Photography is where my vulnerability comes across. Tahrir is beyond photography for me. It’s a chapter of my life. — Laura El-Tantawy
Images from Tahrir Square in Cairo were awash on all channels in 2011. As the Levant rose to resistance after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, the entire region’s uprising against autocracy and exploitative neoliberal policies shook the establishment. It seemed as though ‘the people’ were finally assuming control and overhauling history. Enflaming the globe with countless ‘occupy movements’, including in struggling Western economies such as Spain and Greece to mention a few, peaceful marches soon turned into violent clashes.
It is a time of unexpected reversals, and that is the kaleidoscopic logic of the photographic exhibition, ‘In the Shadow of the Pyramids’ by Laura El-Tantawy. Shown as an immersive re-construction of events that are tackled on a sublime, if not dissonant, emotional register channeled through sound bites and images, the pulsing documentation of the Cairo protests reflects outwards from where she stands, camera aimed at the raging, roaring crowd.
She considers, like many critics, the ‘Arab Spring’ a misnomer (a term coined by Marc Lynch of Foreign Policy magazine in 2011 to pinpoint the beginning of the revolutions), which now ironically signifies the atomisation and failure of civilian insurgency against despotism.
The grain of their skin
Her focus more prominently on individual portraits as snapshots of political trauma, chaos, urgency and intensity is a deliberate act, as they establish a sense of power and solidarity with other movements across the world. Agency, finally in the hands of the governed, and with regard to Egypt, to finally achieve the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, head of state for almost three decades. It is disturbing that today a strategic rapport is nourished between pro-Mubarak supporters and the current militarised regime under General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
El-Tantawy’s counter-narrative of the Tahrir protest comes through as a composite of her personal, political and aesthetic relationship with all people, since the revolution was a pan-civilian uprising that involved everyone across class, religion and other affiliations. Her most impressionistic views embrace the spectacle of urgency in which the human being becomes an unforgettable prism of crisis, defeat, endurance, hope, sorrow, joy, and other states of emotional extremity.
In her body of work, images shot over time have been recomposed in several formats: In the Shadow of the Pyramids (2015), a book; The People (2015), a newsletter; and Post-script (2016), an accordion-style manual. These personal iterations have been combined for this exhibition into a three-way digital projection, and individual archival prints. An iPad displays the frenetic topography of Tahrir, the voracity of the conflagration, the oceanic sway of the rapt chanting crowd, the stark, mesmerizing portraits of protesters in close-up, the grain of their skin, the glow of their tears… All the modalities raise the question that still remains unanswered years after the revolution: how could activism, which caused such massive regional disruption, have been so thoroughly and ruthlessly subjugated in such a short time?
When a people’s revolution implodes, disintegrates or fails through being crushed by a regime or through internal fracture, any documentation of the distortions and abuses of power — globally circulating testimonials that cannot be seized or denied — becomes a multiple utterance of a particular truth. Technology may be used by oppressive regimes to pulverise protest, but it can also be eventually used against them through the freely distributed image. As a photojournalist, El-Tantawy will always be more than an active embodiment, receptacle, editor and re-animator of visual information and dissident voices — she is an interpreter, an access point to the other, conjuring a stream of images from Tahrir that are still live , still proactive, echoing our continuing social predicament. She is the source of a truth about Tahrir, a truth that cannot be refuted or retracted.
This trajectory is apparent, for instance, in Witness (Yarbaal, 2017), a book on the work of nine photographers from Kashmir edited by Sanjay Kak, whose images foreground the seen and unseen tensions of lives traversing the surreal threshold of silence, the shadowy truth that is the substrate of the continuing disappearances, encounters and curfews that mark daily existence in the Valley.
Such documentary images have the essential task of seizing and framing the subtle, ambiguous and elusive — the agonised erasures and absences that are being imprinted on the collective memory of people who feel themselves to be under political/ military occupation. When such an aesthetic is linked to the question of the photographer’s intent and function, the question arises as to the place and relevance of El-Tantawy’s atmospheric, evocative, lyrical images in a media-dominated world that almost invariably upholds and valorises ‘factual’ representation as the legitimate expression of ‘truth’.
Stories never told
Can her subjective, poetic media documentation be trusted? Can it function as a politically viable form of testimony? Can it be included in formal legal processes of reparation and justice? Can it provide irrefutable evidence of crimes against humanity? Can subaltern historiographies be radically told through unusual media configurations such as an exhibition?
The looser the form of the images became, the more I became comfortable with my surroundings. The more spontaneous I could be. — Laura El-Tantawy
The ethics of discontentment — shared ideological affinities, strategies and tactics resulting from embedded constitutional stalemates — also resonate in India and South Asia. We, too, should undertake our own acts of scrutiny and of bearing witness here, at ‘home’.
We must remember 2011 with reference to our own civil injustices — the death penalty for Ajmal Kasab, the acquittal of over 50 persons in the Godhra train arson case, Anna Hazare’s fasting for the Jan Lokpal Bill, the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
The present, too, stirs with cause for concern — an archaic sedition law (124A aka ‘anti-national’ law) that subverts a range of rights; the continuing savagery of caste discrimination; the violent struggle for self-rule in Kashmir; and the Naxal guerrilla war. Just across our borders, Nepal struggles for constitutional reform and Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims are displaced ruthlessly.
As we celebrate 70 years of independence, many stories are simply never told. And we know too well that covert and subtle atrocity, when not documented, can be swiftly and effortlessly denied by its perpetrators.
Hence we must deeply value all contributions from the new ‘iconography of activism’ — a mode that persistently de-centres hegemonic master-narratives and produces fresh visual testimonials through the fearless inscription of injustices.
The author is Curator, Alkazi Foundation for the Arts in New Delhi, and Fellow, Royal Asiatic Society in London.
ON SHOW ‘In the Shadow of the Pyramids’by Laura El-Tantawy, an Art Heritage production, till Sept. 20, 2017, Shridharani Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi