Sand Storm from My Childhood Window, from In the Shadow of the Pyramids by Laura El-Tantawy
Laura El-Tantawy is an Egyptian photographer based in London and Cairo. She was born in Worcestershire, England to Egyptian parents. She attended high school in Saudi Arabia, started university in Cairo, Egypt and completed her degree in the US. El-Tantawy's website says her photography is "inspired by questions on her identity - exploring social and environmental issues pertaining to her background."
Here is unedited interview with Laura El-Tantawy.
Q: Tell us a bit about you. What was your journey up to now?
A: What a loaded question to begin. I don’t know how to answer this, perhaps because I am still trying to figure this out. I discovered photography many years ago by surprise. I believe it is a liberating tool for artistic expression with limitless boundaries. I believe artistic expression is the best way to articulate private emotions that may be too difficult to speak out.
Military Jets, from In the Shadow of the Pyramids by Laura El-Tantawy
Q: Which photographers influenced you, your thinking, photographing, and career path the most? Did you have mentors or teachers you looked up to?
A: My influences change over time as my own work forms. It would not be fair for me to name anyone because it would be reflective of my current mood, which is fleeting. I am always influenced by music, poetry, theatre and experimental filmmakers.
Q: Every photograph is a story. Exactly what do you want to say with your photographs, and how do you actually get your photographs to do that?
A: The definition of a photograph as a story is an interesting one because I think a story can take on many forms in my work. I don’t feel that my photographs are storytelling in the traditional definition of the word. In most cases my pictures tell other types of stories – a feeling, an impression, a possibility. Looking at the individual images out of the context of a book or an exhibition, it’s not always so prescribed or defined. I like to think that my photographs allow their reader an opportunity to experience the work through their own history – to bring in their own story and allow themselves a deeper experience with the image. But looking at my images as a theme, book, show or even on my website, the experience is more whole – you are seeing the essence of me, a window into my journey, which I also hope people can relate to in a deep and meaningful way. In this sense, photography is an experience to share not a story to tell.
Women of Tahrir, from In the Shadow of the Pyramids by Laura El-Tantawy
Q: From different types of photography which one do you do most? And what do you enjoy most and why?
A: I can’t answer this question with any precision because I don’t look at photography as different genres and I do not allow myself the right to dictate to my imagination what I will photograph and how. Photography is a form of expression and this is very much reliant on my state of my mind and on the subject matter. It is extremely important to me that I allow the subject matter to inspire the vision rather than the other way around. For sure I bring my own visual presence to any body of work, but this is more about my feeling than my visual approach. One can argue the two are the same. It is about sensitivity. I experience things in a deeply emotional way and this is the thread that ties all my works together visually even if the approach is slightly different. I enjoy the spontaneity of photography. Working loosely and openly, getting lost and finding my way. I can breathe with ease and I feel light when I am making photographs.
The Square I Remember, from In the Shadow of the Pyramids by Laura El-Tantawy
Q: Let’s speak a little about technical aspects of photography. Which is your favourite lens? Why?
A: I will not answer this question, not out of disrespect but because it is completely irrelevant to the way I work. I make images with whatever is around. If I don’t have a camera, I write. It’s important for me that readers understand that the tool of image making is not the physical camera, but the way your eyes see the world and you emotionally react to your surroundings. One has to be liberated of the idea that investing in an expensive camera is the way to making powerful images. It is completely invaluable and I find this way of thinking trivialises the art of image making. One never dwells over the kind of pen and paper a writer uses to craft their greatest novel or the style of paint and thistles on a brush a painter uses as the final strokes on their most famous painting, but there is always the question of the tool with photography. It is condescending to photography and photographers. We are also in a time when photography has moved beyond the still image. Photo books are being created for digital platforms and experienced through interactive phone applications. Photography is progressing not standing still. We should move with it.
Q: You have written books. It is interesting to know how did photography help you while writing them?
A: My photography and writing go hand in hand. One complements the other. I studied journalism and politics because I have a passion for understanding and reflecting on the world we live in – the social and environmental issues that impact us now and will stay to probe the next generations. Writing is my first love and photography a strong contending second. But it is not a competitive relationship. Not anymore – I have found the path that allows the two to coexist and be supportive of one another. My images say what words cannot express and my words step in to explain what my images could not.
Q: Life is full of challenges. What’s your biggest challenge as a photographer?
A: In my own head I do not see myself as a photographer. Of course I describe myself professionally this way because it’s the label that introduces me to the world, but increasingly I am unsure how I see myself. Photography is the prism through which I have something to say for the moment, but it will not always be this way. It’s important for me to allow other forms of expression into my life as well. This is my biggest challenge. It’s also very challenging for me to continue to probe issues I am deeply interested in and personally connected with without coming across as too self-indulgent. I am in essence a deeply shy person and expressing private experiences so openly is always revealing too much and leaves me feeling vulnerable and exposed. But I have to accept this in choosing to make this kind of work.
Ready To Fight, from In the Shadow of the Pyramids by Laura El-Tantawy
Q: You have experience of years. What would you like to advise young photographers?
A: I will not advice but I will humbly suggest they stay close to these ingredients: honesty, modesty, respect for the self and others, believing absolutely nothing is impossible, not tripping over comparing yourself to others – you are on your own journey so focus on what you have, not what’s missing, having friends who share common values, being stubborn and loving yourself (not selfishly or in a sick way, but the other kind way) because you cannot love the world if you don’t nurture yourself first and taking care of your health and mind because they are your main assets for survival.
More photos on her webiste.