‘You are almost invisible’: An interview with Egyptian photographer Mosa’ab Elshamy

August 20, 2013

A pro-Muslim Brotherhood protester pauses during clashes with security forces in Cairo. (Mosaab el-Shamy/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

If you've been following this month's historic and often tragic events in Egypt at all, or even if you've walked past a newsstand, you've probably seen the photography of Mosa'ab Elshamy. Although he's been taking news photos for less than two-and-a-half years, and at first only as an amateur, Elshamy has earned a wide following, particularly on Flickr, for his arresting, emotional and often intimate photos from his native Cairo.

I spoke over Skype with Elshamy late on Monday, during the military-imposed curfew, which he said he's mostly spent staying with friends and "getting fat." An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

WorldViews: You first got into photojournalism during the 18 days in early 2011 when protests brought down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, so your career has kind of tracked the two-and-a-half years of the Egyptian revolution. What’s the experience been like, of photographing these historic events in your own country as they swirl around you?

Mosa'ab Elshamy: I think to me it's like photographing a really good story that's gone bad. Back in 2011, when the possibilities were endless, there were signs of hope and determination and resilience. All these things synonymous with a revolution. It was still dreamlike. But it's gone really bad.

WV: Do you feel like watching it as a photojournalist gives you a special or unique view of what's happening?

ME: It does add an extra angle, an extra dimension. And I'm not just talking about looking at things from a higher view, sometimes literally when you're in a building over Tahrir Square looking over a massive crowd. You can't really put distance between the personal and professional aspect. As an Egyptian, and as someone who did participate in the revolution, you can't detach yourself from what's going on.

The fact that I had pictures to document all these levels from -- not a complete revolution, but a revolutionary moment that has gone to this nightmarish situation we're in now -- helps not just with tracking what happened. It helps you to be able to go back and look at how and when things went wrong.

WV: Do you look back over your old photos, from the last two years, a lot?

ME: [Laughs] I've honestly been trying to avoid that. A friend mentioned that it was like looking at a wedding photo album after getting divorced. I think that expressed it well because the current situation just makes it much more difficult to look back at a moment when people did stand together and stood for something that was right and true and was worth it.

So, no, I haven't exactly been [looking at my old photos]. But, for documentation purposes, I do go back a bit. But I try not to do that a lot. Like I said, you can't really detach yourself.


A pro-Morsi protester holds cooking pots used to prepare meals during the days-long sit-in at Rabaa before security forces cleared the gathering of several thousand people.  (Mosa'ab Elshamy/EPA)

WV: What do you feel you've learned about photojournalism, about covering historic events through photos, from your work over the last two years?

ME: More than anything, it's helped me understand the value of my work. But I feel that it's added more to me as a human than as a photojournalist. Following all these events, looking at them from behind a lens, always added an extra dimension.

At moments, especially during violence, you felt that it added more to you as a human because you were there but not really. You can't see yourself in any of the pictures that you took. You are almost invisible because you have to take cover, not let yourself be seen and be as invisible as possible. But at the end of the day, you lived every moment of it and you had evidence of the horrors that had happened.

In a photojournalism sense, I did appreciate how significant events really end up taking seconds. This is always something I think about. As a photographer you always have to keep the shutter on -- we call it the burst mode. I have full sequences, and sometimes it starts with somebody standing, but in the sixth or seventh photo, he's got a bullet through his head, and it all took less than a second.

The consequences of that moment, of this guy getting shot or avoiding a bullet that killed someone else -- it's a very significant thing, and more often that's becoming lost. I try to focus on that in my pictures, I try to include as few people as possible; just a man sitting with a killed friend of his, or a mother mourning next to a daughter. It's a very individual act, one person killing another person.


Female protesters read from the Koran as security forces clear a pro-Morsi sit-in. (Mosa'ab Elshamy/EPA)

WV: That's one of the things, I think, that makes your photos really distinctive, that you'll go into these big chaotic events, rallies or clashes, and find these small, intimate, almost quiet moments. Like a protester resting on a cinderblock, or one of my favorites that shows two women praying in the middle of the chaos near Rabaa. Do you seek these small scenes out, or do you just kind of stumble onto them?

ME: Maybe a bit of both, but it is something I'm on the lookout for, the very little stories within the big picture, beyond the squares of the people that become a single object where it's easy to classify everyone as either X or Y. Sometimes I train myself to do that even when I don't have a camera, when I walk around the street and just try to look very closely. It's a practice.

WV: What are you looking for when you do that?

ME: Not necessarily anyone, just trying to isolate people in crowds or objects in shops or windows in a huge building. This is usually what I do when I'm practicing. In the clashes or the rallies, I think I've just become used to getting closer. I'm not a fan of aerial shots, or shots taken from an elevated position.

There is something very strong about a collective mass moving together for the same cause, but it's not made up of identical people. When you go really, really close, when you zoom as close as you can, you find all these differences that make a much more complete image. I personally don't use a zoom lens, so I end up getting as close as possible.

WV: How do people react to you when you do that? You can tell in the photos that you're really, really close to your subjects.

ME: Usually the first thing they do is try to pose [laughs]. I usually have about five or 10 pictures of them posing and then I try to show them that, "OK, I'm done here." I want them to go back to whatever they were doing, then I come back when they're done with posing and take a more natural, more candid photo. During clashes, though, everyone is more overwhelmed and has more to worry about than, say, during protests or rallies. But it's always quite a task to balance between not invading people's privacy and at the same time trying to capture an intimate or candid moment.


A young man mourns next to the bodies of protesters killed during clashes in Cairo. (Mosa'ab Elshamy/EPA)

WV: I wanted to ask about one of the photos where you do this really well, the one that was on the front page of the New York Times last Thursday, the day after security forces stormed the pro-Morsi camps and hundreds of civilians died. It showed a young man hunched over a body of someone who'd been killed, clutching a cellphone. Can you talk about what you saw in that photo and what it was like to take?

He wasn't the only one there, obviously. He was holding the hand of his [deceased] friend. I think his friend's name was Abdulrahman because he kept mentioning that name on the phone. There were a lot of people there looking for their loved ones, trying to see if they were among those killed. And he had obviously been there for a long time. He had gone in to that phase when you stop crying and you're just crouched next to the body.

When people go to morgues they're shocked at first, but after they stay long enough with the body they become -- they want to be as quiet as possible, to grieve quietly. And this is what he was doing. He had a phone and he was answering calls. Everyone who he talked to, he would say something like, "He's gone now." And then he would go back to just holding his hand. He was talking to [his friend] in a very low voice that I didn't really want to invade. But I heard him say [in Arabic], "Forgive me, forgive me, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

It was very difficult to watch. I think he stayed there for hours. It wasn't just a morgue, it was a half-morgue, half-makeshift hospital. It was very chaotic, it was hot, it was filled with bodies. They had to use ice blocks on the bodies because it was hot and the fans were getting overwhelmed. But he just stayed in his own world.


A pro-Morsi protester gestures during clashes with security forces. (Mosaab el-Shamy/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

WV: Let me ask you about one other photo, from August 14, of a lone protester at Rabaa [where security forces raided a pro-Morsi sit-in camp]. He's standing in front of a wall of flaming debris and holding his fist up, with this defiant look on his face. Is there a story behind that photo?

ME: This is actually the fire that was technically the front line [of the fighting there]. On the other side of the fire were the police forces and the huge bulldozer that was sweeping away the tents. So they had to make as much of a fire as they could, as a barricade. People would go to that side and throw stones and come back. This guy was the one encouraging people, asking them to stand their ground.

WV: So he was looking at fellow protesters.

ME: Yeah, he was most likely saying the Takbir ["Allahu akbar," or "God is great"] and encouraging people. People going across, to the other side of the barricade, were mostly getting sniped. A lot of people were getting killed right in front of the fire. It was a clear spot for the snipers on the side and the troops. He was quite courageous.

WV: Do you have a favorite photo that you've taken?

ME: I have three.


Protesters clash with police in Cairo. (Courtesy Mosa'ab Elshamy)

This one, from February 2012, was from the clashes that erupted after the Port Said massacre [in which protesters accused police of being either complicit or negligent in a fight between rival soccer fans that killed 74 people]. It was back when SCAF [the military leadership body, Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] was still in charge, on Mohamed Mahmoud [a major street in Cairo]. It was very close to the Ministry of the Interior and protesters couldn't stop the police, so they shot these fireworks straight at them. But it ended up becoming something very beautiful.

This second one, to me, is very personal:


An eye patch is shown over one of the famous 19th-century lion statues on the Qasr al-Nil Bridge in Cairo. (Courtesy Mosa'ab Elshamy)

It's personal for me because I did get shot in the eye in December 2011 and it was a very close call. I ended up having surgery and was lucky I didn't lose my eye. It was during the cabinet clashes. The army soldiers who were on top of the buildings [overlooking the protests] were throwing down all kinds of stuff, throwing windows and complete blocks of glass. I didn't notice until a big piece of glass shattered in front of me and a small shard got into my eye.

This photo is of the Qasr al-Nil lion, during a campaign in Cairo after Mohammed Mahmoud [clashes] when over 20 protesters were shot in the eye, where famous statues were covered with eye patches. It's very strong to me, not just because of the personal aspect, but because symbolism has been a very powerful weapon in the Egyptian revolution. People make symbols and icons of the marchers, of specific events, of famous streets. These sorts of symbolic acts have been present throughout the Egyptian revolution, and this is one that stays with me.

This is the last one, that I personally like a lot:


A protester kneels before army troops during May 2012 protests in Cairo's Abbasiya district. (Courtesy Mosa'ab Elshamy)

This was also in 2012, during the Abbasiya clashes. The sit-in was originally staged by Islamists, but when the military moved in to crush it, a lot of revolutionaries joined, and it ended up becoming a clash between them and the military.

Obviously they weren't nearly as brutal as they are now, so people could still afford to make gestures like this, kneeling on the ground and waving victory signs.

WV: You've done some work in Gaza but otherwise focused on Egypt. Do you ever see yourself traveling more widely as a photojournalist?

ME: I do want to travel more, because I think it adds to you as a human, and it does help as a photojournalist. But I would like to stay here and document the dark days ahead. Because it seems that more and more the truth in Egypt is getting lost, between public and private media that's blindly following the state in its so-called "war on terror" and the other media, which is not the most unbiased, either. I feel there should be more people dedicated to trying to get that truth out. But, in the long term, I definitely would like to leave.

WV: Can I ask about your brother, who's also a journalist, with al- Jazeera Arabic, and I know has been arrested? Any word on how he's doing?

ME: He's being treated as a protester and not as a journalist, even though he was arrested at Rabaa and he was doing his job. I definitely think that's intentional, because as a protester you're going to be screwed a lot more than if you're a journalist.

WV: Is he facing a military trial?

ME: No, he was referred to civilian prosecution and he was interrogated and got 15 days detention, pending an investigation. The charges he's facing include inciting sectarian violence and murder and disturbing public order. He's now in Abu Zabaal prison, where we haven't been able to reach him. Neither have the attorneys. That's also intentional; they usually have the investigation at night, during the curfew, which makes it impossible for the lawyers to attend. They've also been preventing all prison visits, throughout the entire country. But we're hoping we'll be able to get permission to see him sometime next week.

SECTION: {section=world, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=5, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=5, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=world, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=5, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=5, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Next Story
Max Fisher · August 20, 2013