More than 30 years of photographing Egypt: the lessons and history of photographer Norbert Schiller
The full moon pierces the sky of Siwa and sheds radiant light on a crowd of Sufis, who absorb the serenity of the sight to soothe their souls. Achieving this kind of serenity for five minutes a day is a rare feat for many, but through a single photograph it can span a lifetime.
This photograph was captured in 1994 by one of the most prolific press photographers in the Middle East for over 30 years: American-born Austrian photographer Norbert Schiller. Working for renowned news outlets such as Agance France Presse (AFP), Associated Press (AP), European Press Agency and The New York Times, Schiller has covered everything from conflict, politics , insurgencies, as well as street and travel photography. .
The underlying motive behind all these photographs was not to define Egypt in any particular way, or to ask questions about why or how it is. It was much simpler and more modest; it was a fondness for the place and the people.
“For me, Egypt has become like a love story. I really wanted to be there. It wasn’t like I was sent there,” Schiller told Egyptian Streets. “I fell in love with Egypt as soon as I arrived, because it is one of those countries that is very dynamic. It is a country of contrasts. You have the ultra-poor, the ultra-rich. You have the poor and you have the educated. You have it all there. It’s the craziest thing about Egypt.
His trip to Egypt began in 1979, when Schiller was still a freshman in college. After years of moving between Europe and the United States of America, he grew tired of the polished, hyper-stylized streets that often try too hard to impress. “I wanted something a little more,” he shares. Soon immediately, he jumped on a plane with three of his friends for Cairo.
The decisive moment
Arriving in Cairo on a cold February evening at 11:30 p.m., Schiller took the airport bus to Tahrir Square. He checked into a small hotel called the Golden Hotel, and before he could take time to rest, he was startled by the bustling energy in the streets. It was then that he realized that Egypt never seeks to impress; it lets the eye wander freely to see all that is ugly and beautiful.
“I remember it was midnight and how crazy the streets were. It was just packed. Everyone was out and the juice stands were still working, and there was a lot of street food,” says- he.
The story of how he became a photographer was not the usual story of picking up a camera from an early age and developing a passion for the profession over the years. Instead, it started with a chance encounter with a stranger and a bag of peanuts.
“I was in my hostel in Cairo, and I remember someone came to give me a bag of peanuts, and I asked, what’s the point? And then he told me that Jimmy Carter, my president, was coming tomorrow,” he said. “For some reason I remember being so desperate to take a picture of Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat.”
The scene that day was unsurprisingly chaotic: A tsunami of large crowds swept through Tahrir Square, while police guards stood in every corner to block the distance. Standing in the middle of the crowd, it was impossible for Schiller to take the shot, but amid such chaos, he was able to keep his cool and make a small request of one of the officers standing guard.
“I said to him, listen, please, I really want to take a picture of my president next to Anwar Sadat. Is there any way I can just stand in front of the police line? ” he tells.
“He said something to one of the police guards, then the police took me to Tahrir Square away from the crowds and told me to sit down. I sat cross-legged in Tahrir Square for about an hour, waiting, then I started to hear the sirens and the entourage leaving parliament. I had an old camera and I took three pictures, and in this picture I have a picture of Anwar Sadat and Jimmy Carter looking at me with their hands up.
Although he was not a journalist at the time, it was at this particular moment that Schiller fell in love with current affairs and trying to capture a moment, which later sparked his career as a photojournalist.
“What I learned in Egypt as a photographer helped me photograph the whole region. I learned how to navigate my way through crowds of people or when the police are shooting or something chaotic like that. All these things I learned in Egypt helped me when I was covering Somalia, Ethiopia, the Gulf Wars, the Intifada and Palestine,” he says.
Donkey rides and crowded trains
Exploring Egypt by donkey, Schiller traveled through villages along Upper Egypt to take the pulse of the streets of Egypt. Through his watchful eye, his photographs depict the small, ordinary moments that are often left out of photographs, but carry the spirit of an Egyptian’s daily life. From the little kiosk selling tea to the hassle inside a train ride, Schiller has come to realize over the years that the best approach to imagining Egypt is to not look like a photographer or a journalist, but to blend into society.
“It’s getting harder and harder to work as a journalist, so it’s best to relax a bit and blend in with the crowd,” he says.
“I didn’t have many problems working as a photojournalist in the past. We have been invited to many government events and I have had many personal meetings with former President Hosni Mubarak. You were sort of considered a non-partisan when you had a camera or you were a reporter. But now it’s different, and not just in Egypt, but also in the United States. Journalists are now seen as a real threat.
In recent years, photographers have encountered many difficulties working in Egypt and have often been prevented from taking photos that tarnished the image of the country. This year, foreign vloggers shared their frustrations on social media about the banning of taking photos and videos, and the confiscation of their camera equipment.
In July this year, the recently replaced Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Khaled El Anany, announced that street photography would no longer require permits, but only for tourists and residents. Photojournalists working at news agencies, however, would be required to obtain permits through the State Information Service. The statement from the ministry adds that it is forbidden to take or share photographs of scenes likely to “harm the image of the country”.
Schiller’s experience as a photojournalist in the past presents an important lesson for today’s photographers and journalists: learning to move beyond urban planning and the rapid construction underway, and instead , be more patient and adventurous.
“Egypt has definitely changed a lot. I really feel like the image of the Gulf is influencing all these big projects that we’re going to see, like the New Alamein or the New Capital. People will photograph these new cities with big skyscrapers, which will not look like the Egypt I know,” he said.
“You’ll have to really go out of your way to see Egypt, like going to the countryside, because I don’t think people really want to see big skyscrapers, I think we’re done with that. What what people are really looking for today is more nature and more eco-friendly architecture, I don’t think skyscrapers are the solution.
Schiller also adds that, in the past, patience was a photographer’s strongest trait. In the fast-paced age of social media, journalists have little room to appreciate the art of photography and the process that goes with it.
“Things got too fast. In the past, I had to develop the film. I had to make an impression, I had to scan it on a drum scanner that was in the office. Or if I was in a hotel, I had to hook it up to a phone line. It was a very slow process. I mean, sometimes it took me an hour to get a picture out,” he says.
“We had incredible patience as photographers, and I don’t think today’s photographers have the same patience as us. I think we enjoyed photography a lot more back then because it was so much harder to take and you didn’t see the results right away. We had to wait.
To encourage young photographers to reframe the narrative about Egypt over the past decade, Egyptian Streets is announce an open call photographers to participate in the exhibition “Egypt: 10 years later” to be held in October 2022.
This exhibition will chronicle the incredible transformation that Egypt has undergone over the decade, as the most populous country in the Middle East and one of the oldest in the world. Egypt has undergone a monumental change, becoming more complex and transcending the identity of Egypt as we have always known it.
Revolutions, progress, demographic shifts, increasing connections, the advent of globalization and the impact of climate and economics have created a new, but liminal, country being born while keeping the vestiges of his past.
The aim of the exhibition is to use photography – whether conceptual, documentary, abstract or of any genre – to share with others the evolution of Egypt from 2012 to 2022 and to digest its changes, leaving room for discussion of where, who, and how it came to be.
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