In light of studying the place and effect of documentary photography in the exhibition space, Laura El-Tantawy’s In the Shadow of the Pyramids was very insightful and thought provoking. It is a very strong example of how an exhibition space can provide a space and setting that empowers the documentary value of the work and touches its viewers beyond the visual experience, leaving a profound impression and insight in the theme and subject matter of the work. I have been a great admirer of Laura El-Tantawy for a long time and was very excited to hear that her work was being exhibited in New Delhi.
The exhibition consisted of different constellations of images and sound, showing images of El- Tantawy’s childhood in Egypt, political uprises taken in Cairo between 2007 and 2013 and life streaming from Tahir square, connecting memories, hopes and reality in a very personal way. The images are very impressionistic, blurry and grainy and have a much more personal voice than regular photojournalism. In the accompanying booklet Rahaab Allana questions: When such an aesthetic is linked to the question of the photographer’s intent and function, the question arises as to the place and relevance of Laura’s atmospheric, evocative, lyrical images in a media-dominated world that almost invariably upholds and valorizes ‘factual’ representation as the legitimate expression of ‘truth’. Can subjective, poetic media documentation be trusted? (Allana, 2017)
I think they can, but maybe for different reasons than for the purpose of getting factual information. Because the images are so vague, feelings and emotions that entrenched the political uprises come across very strongly. Maybe because I was not distracted by specific details in the images I felt the urgency, desperation and hope. It almost gave the same sense as when you’re dancing in a party. Movements blur, you become more introspected, but on the other hand very aware of the emotions and atmosphere around you. So in that sense I think I can trust that the emotions that are triggered in me touch the emotions that the people on the square were feeling. I read them in the images and feel connected.
On the other hand, when I read the booklet and looked at the images again, but this time with captions and in chronological order, I felt a deeper understanding and became even more aware of the desperate struggle that the country has been going through. It is interesting to notice such a difference in interpretation depending on the amount of information and context in which I look at photographs.
Knowing that the Arab Spring did not last long and has not brought the future the Egyptians hoped for, the images carry a stronger sense of nostalgia and a heavier load than if we had not known the outcome. The sacrifices we see, the hope we read and triumphant joy turned out to be for nothing, a dream shattered, a country disillusioned.
Because Laura El-Tantawy includes images from her childhood, the viewer becomes aware that the photographs are much more than a documentation of a historic event. We see the shattering of the photographer’s dreams and hope, the longing for a time when a place seemed happy and innocent, in which dreams of change came true but were soon after shattered. As is written in the exhibition’s opening line:
The beginning meets the end.
Here I choose to bury my most valued possession.
In a place I once called home. (El-Tantawy, 2017)
Laura El-Tantawy mentioned in her speech that the Arab Spring is forbidden to be talked about or taught in schools. There is a strong censorship on this recent history, actively quieting the voices of protest. However, this exhibition is proof that it actually did happen, together with thousands of other images and documents that are still shared online. Interestingly, the political attache of the Egyptian embassy was at the opening of the exhibition as well. I am not sure how he experienced the work or whether he was touched by it, let alone whether it changed his opinion about it. However, it does show that elevating documentary photography in the art scene and therefor in higher social circles provides an entryway for the influential upperclass to experience it, snobby as it may sound. I believe it is very positive for different outlets of photography, the media, social media and art scene, to live next to each other and therefore reach an as wide audience as possible.
Text on exhibition wall:
El-Tantawy’s most impressionistic views embrace the spectacle of urgency in which the humanbeing becomes an unforgettable prism of crisis, fear, endurance, hope sorrow and other states of emotional extremity.
Such acts of bearing witness also raise the question of the discursive after-life of images – theirre-purposing, re-versioning and dissemination through continually circulated digital media. One positive outcome of such participation in Egypt was the establishment of activist-driven citizen journalism organizations such as Masireen and Thawramedia, which further substatiate the power of digital platforms, a fact confirmed by one newspaper declaring unequivocally: ‘Facebook is the revolution’s headquarters’. Clearly, the coalition of such activist forums into dynamic media alliances after the government had disconnected telephone and internet corroborates social media’s potential as a mode of opposition intervention and critique.
When a people’s revolution implodes, disintegrates or fails through being crushed by a regime or through internal fracture, any digital documentation of the distortions and abuses of power – globally circulating testimonials that cannot be seized, denied, erased or proscribed – becomes a multiple utterance of a particular truth. Technology may be used by oppressive regimes to pulverize protest, but it can also be eventually used against them through the freely distributed image. The critical domain of image reception that El-Tantawy touches upon is the importance of such counter-archives at a time of immense visual democratization and distribution. (Allana, 2017)
El-Tantawy, L. and Allana, R. (2017). In the shadow of the pyramids. [Photographic Installation Booklet] New Delhi: Art Heritage.
TAHRIR SQUARE: JOURNEY: IN THE SHADOW OF THE PYRAMIDS by Laura El-Tantawy. [online] Intheshadowofthepyramids.com. Available at: http://www.intheshadowofthepyramids.com/journey/tahrir-square/018_LET_egypt-book/ [Accessed 30 Aug. 2017].