This Egyptian photographer was awarded one of the five grants presented by the W. Eugene Smith Fund for her project I’ll Die For You. Her aesthetic in documentary photography is unique.
A gaze that caresses the world. An enchantment of people and things, their transfiguration into unresolved geometrical figures whose ready shaping sees them merge harmoniously in a single setting. With this gaze Laura El-Tantawy casts a spell on the elements of her subject matter: we think of that schoolyard in which she first detected an artistic form. Black patches on a white pearl. The checkerboard pattern of a football she touches like Zico, the Brazilian artist of the 1980s; Zico being the nickname her classmates gave this girl who was slightly different, who always felt closer to the boys.
Very early this nonconformist photographer, now aged forty, sensed the need to blaze her own trail. Like so many others today, she’s a woman in a man’s world; a woman who looks at that world in three dimensions, as if it were a gravity-free space movie—except that photography has to be sampled in two dimensions and with your feet very much on the ground. Egyptian, a photojournalist, and once part of the famous VII agency’s Mentor Program, Laura El-Tantawy speaks of her country, its people, and other peoples in a unique visual language. One of those evocative aesthetics in which human silhouettes blend into their landscapes. We are led in delicately here: these images, far removed from the maxims of documentary and even more so of journalism, simultaneously show everything and nothing, and offer the viewer a rare privilege—the freedom to interpret.
Perpetually on the go-between England, Egypt, and Dubai, Laura El-Tantawy has to be tracked down on Skype: we see her stumble as she goes over to close the window and cut off the howl of the sirens outside. She has an infectious laugh, eloquently emotional eyes, a mass of existential anxiety, and a 22nd-century punk hairdo. Born near London, which is now her base, she grew up in the Cairo of her ancestors: a conservative environment but a modern family, with a doctor father keeping the directions his three daughters were taking.
Her education was the product of cultural convergence: she went to university in Egypt “and didn’t learn a thing”, then decided to get out of the East and head for the United States with her older sister. “I changed over to political science and journalism. I’d always liked writing. And when I was a kid I listened in on my family—my grandparents in particular—having long political discussions. My family was always really au fait with the social and political situation in Egypt. But accepting me going down that road, that was another matter…”
In a place of honor on a shelf behind her stands Bob Dylan’s first LP. A symbol of another committed generation, Dylan looks down at her with the same gaze: young and apprehensive, but determined. It was this same need for commitment that drove Laura towards art— photography as it turned out. She took a few courses at university, as you do, learned the basics—“how to make contact with people in the street”—and soaked up the work of people she still admires today: James Nachtwey and his poignant book Inferno; Rebecca and Alex Webb; Spanish photographer Miguel Rio Branco, with his infinitely subtle style and his exhibitions designed as visual experiences; Gueorgui Pinkhassov; and yet another Magnum photographer, David Alan Harvey, with whom she built up a relation of confidence.
“My passion for images really came to the surface in 1999. David Alan Harvey was a big influence; he was very supportive and encouraged me to work on a personal approach. At the start, I wanted to be a war photographer, but I soon realized I wasn’t tough enough. I opted for a less dangerous life; and by thinking hard about the impact of the photographic image on the mind, I came up with a personal, intriguing style. Something that might already have been there in the charcoal self-portraits I did when I took drawing classes. One day the teacher looked at them and said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I can see something there.’”
Laura’s projects always focus on social questions and events, but there is often a personal side to them as well. She insists that a large part of her output “has to do with the memory of her origins”, and we find her most significant and critically successful works of the last few years addressing the history of Egypt and Middle-Eastern cultural practices.
Her big current project, I’ll Die for You, was triggered by an article she read about farmers committing suicide in India after being forced off their land by urban sprawl and the pressure of endless loans. “Since 2010,” she says, “I’ve been traveling the world photographing farmers who can’t live off the land anymore. I went to India, where 250,000 of them have killed themselves in fifteen years; to Ireland, which has a powerful traditional link between people and the land; and to my grandfather’s village in Egypt—he was a peasant farmer too. The project is rooted in the mutual dependence between humanity and the earth. I’ve tried to show this relationship symbolically in a series of close-ups that juxtapose the farmers’ rough skin and the local landscapes, blurring the distinction between the two. When one of them dies, so does the other.”
Wherever she goes Laura is both hair-trigger sensitive and averse to the neutrality photojournalists are traditionally supposed to cling to. Proximity is her greatest source of inspiration, although some situations are trickier than others: “Working in Egypt was difficult: when the revolution broke out I was torn between doing my job as a photographer and joining the demonstrators. And in fact, I swapped roles more than once.”
Laura has taken to the latest technology almost instinctively, regularly swapping from her digital camera to her iPhone and incorporating the phone images into her projects on an equal basis with her camera work. The iPhone and the social networks have opened up new horizons for her: “Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have become extensions of what documentary photographers do. They’re also a kind of diary, and obviously more personal than documentary. I like this sharing mechanism, being able to reach a worldwide audience in a flash and get real-time feedback.”
For her, differences of perspective also include complementarity between male and female points of view. She sees no advantages or disadvantages in being a woman in this mostly male world, but she knows how powerful difference can be: “One thing for sure, there can be differences in visual languages between men and women, with varying tendencies towards subtlety and fragility.”
No question, Laura El-Tantawy is the archetypal modern photographer: vigorously attached to her personal way of seeing, given to thinking hard about her métier, working equally well in the flurry of the immediate as in the long-term, and a skilled exponent of cutting-edge communication technology. Her concerns set her at the point of convergence of some of the major issues of our age: an age described as a watershed for photography because, as in so many other fields, technological change means changes to practices, behavior, and economic models; an age increasingly dominated by the speed syndrome that seems to have affected her too.
An age of learning, exchanging, and criticizing over and over, faster and faster, more and more readily, for an ever-increasing audience, however alien all this may seem in terms of attention span. Confronted by this new, high-speed existence and all its potential for generating superficiality, Laura El-Tantawy is living testimony to the value every true photographer embodies as a devotee of form and a steadfast defender of content: commitment.
By Jonas Cuénin