Photographer: Aysmann Ismail
Time / Date:
6:08pm / August 8, 2013
Camera Body: Canon 6D
Lens: Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L USM
Shutter Speed: 1/2500s
Focal Length: 24mm
First, my experience in no way compares to what transpired just days after this photograph was taken during the Egyptian revolution. This photo was taken in Cairo in 2013. I, an American of Egyptian decent, was visiting family for the 3rd time that year making frequent trips between their homes and Tahrir Square since 2011. Tensions were at their peak. Both the military and mobs of protestors have been targeting journalists sporadically.
After a military coup overthrew the first-ever democratically elected president of Egypt, the army televised a public warning threatening would-be violators of their curfew. It was already 4pm when I heard explosive chants from my aunt’s balcony in Cairo. I grabbed only my camera and my mother’s trap cell phone and flew downstairs to meet them. I told her I’d be back in a minute.
No bag. No extra batteries or memory cards. No phone numbers. Nothing but my full-frame Canon 6D and a 24-70 f/2.8 medium range lens.
Making the Shot:
The thousands of protestors treated me as one of their own. In arabic, I was directed to climb the truck that served as their mobile speaker system for a better vantage.
At a distance I spotted a handful of middle-aged protestors running across tram tracks, painting political graffiti on just about everything within reach. I live in New York. Spray paint smells like nectar to me.
As they swarmed, one of the burly vandals descended on the famous church that neighborhood was named after; Saint Fatima. In curly letters of arabic, he painted “اسلامية” or “Islamic” on the door. Before he even had a chance to dot his t’s, he turned to the tall photographer standing a few feet behind him documenting everything.
For a split second I remembered the danger, but by then it was too late. I pulled my camera tight to my chest as the vandal and his friends kicked and slapped at me. They shouted things like “Spy!” and “Intruder!” I was at the center of a scrum of men trying to wrestle the camera out of my hands. A man I’ve never seen before grabs me by the neck and head-butts me so hard my grip loosened. I yelled for help. “Haramy!” or thief in Arabic.
“We’re Muslim,” someone says. “Muslims don’t steal.” Satisfied with my property, they resumed their tagging but I was determined to get it back. I called for help using the phone I grabbed from my mother and reached her at my aunt’s landline.
I filled her in on what happened and with a heavy gravitas she ordered me to put the thief on the phone. I followed the group and handed him the phone. The only thing in this country consumed by anarchy that still possesses undeniable authority? An Egyptian mother.
Hey, I’d be more embarrassed of this tactic if it didn’t work so well. Hours passed and without my camera, time was running out. The march was nearing it’s destination, Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square, where several more marches were scheduled to convene. I was forced to make the call I didn’t want to make. It took 5 minutes after hanging up with my cousin, who ranks high in the Muslim Brotherhood organization, before my camera was returned to me. “Well, why didn’t you say you were his cousin from the start, man?” I was shoved into a taxi and returned to my aunt’s balcony.
Editing & Processing:
The photos were deleted. I used the Egyptian dial-up connection to download recovery software to restore the data. I honesty did not remember shooting this photo until seeing it with the rest of the recovered files. I adjusted the exposure and fixed the white balance. After that there wasn’t much to do other than add contrast and saturation. The hardest part was keeping this photo a secret until I returned to New York. I still had a few days in Egypt and didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
I didn’t return to Cairo for another year. My cousin, who ranked high in the Muslim Brotherhood, was understandably upset about my publishing the photo. It made his organization look bad, and the photo was used as propaganda and a symbol of Muslim Brotherhood aggression on Egyptian social media. The photo was used as evidence by a court that sentenced the pictured vandal to 4 years in prison. An excessive sentencing by anyone’s standards. I feel empathetic to him. I wonder if he blames me for his sentence, or if he understands what he did. I wish he never painted what he did on that church, but I don’t regret publishing the photo for a second. As a journalist I have a responsibility to tell the truth. The truth is he did what he did and I was there to document it.
I can’t advise anyone to put themselves in a compromising situation for the sake of a photo. The truth is, as a photojournalist, you need to be ready to shoot a photo at any moment. My advice is to keep your focus fixed on living an interesting life. Photography is an experience that starts before the shutter is fired. Put yourself outside of your comfort zone and always be ready shoot.
I draw inspiration from my identity. Muslim Americans reluctantly learn about politics at a very early age. We live our lives conscious of how different we view ourselves and how other people see us. Constantly listening to the carless accusations news anchors flung at my community left a passionate impression of distrust in my heart towards mass media. It fed my motivation to be curios and critical thinking. It all started with a pirated copy of Adobe Flash on a computer that my family and I shared. Crude key-frame animations cultivated my interest in linear story telling, and that directed me to documentary film making, then eventually photography. Through any medium my motivation, as a Muslim American, stayed constant. To find, then tell the truth.
About the Photographer
Aymann Ismail is an Egyptian-American photographer and video journalist. Raised Muslim in the cultural limbo of a post-9/11 America, his work focuses on urban culture and identity. Ismail frequently visits conflict-torn Egypt where he documents the people beyond the headlines. He currently resides in Brooklyn, NY, where he navigates the illicit world of graffiti capturing moments rarely seen from the underbelly of New York City.
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