Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt
Time / Date:
2:51 PM / February 8, 2013
Camera Body: Sony SLT-A77V
Lens: Sony 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM
Shutter Speed: 1/400s
Focal Length: 24mm
In 2011, an Arab Spring revolution deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a dictatorial president who had ruled Egypt under emergency law for 30 years. The next year, Egyptians elected Mohamed Morsi, the candidate proffered by the Muslim Brotherhood, in the first democratic election for head of state in Egyptian history. However, less than a year into his term, President Morsi had racked up increasingly significant abuses of power. He had also failed to win over his original detractors who saw him as a theocratic pawn who represented a group that, for almost its entire 80 year existence, was outlawed for its roles in various seditious acts. By late 2012, the streets in major Egyptian cities were again starting to swell, this time against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
I came to Egypt as an introduction to conflict photography. I had studied the country, knew the situation, and had found a young Egyptian photojournalist on Craigslist who needed a roommate. He lived in a dusty apartment several blocks from Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square, which would have been a three minute walk if not for a series of cement block walls erected by the police to protect government buildings. This photograph was taken in Tahrir Square several weeks after a string of major protests ignited on January 25, 2013, the second anniversary of the start of the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak.
Tahrir Square is functionally a main traffic circle in downtown Cairo, with an important subway intersection running underneath it. Until 2011, it was a center of tourism (the Egyptian Museum is at the north end of the square) and a main way of reaching the west bank of the Nile.
When I was there in early 2013, murals ridiculing police and lionizing martyrs adorned nearby walls; the police’s cement block walls and protesters’ makeshift barriers prevented traffic from entering the square; tents and a memorial to the 2011 revolution occupied the roundabout; an effigy hung from a lamp post; and a riot police van that had been assaulted, stolen, and torched by protesters sat lamely on its rims in the street.
I arrived at the square in the afternoon to await a series of protest marches that were on their way to the square from surrounding neighborhoods. Most of the people already present were gathered around the stage where the orator shouted anti-regime sentiments and led revolutionary chants.
I used a Sony SLT-A77V with the kit 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM, which was my first dSLR I bought on eBay a few months before my trip. I also carried around an old Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 which was a compatible albeit almost useless carryover from my Minolta Maxxum 7 film camera.
My camera’s articulated LCD screen had been shattered during my first week in the country when I refused to give money to several young boys in the City of the Dead. They subsequently threw a rock from a motorbike which raised a welt on my arm and squarely caved in the LCD. Thankfully, the A77 also has an electronic viewfinder, which performed almost all of the same functions as the rear LCD screen.
Making the Shot:
Photographically the scene in front of the orator looked very much the same as it had over the last few weeks, and the size of the crowd was not yet especially impressive. I circled the crowd looking for a unique angle. At the back of the podium, a protester was allowing several cameramen at a time up onto the podium to photograph the speaker and crowd.
To the right of the speaking platform, I noticed two young men had climbed onto a shattered billboard and were perched there, waving an Egyptian flag. I saw the opportunity and climbed atop a subway entrance railing to look through the billboard frame. Standing on the railing, I shot a series of photographs through the shattered billboard.
To frame the shot, I first noticed that the crowd thinned out noticeably to the right so I tried to shoot left into the highest concentration of the crowd while maintaining the symmetry of the young men’s legs. Their flag was in the wind and I attempted to get the flag’s crest as the wind lulled, though I was only partially successful. I took this photo in the first 5 seconds after framing the shot, after which they shifted their seating and uncrossed and crossed their legs at irregular intervals. Shooting in aperture priority mode, I was able to experiment with depth of field while shooting with one hand.
Editing & Processing:
I used Lightroom 4 to crop out the very top of the frame which included distracting wires and remnants of the broken billboard frame. I decreased the contrast to try to diminish the harsh shadows created by the early afternoon sun and further lightened the shadows slightly in order to bring out more detail in the jeans and in the crowd. Finally, I added some clarity and sharpness to clean up the edges and add definition.
This image to me represents a small triumph over monotony. I found it surprisingly difficult to capture a moderately-attended peaceful protest in a compelling way, which forced me to find new angles. Most of my other protest photographs are of fire, rocks, and billowing clouds of tear gas – this was one of my few shots of calm protests that I believe still managed to uniquely but accurately depict the scene.
I am a relatively new photographer, but one thing no one told me was to try to hone the ability to look at a scene and compose a shot from a physical location you are not yet in. Be able mentally shift your perspective and see what a shot from there would look like. Find the elements you want in the frame, then get in a position to put them all together, whether it means having to climb a tree or drop to your stomach — don’t be lazy.
My favorite photographer is Alvaro Ybarra Zavala – he’s gained access to some of the most difficult and dangerous situations and come out with almost unbelievable photos. I aspire to match the historical value of his work. I also admire the work of Marcus Bleasdale and the contemporary giant Goran Tomasevic (who was based in Cairo at the time, but I did not see).
Photography is my tool and my excuse to explore every possible facet of the human condition.
About the Photographer
I was born in Seattle, Washington, and it continues to be my home base as I work as a field archaeologist in Washington, Oregon, and Montana.
I studied International Affairs in Lugano, Switzerland for two years before transferring to Lewis & Clark College to finish my degree. My undergraduate coursework focused on conflict studies in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. These studies deeply influenced the nature of my international travel and photography. Domestically I do mostly outdoor scenes, but am becoming more interested in wedding and model photography.
I am currently involved in an endeavor called the Silk Road Monuments Project which seeks to document major modernization efforts underway in Western China that are leveling old cities along the historic Silk Road. Their inhabitants are being displaced along with the cultures they have sustained for generations. Through photography, videography and interviews, the Silk Road Monuments Project will record their personal stories and document their communities’ centuries-old trades, social networks, and architectural styles before they disappear beneath the pressures of destructive modernization.
Website: Silk Road Monuments Project
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