political protests

What does it take to trigger mass protest? Egypt’s revolution has some lessons for India

Photographer Laura El-Tantawy’s close documentation of Tahrir Square offers insight into social media, news coverage and an intensely personal journey.

One hears chaos in the distance. It is the voices of women and men protesting, marching, resisting – all at once. They come from a corner inside the Art Heritage Gallery at the Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi, where Egyptian photographer Laura El-Tantawy’s intensely personal, nine-year reportage of the events of the January 25 Revolution (as the events from 2011 in Cairo’s Tahrir Square are known) forms an immersive, photographic installation titled In the Shadow of the Pyramids.

El-Tantawy divides her time between London and Egypt in between assignments, and this work made over a decade, is her response to the events that transpired before, during and after the revolution. In its present form, the exhibition is a first – where sound, video and images come together to create a powerful, inspiring, and sometimes-dark atmosphere, much like Tahrir Square in 2011. Her narrative is undeniably distant but certainly not apolitical – all by design. In El-Tantawy’s photographs, there’s a strong sense of an imprint a place leaves on you as a child.

“When people took to the streets on January 25, 2011, I had to be among them,” she said of her decision to document the events of that time. “It was a moment when my past, present and future came together as never before.”

Interior Ministry Clashes – January 26, 2013,
Interior Ministry Clashes – January 26, 2013, "In the Shadow of the Pyramids". Photo credit: Laura El-Tantawy

Eye of the storm

The construction of this striking photographic installation is also a curated timeline of El-Tantawy’s journey. It begins with small, individual lightboxes of old family photographs that are representative of a time far from what she chooses to engage with actively in her present work. There is a marked sense of loss in the old photographs and not just of innocence, but also of Egypt’s identity as a nation.

In the middle of the exhibition space is a square that perhaps best recreates Tahrir Square itself. Large screens projecting photographs are suspended from the ceiling and El-Tantawy’s voiceover describes her journey and apprehensions, while also celebrating the revolution. When in the middle of that dark space, moving images weave a visual testimonial of conflict, claustrophobia, and political cause. The installation becomes the centre of a crisis that is home to warm but disturbing portraits of protestors and violent scenes from the revolution.

In the year of India’s 70th year of Independence, this exhibition is particularly relevant. The country has seen a fair share of national protests, dissent and human rights violations in the past couple of years and social media has played a huge rule in the distribution of news and photographs – both constructively and otherwise. The purpose of El-Tantawy’s work is near prophetic, perhaps an initiation into a mass protest, against the violation of all basic rights.

Photograph of the installation at Art Heritage. Photo credit: Paroma Mukherjee
Photograph of the installation at Art Heritage. Photo credit: Paroma Mukherjee

In Rahaab Allana’s essay, Live Stream: Revolutions in the Age of the Media, he writes of how the Tahrir Square protests were largely documented by ordinary people rather than professional news agencies. This led to active citizen journalism but not without the images finding home on social media, which led to further mobilisation of dissent. “Facebook is the revolution’s headquarters,” reads a headline from February 12, 2011 in Al-Ahran, an Egyptian newspaper.

Sand Storm from My Childhood Window – March 23, 2007,
Sand Storm from My Childhood Window – March 23, 2007, "In the Shadow of the Pyramids". Photo credit: Laura El-Tantawy

El-Tantawy’s work is divided into sections that all bear sentences or headlines gathered from different local newspapers during the time of the revolution. When asked about the power of freely distributed photographs, her response is conflicted. While she believes in the power of protest photographs, she is equally wary of their tendency to fall prey to the manipulation of intent. “My photographs were not available officially for free distribution, but people on the Internet did see the work and share it,” said El-Tantawy. “However, I did publish a newspaper in Arabic meant only for people in Egypt. I printed 2,000 copies and it was circulated only inside the country, for free.”

The colour red

Protest Abstract – January 26, 2013,
Protest Abstract – January 26, 2013, "In the Shadow of the Pyramids". Photo credit: Laura El-Tantawy

She is not just a photographer, but also a witness. But unlike the mainstream trajectory of photographs that make news, her images are intensely personal and laden with warm, red hues that are distinct from most images of conflict and protest. “The colour red reflects my passion for Egypt,” she said about the uniformity of her aesthetic. It is her relationship with its past and present, in all its love and turmoil.

She also feels this when she’s in India, especially Delhi. “I can feel a similarity, a warmth that I feel when I’m in Cairo,” she said. This might very well be why the installation works in a country so far away from hers. Hers is an iconography that enables a path for conflict photographs away from their usual trajectory and lends them a fluidity, which ensures that their life goes beyond dated newspapers and magazines. It lives in the people it concerns. Much like acts of injustice and oppression.

Faces of a Revolution #4: Faith – June 5, 2012,
Faces of a Revolution #4: Faith – June 5, 2012, "In the Shadow of the Pyramids". Photo credit: Laura El-Tantawy

Egyptian photographer Laura El-Tantawy’s photo-installation, ‘In the Shadow of the Pyramids,’ opened at Art Heritage, New Delhi and will be open to the public till September 20 at Art Heritage, Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi.

Paroma Mukherjee is an independent photographer and writer based in New Delhi.

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