You’ve probably heard about Tahrir Square, the location of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and continuing protests that followed. The site remains a hotbed of political activism and sporadic outbreaks of unrest stemming from the new government led by President Mohamed Morsi
, a faltering figurehead who appears to be controlled by the “brothers” of the organization to which he used to belong, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Underneath the noisy square is a quiet place, Sadat Station, a place where there are no protests and where everyday Egyptians tend to a semblance of normal life–going to and from work, picking up groceries and meeting friends.
A sane photographer would know better not to travel on the subway with a Canon around his neck the size of a soccer ball while taking the subway trains under Cairo–or would he? You have to consider the word sane here. Put a camera around the neck of an ardent street photographer and it’s quite possible there is no such such word as sane.
As a photographer who collects photos of train stations and subways, the opportunity to photograph under Cairo seemed thrilling. Once I got to Cairo, I had doubts about the subway, not so much associated with fear, but more about with getting lost in a maze of tunnels among indecipherable Arabic signage.
To be sure, I decided to go underground and check it out with that Canon hanging around my neck. By the time I got to the bottom of the stairs at one of the subway stations a good distance from downtown, set my ISO to 3200 and incessantly began snapping pictures of what had to be the quietest place in Cairo–I mean no one said anything. When the subway trains were not coming to and from the station you could hear a pin drop (well, almost).
After I got on the train I set my camera on my lap and snapped a few more pictures from the hip. When the train arrived I had a group of people were giving me curious stares that clearly revealed an annoyed why-are-you-taking-pictures-here kind of look. I’ve gotten on other subway stations around the world where taking pictures is not that big a deal. Most people, say, in Paris and New York don’t care.
Needless to say after I got off the train and snapped a few more pictures I found a group of men following and trying to talk to me. It didn’t occur to me that they were police, as I thought they were just going to ask me for money.
My first reaction was to run, but my partner looked at me sternly, letting me know that these men were the police.
Before we knew it were were asked to follow them to an undisclosed location. Once we arrived in the men’s office, we were asked why we take pictures of the subway.
At that point, fear instilled every part of my body. What had I done? What was going to happen to me? What was going to happen to my camera?
In a moment’s time the policemen asked for our passports. My camera was still around my neck. I quickly offered it the Canon to them, saying they could have it as they took our passports.
One of the men took the camera, sat down with another man and went through the images.
My heart was beating rapidly as they asked how to see the images. Then the men asked me to sit back down and began to look at the pictures.
As they thumbed thorough them, they found images I had taken the day before at the Bronx Zoo, you know pictures of animals–lions, apes, snakes and such. They began to chuckle. Clearly the other men in the room were puzzled by their behavior as they attempted to remain professional.
Suddenly my camera went up into the air, with both men asked me where the pictures of the subway were. I got up and showed them.
The men asked me over and over again–why are you taking these pictures?
I replied that it was ART, that I took pictures of subways all around the world as part of an ongoing ART project about the different subway stations of the world.
“ART!” they said, “What is ART?”
Well that just opened up a Pandora’s Box of thoughts. My partner smiled as the men waited for an answer. I thought how to I explain the meaning of art to a group of men who don’t speak English.
Before you knew it everyone in the room was smiling, except one, the last die-hard of Egyptian professionalism.
“ART,” I said “are beautiful part of life…just life as it is happening.” Hmmm, like they understood that.
As they continued looking through the subway images, the smiles took place more frequently. They handed me back my camera as the chuckles continued and led us out the door of the Sadat Subway Station, adjacent to Tahrir Square.
My partner and I, tremendously relieved, laughed too. Of course I had to apologize for being a bit snap-happy with my camera under one of the most volatile places in the world today outside Syria.
As a photographer who just doesn’t listen to the warnings–“Don’t go to Tahrir Square”–I now had a set of images (not very good ones) of under Tahrir Square.
All this being said, Egypt is not a welcoming place for a Canon D5 Mark II or any other camera that covers a good part of your chest. Outside of the tourist attractions, most people in Egypt do not want their photograph taken.
|The looks continued.