying that "I am a news photographer, and I cover anything." Yet, Fadl, too, does not appear to find his profession easy, and in 2006 he filed charges against three members of parliament, accusing them of assaulting him while he was doing his job. Although the case was settled amicably, this has not meant that Fadl is any less wary of the dangers that being a news photographer can entail. A few weeks ago, while on an assignment to capture the tearing down of a villa next to the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, Fadl was assaulted by the builders, who took his camera and memory card. Unable to press charges against them because of the absence of the reporter at the time, Fadl felt helpless and decided not to proceed with his case.
"I was frustrated and did not want to continue, until Hossam Diab, the head of the society and my boss, called me and asked me to come to the Press Photo Awards. As a result I won." While Fadl still has a lot to worry about in his work, he loves his job. "I wish people would realise that the camera is the eye of truth. People see photographers in the wrong way: we are not intruders, we just report reality in photos," Fadl said.
Another extraordinary photograph that won a first prize at the Awards was Al-Akhbar photographer Emad Abdel-Hamid's picture of a woman who had lost her loved ones and her house in the rock fall last year in Deweiqa. "The photograph says it all," Abdel-Hamid said. "Here is the person and the event in one shot, recording what must have been the saddest event of the year." For Abdel-Hamid, who has been covering the news as a photographer for the past 15 years, photographers still do not receive the credit they deserve. Sometimes, he says, people still do not welcome photographers taking pictures of them.
Another veteran in the field, Manaa Mohamed of Akhbar Al-Yom, started taking photographs when he was just 13 years old, then taking to photography as a career. He was assigned to take official photographs of the late president Anwar El-Sadat until the latter's assassination in 1981. Mohamed's photograph of a young family in the aftermath of the Deweiqa tragedy won second place in the news category at this year's Awards, as well as the Photo of the Year Award.
Speaking to the Weekly, Mohamed said that he says a prayer before each assignment, asking God for his blessings due to the hardships he has to face in his job. "It is a tough job being a photographer in a conservative society in which people do not want their photographs taken," Mohamed said. Once he was taking a photograph of teachers going through exams in a bid to raise their educational standards, when they forcibly stopped him from taking photographs. "I have also found myself taking a photograph in the street, only to have a passer-by come up to me to ask me what I am doing and whether I have a permit. This is not to mention the hassle that photographers can have with the security forces during any major event," Mohamed said.
Al-Ahram's Ayman Ibrahim, said that he shared the same concerns, yet he pointed out that photographers generally find ways of dealing with such problems. "Sometimes, we calm people down, or try to talk sense into them, working around the annoyance of the public and that of the security forces at the same time. However, not all photographers know how to do this, and the worst experience of all is when we are attacked from both sides, by the public and by the security forces. If this does not cause physical damage, the equipment at least often gets broken."
As if to confirm what Ibrahim had said, Amr Abdallah's photograph which won third place in the news category depicts fellow Al-Ahram photographer Salah Ibrahim struggling with the security forces at a meeting of the Ghad Party. In addition to Ibrahim and Abdallah, other Al-Ahram photographers like Ayman Ibrahim, Bassam El-Zoghbi, Yosri Aql, Osama Abdel-Nabi and Al-Said Abdel-Qader also featured heavily in the Awards.
Unfortunately, last Tuesday, the Photographers Society announced that the photo of Tarek El-Gabbas of Al-Dostour newspaper, which won first prize in the free shots category, was unduly altered using Photoshop. The photo depicted a young woman in a bikini on the beach next to a woman wearing niqab.
"The prize was withheld and El-Gabbas was expelled from the Photographers Society. He will not be able to participate in any of the association's activities. And the second-prize winner got first prize," Ibrahim told the Weekly. However, this incident does not undermine the successful outcome of the Awards and the efforts of the other photographers.
While many of the news photographers at this year's Press Photo Awards have the same complaints about people not understanding the role they play in conveying reality, and about the security forces at times hindering their work, they seem to live on an adrenaline rush from their jobs all the same. They complain, but they enjoy every moment of their work, especially when it is recognised at an event like the Press Photo Awards.