12 by Laura El-Tantawy

Posted on June 12, 2015

Laura El-Tantawy is an Egyptian photographer. She was born in Worcestershire, England to Egyptian parents and grew up between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the US. In 2002, she started her career as a newspaper photographer with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Sarasota Herald-Tribune (USA). In 2006, she became freelance so she could focus on pursuing personal projects.

Laura set the second challenge for the 12 by 12 project and kindly agreed to answer questions from our members about her latest book “In the Shadow of the Pyramids”.

As you were working did you feel more like an outsider looking in or an insider showing facets of your country and its people to the world? And did that change over the time that you photographed there?

I think I went in and out of both. Mostly I felt like an insider trying to look in, so not exactly looking in at something that was overly familiar, but certainly something I recognized and understood. Yes, towards the end of the project, I think I felt more like an outsider.

© Laura El-Tantawy© Laura El-Tantawy

Do you approach making still images and making video in different ways? Are there different things you are trying to achieve in each medium?

Visually what inspired me in stills is the same thing that inspired me in video. I do try to stay true to the way I see and respond photographically in both mediums. Audio is the main difference in video. I love audio on its own and think it can be extremely powerful. I tend to work with audio and video on different layers, so I will record them separately and work them together later. This is harder to do, but it gives me more flexibility and allows me to be more creative and control what I want to say.

How far can you move away from the original concept of your long-term projects and yet keep them within the spirit of the initial idea before it becomes a new project in it’s own right?

You know, I feel that the general spirit of the idea is always the same. I can’t think of an occasion where I moved really far away from the initial concept. Even in Egypt, the main idea from the beginning was to explore my own identity in a country whose own identity is being changed. So essentially that was the same. Photographically how I explore the issue can slightly change. In Egypt, I initially wanted to focus on photographing my own family. In the end, that did not happen.

Do you try and keep your own emotions in check whilst making work for fear of them interfering with your photographic judgment or do let them guide your whole process?

My emotions are an essential ingredient in the work. I don’t believe in neutrality in photography. I am human and I empathize with people and also dislike a lot of people and it’s important for me to allow myself to express this honestly.

© Laura El-Tantawy© Laura El-Tantawy

Photographically who inspires you?

My inspirations change at different stages and I love to discover works I am not aware of, especially outside photography. But within photography, Saul Leiter and Miguel Rio Branco stay with me most of the time.

Do you think that your work has helped you to discover who you are as a person?

Yes and no. I think it’s a constant journey, but for sure through photography, the projects I decide to take on and the people I meet and engage with, I have discovered a lot about who I am and where I stand on many issues in the world and also on my relationship to people.

How much do you think your parents memories of Egypt versus your own play in to how you identified yourself when you began the project?

This is an interesting question. Honestly I will have to think about this because I am not sure. I only really started to engage with my parents about their own life and how much they struggled at the start of their marriage, in the past two or three years, so fairly recent. I think it played a lot in the concept for the book. The opening spread is of my parents. It was very important for me to honor their journey and how much they did for my sisters and me by opening the book with them. For sure, their own story and plays much deeper, but I can’t tell you exactly how much – I think it’s more in the subconscious.

How much did your perceptions of what it means to be Egyptian change as it progressed?

I am not sure I ever knew what it is to be Egyptian. This is the honest answer. This is essentially what I was trying to find out in doing this project. There are things on the surface that you understand and are quiet obvious, but other things I really don’t get. I am different in the way I make and maintain friendships than my Egyptian friends. I communicate a bit differently generally. The western bit in me is definitely taking a more dominant role in my personality, but I will always hold to the Egyptian bits.

© Laura El-Tantawy© Laura El-Tantawy

Do you think you’ve finished with this project or just put it down for a while?

Yes, this project is over. There are other bodies of work I intend to do in Egypt, but not now. I need to step back and come back when I am ready.

Your poetic images from Tahrir Square are almost dreamlike are in contrast to a more conventional harder edged reportage and I was wondering if you could talk a little about how you made your choices when you gathered those images?

I love the word poetic in relation to photography but I never know how to describe the process. I also love the word impressionistic, but find it equally difficult to reflect deeper on it. The work comes out in the same way poetry does – from inside rather than outside. If I had to dig deep, I would say I never photograph what I’m looking at. A chanting woman is not just a chanting woman. She is a woman in Tahrir fighting for a different future for her children, for herself. I read a lot of literature about Egypt and follow the news closely, talk to people on the streets, engage in debates – I have to know what’s happening and from this comes a load of emotions that people are feeling. Usually, those feelings are mutual and that is essentially what I am capturing – the sense of fear, joy, hope, terror, solitude.

© Laura El-Tantawy© Laura El-Tantawy

Although your pictures often have words attached that speak of a time, place and specific events the pictures themselves seem to be almost all to be personal and artistic responses. How important do you feel the specifics of time and place expressed in your writings that accompany your work are to the viewer?

I think they can be mutually exclusive. I think the emotion conveyed in both should be along the same feeling but I don’t want the images to say what the text is saying and vise versa. So basically the two should compliment each other but not make one another redundant.

If you were not a photographer what do think you would be doing?

I am sure I would be a musician, a singer or a painter. I have to be engaged in something creative and expressive.

Laura El-Tantawy’s website →

Previous 12 by 12 challenge from Laura El-Tantawy →


Thanks to 12 by 12 Members Simon Marshall, Philippa Bayley, Mike Lim, Julia M Cameron, Emma GeorgiouMeredith Wilson, Pamela Stevens and Mark W. Russell for the thought-provoking questions.