Yasser Alwan: Photographer with a cause

By Harry van Versendaal

I like getting lost. It’s the best way to really get to know a city,” explained Yasser Alwan as he arrived outside a Thessaloniki bar some 30 minutes after our agreed time. After 17 years in Cairo, the 47-year-old photographer certainly knows the streets of the Egyptian metropolis as well as any homegrown resident.

Born in Nigeria to Iraqi parents, Alwan told me he lived in Lebanon and Iraq before moving with his parents to New York in the early 1970s. His Iraqi-American background was “volatile enough” for him to decide to leave the US in 1992. He said he hadn’t been back since.

Standing in the tradition of documentary art photography, Alwan was in Greece this weekend for the inauguration of “Facing Mirrors,” an exhibition of 130 portraits at the northern port city’s Museum of Photography that is also showcasing works by Middle East artists Gilbert Hage, Youssef Nabil, Hrair Sarkissian and Raed Yassin.

During a panel discussion in Thessaloniki, Alwan, an outspoken critic of the Mubarak regime who played an active role in the January uprisings, responded to questions about his work and political developments in Egypt. Here is an excerpt of the discussion.

My images are as artless as possible. Yes, I think about balance and composition. But what I am mostly interested in is honest human contact. I am not interested in spectacle or a visual experience. I am interested in an all-round experience and in celebrating the people I take photographs of.

It’s probably the most produced item in the world today, and it’s the easiest thing to make: a picture. Of, course, it is also the easiest thing to delete. Any picture made for public space — all the print media, television and the Internet — has a life of 24 hours; and then the next day comes and new images are needed. Images made for public use are made in the millions daily. How possible is it to make images that convey more than just a blink of an eye view of the world? I think it’s impossible.

In the days of painting portraiture, when a painter would have a subject sit for him maybe days or weeks, there was a relationship that was established. A painter would come to know a person because of a connection between eye, brain, spine, hand, canvas — and then the connection back to the person, and that connection was happening hundreds of times during a particular sitting. But photography sort of eliminated that necessity. I think photography brought about a change in consciousness.

I have an ethical obligation when I make a portrait of someone, which is to convey something of the truth. And the only way that I feel I can do that is if I spend time with the people, with that environment. I would like you to believe that my photographs from Tahrir are more real [than those that appeared on the media]. I understand that all images are constructed regardless of whether you believe they are more real or not. But I do want to get across that my pictures are more real and more honest. That does not make the art go away. But part of the art is to get you to suspend your disbelief.

Egyptians react quite forcefully to my work, but usually in a negative way. The pictures hurt them but that is absolutely not my intention.

Portraits require a sense of social mobility. Historically, the people who had portraits made of themselves were people who were moving up in the world or who were already at the very top by birth. Ordinary people had no portraits except for minor examples from the beginning of the history of portraiture 5,000-6,000 years ago.

Each person is different. Sometimes I make a picture of someone in an hour and it turns out well, and sometimes I try for months and it never works. Photographing in the streets in Cairo is extremely difficult. You have to remember we live in a police state. I have been in jail many times; I have been taken to the State Security Headquarters just for taking pictures. So the environment is not a comfortable one for a photographer like myself to work in. The state is terrified of images like mine. They don’t want such images to be seen by the population of Egypt because they have a vested interest in controlling the image. Ninety-nine percent of the images that you see of Egypt are the Nile and the Pyramids, Luxor and Aswan — by design. It’s been a very difficult way of working, but it’s the only way of working: that is, to get people to overcome their own fears and prejudices about what a picture is.

I’ve been stopped by the police at least a hundred times in Egypt over the last 17 years. Also people will immediately accuse me of being a spy, I am a foreigner, I don’t speak the Egyptian dialect like an Egyptian. If I don’t manage the situation well it can turn into 15 people taking me by the arms to a police station.

[Women are] an invisibility that I’ve reproduced. Most unfortunately. It is part of the culture that I’ve swallowed myself. It’s something that I am dying to do. I’ve tried to work with women’s organizations to be able to gain access to women, it’s been very difficult for me to photograph the ordinary average nobody who is a woman. I am very able to photograph the upper classes and I have. But the ordinary average woman is much more sensitive about her image and it would take somebody much smarter than myself or a woman photographer.

Religion doesn’t come into play at all in my work. I’m working on a project about the Coptic community in Egypt. It’s an extremely sensitive issue, but that’s where my interest would be, rather than Islam.

I’d like to use the momentous events of January-February 2011 in Tahrir Square. I’ve lived in Egypt for 17 years and I’ve been going to Egypt for 25 and it was beyond my imagination to believe that what happened did happen. The uprising brought the social media to the fore. Videos and photographs that ordinary people have been making on their mobile telephones have been put on the Internet, they are being gathered by the American University in Cairo, which is trying to compile an archive of images, sound and video of the revolution. We have not removed the system. But that’s coming, inshallah. However, there has been a public space that has been carved out in Egypt and that public space is not going to be given up. Graffiti, and most of the graffiti is politically oriented, and some of it very refined, is throughout the streets of Cairo. The Ministry of Interior is now buying paint by the ton and as soon as the graffiti is done they have troops of people to paint over it.

I predict we are going to have another confrontation, hopefully sooner rather than later, but no more than two years from now. And it will be bloody.

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