Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Across cultures in black and white

The Boston-based Egyptian photographer Wael Kamal tells Reham El-Adawi about his work

Hanging in There

“Twenty Years Later” is the latest photography exhibition by Wael Kamal, the award-winning Egyptian photographer and founding director of the Digital Media Programme at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UMass Lowell), US. Inaugurated on 15 July by the Chairman of the Egyptian Syndicate of Plastic Arts Hamdi Abul-Maati, the exhibition was on show until 25 July at the hall of the Plastic Arts Syndicate on the Cairo Opera House grounds. 

These black-and-white images of three of Italy’s most bewitching cities have a strange allure to them, with depth and ambiguity creating a powerful impression. Rome, Venice and Urbino, the latter being where he lived with his parents as a child in 1975-1978 are places that Kamal kept returning to in 1986-1993 but did not visit again for 20 years, going back with the eye of a well-travelled and multicultural professional photographer. Among Kamal’s notable solo exhibitions in the last 15 years are “Where Do We Go From Here” at the Egyptian Institute, Madrid, in July 2016; “Immagini Del Pensiero” at ArteM Associazione Culturale in Pesaro, Italy in June 2015; “Chiaroscuro” at The Space gallery, Abu Dhabi, UAE in

Blend In

May 2015; and “Deniz” at the Center for the Arts at the Armory, MA, US in 2013. It was thus following numerous journeys that the idea of the present show came to him. An expert at using light and shadow for a fresh and uniquely personal perspective that reveals the essence, Kamal manages to stimulate both the heart and the mind with his images.

According to Abul-Maati at the opening, “Wael Kamal is an artist who is known for his evocative photography. He has been long on a journey of exploration that goes beyond conventional photographic style which is mirrored in the aesthetics of his work and his lighting calculations. Kamal is an established  artist from the new generation with a record of distinguished visual creations. His own artistic philosophy stems from his lighting components within his frame and is mirrored on the correlated relationship between form and content.”

For Kamal himself, discovery is key: “We all find ourselves looking through a certain window at the world, with the window resembling a frame inside which we see our own vision of life. Some tend to look from inside the window at the outside world, while others tend to look from outside into the hidden world behind closed windows. I choose to give myself the freedom to look both inside-out and outside-in. My camera’s viewfinder is the window frame I use to compose my world.” In this way, he feels, he can bridge the gap between cultures: “When I moved to the United States, I was exposed to different values. Talking to someone while not looking them in the eye is disrespectful, for example, whereas in Egypt it might imply a challenge or, in the case of a woman, audacity.” Black and white is essential, too: “As a cinematographer by training, lighting is an integral component in my image. Black and white helps me to focus the attention only on lighting and my lines.”

Live the Moment

In an image called Her, Kamal shows a beautiful young woman painting on the streets of Rome. In Do Not Walk Away from Me, an old man in a hat looks across to the other side. The blur in Blend in, Mingling and Slow Down symbolises the attempt to unite with people from various cultures in “a humane dialogue”, in the firm conviction that “we all live in a small village”. Combining perfect timing with an intense awareness of light, and especially the angle, Kamal’s style is akin to a crescendo of intensity, rising and falling and in the process forcing the viewer to look beyond the observable message. He shows not the people, things and places he observes but an abstracted vision. This is borne out by professor of cinematography at the Supreme Institute of Cinema, Samir Saadeddin: “Objects in Kamal’s photographs come to life through his unique approach to photography based on his training as a cinematographer. Kamal not only creates photographs, he also brings to the frame all his past visions, the stories he read, and music he heard.” And he does so, remarkably, with a sparse visual vocabulary.

Hanging by a Thread

Kamal was awarded the Second Photography Award from the Whistler Museum of Art in Massachusetts in 2014, the second Best Photo Award from Egypt’s Ministry of Culture in 1997 and 2000 and the third Best Photo Award in 1993 and 1999. He was nominated by the Egyptian Supreme Council for Culture to represent Egypt at the Himeji International Exhibition for Professional Photographers in Japan in 1999 and to its cultural exchange programme with Malta in 1995. His photos are part of the Permanent Photography Collections of the University of UMass Lowell, Georgia State University, Atlanta GA, the Academy of Arts in Egypt and private collections in Egypt, US, UAE, Italy and Spain.

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