At Randa Shaath’s photo exhibition Indelible, on show at Gypsum Gallery, a quote from Sinan Antoon’s novel Fihris is captivating. Part of the text, which is stuck in black vinyl on the wall, reads: “Humans only bid their acquaintances and loved ones farewell. Objects, however, bid one another farewell and they bid humans farewell too. But rarely do we hear their voices and whispers. Because we never try.”
Shaath found a home in this passage, just as she did in the 40 framed color photographs on show. In this conversation with Mada Masr, she walks us through the genesis of these photographs, while reflecting on her aim to document the quotidian and that which surrounds events on the pages of newspapers, and most recently through a university classroom.
Lina Attalah: Were you taking pictures aimlessly or were you thinking about this project from the beginning, with a quest to capture images that convey warmth and intimacy?
Randa Shaath: It’s been two years that I’ve been working on this with an exhibition in mind. But before, it was just a matter of documentation. I used to go to my grandmother’s house in Alexandria and spend the summer there. It’s the only house for me that remained, since we moved a lot. I loved this house and I wanted to document it because I panicked when its owners started thinking about selling it. The idea started when I thought I could lose this house, so I started documenting it. Now the exhibition has only two images from it.
In the last year and a half, there are other houses I went to and where I found things that made me feel home, even if was I entering them for the first time. You start seeing some details, like that box of Mackintosh candies that is used as a sewing kit. I found myself looking for some warmth in houses that don’t necessarily belong to me. I was worried that it would be too nostalgic. There is of course some nostalgia, but I didn’t want just nostalgia. Some people saw the work and made a connection with 1948, Palestine and leaving one’s home. It’s not about that at all. We still fry falafel in oil to cook them.
Someone came and told me, you’re a photographer of the street and the revolution is in the street and I feel from your images that you miss the street. I was really angry at him and I felt there was something masculine about the comment. Then I found an answer in the images for him. There’s nothing wrong with stopping and contemplating what we like in order to be able to continue, and that’s why I wanted to call the exhibition latency, the Arabic for which is komoun. But people would have read it as kammoun [Arabic for cumin].
LA: And what are your thoughts on being a “street photographer” engaged in hardcore photojournalism and the fact that this project retreats to personal spaces, to normality and to the non-event?
RS: I was never a news photojournalist in the traditional sense of the word. I am a photographer of the people. I took pictures in Gaza and during the revolution here and I was focusing on people in their daily lives and how they dealt with the event. The difference this time is that I am using my own feeling to choose what to shoot.
LA: Would you say there’s something autobiographical in this work?
RS: Of course there is something autobiographical, but I think these images touch people in different ways. The project started off being autobiographical and when I left to many other houses and started looking for warmth there, it became more than that.
LA: It’s interesting that a gallery visitor said there needs to be some spotlights on the frames in order to avoid the reflection that doesn’t allow us to see the images fully. Sometimes when you suddenly find your reflection in the frame, you’re faced with the thought that these fragments, objects and memories could also belong to you, or at least you have some sort of a relation with them.
RS: Yes. People have related differently to the images for personal reasons. They touched them in different ways.
LA: How did you make this selection?
RS: I shot a lot and at every opportunity, then I removed images that could easily convey the beauty of architecture because that’s not my point at all. I shot them because they reminded me of things. Then there were some outdoor pictures that I removed when I settled on keeping it all indoor. Some had humans in them and I also removed them, because I decided that there would be no humans in the images, although the feeling of human presence is there.
LA: When I visited the exhibition you were talking about your relationship to editing and your preference to maintain the integrity of an image, persisting with a natural environment until it gives you the image you want. Why is that? And is this part of a broader reaction to the whole digital realm not just in terms of editing, but also in terms of photography devices?
RS: I used Photoshop, mostly to fix the contrast and bring colors closer to reality but not to change things. I’m not against Photoshop. At the end of the day, the dark room techniques are full of dodging, overexposing and underexposing techniques. One can be stupid if one has a position against technology. But I had my own share of worrying about moving to digital and I wrote an article about it. Photographs are proven to live for 100-150 years, but I worry that the floppy disk and the flash drive don’t. I lost a lot of things before I started worrying about back-ups and printing.
The other thing is time. I used to teach photo development in a high school dark room at a time when everyone went digital. The students used to tell me all the time you have put in producing one photograph could have been used to produce 100. I thought the ease with which the digital produces images trumps a whole reflection process that you can have while working on the photograph. I guess the key is to keep conscious of these things while you are working with digital.
LA: When was your last exhibition?
RS: Five years ago, I did an exhibition titled Out of the Album. I participated with colleagues and photographers I mentored in the Shouf (See) exhibition last year and there was also another group exhibition in 2012.
LA: So how does it feel to be in a solo exhibition again? Your work is that of a documentarian delving into daily life, looking for warmth and intimacy lost elsewhere. How does it feel for this work to depart to the formal and sometimes rigid space of an exhibition?
RS: I was concerned. My last exhibition was in a house. I found myself taking pictures at family and friends’ events and they would always expect me to gift them images from these events. It was always the case that they liked different images I shot from those I liked. And this is how the idea of Out of the Album came. These are images that say something about relations between people, and that’s why some of them are preferred to be kept out of family albums. So I wanted to show these images and take people’s opinion on them but didn’t know in what context. Then a friend invited me to show them at his place. The images are intimate, so their presence in a house was convenient. My host said I could remove the furniture and turn it into an exhibition space, but I didn’t. I felt that the elements of the house sat well around the images. I told my colleagues this was an example of how no one cares about exhibiting documentary photography and that maybe we should rent a space and start doing regular exhibitions of our work.
This current exhibition could not sit in a house again because a house has a lot of details and the images also have a lot of details. They needed a neutral wall. I liked Gypsum. It’s an old flat, but its walls are white and neat and are all about the images and frames on them. I thought about the Cairo Atelier because I don’t like intimidating art spaces that are not accessible and which you are assumed to be some kind of an intellectual when you enter them. I know there are some spaces open in Zamalek, but I also know that maybe my work is too didactic and I am not sure how it works with exhibitions these days. But when I met with Aleya [Hamza, Gypsum’s director], she showed interest. The images touched her somehow.
LA: When I asked Aleya, she referred to being “overwhelmed by the emotional pitch” of the photographs. She also said that she “recognized something in them. I could not quite put my finger on it, but intuitively I knew that if I reacted so viscerally to them, it’s more than a personal reaction. I found the entire series very coherent. And from the perspective of Gypsum programing, it was interesting and fresh to show a body of work that lies right on the edge of documentary photography and contemporary art.”
Why do you think there’s no interest in documentary photography in exhibition spaces?
RS: There is a problem with photography in general. There is no one space specialized in photography here. There was the Sony Gallery at the American University in Cairo, and that was it. Exhibiting photography has become very hard. If Shouf succeeded in attracting an audience, it’s because we took over the Cairo Atelier and organized the whole thing. They were a bit skeptical and gave us only one week to show, and then were very surprised when they saw many people visiting.
There is a major visual illiteracy behind this lack of interest. If the main space showing this work on a daily basis, namely the newspaper, does not respect this work, how can we expect to find exhibition spaces? Who in newspapers care about photo stories, for example? I spent six years at Al-Shorouk trying to convince them.
LA: How did you negotiate your interest in championing documentary photography in what’s supposed to be its classical home, the newspaper? Where did you succeed and where did you fail?
RS: I felt challenged. They gave me space and authority to do something different. But the fight started right at the beginning over things like not adding frames to images, and so on.
I’ll give you an example. When we were doing zero issues for the newspaper before its release, there was a story we did on pigeons, you know the home-raised pigeons that turn around and come back. So we went, took photos of the man raising the pigeons, his house, his balcony. There was one shot of the man in his old balcony and the pigeons are flying. You could see the balcony, the cages and the pigeons just starting to fly. So I chose this as the lead photo and waited until the text was done. Then I passed by the layout table and I found four girls cutting birds out of photo prints. I thought they were just playing because they finished work early. And then when I realized what they were doing, I almost had a heart attack. They were basically cutting out decoupages of the pigeons from the photographs to spread around the story as flying birds. I was screaming.
LA: We need to bomb the decoupage phenomenon in the Egyptian press.
RS: The photograph is an artwork on its own. A photographer puts a lot of effort into composition and lighting in order to create meaning or a situation. It doesn’t need a frame or decoupage. There were other fights we had to get into, like the name of the photographer has to be there and if it is not an in-house photographer, there needs to be a source or a courtesy. We succeeded in that.
We also succeeded in avoiding putting photographs out of context or photographs that strengthen some stereotypes; things like writing a story about the arrest of a cell of Sudanese thieves, and putting the picture of black people with it. We also managed to avoid taking pictures of suspects with their faces. In a long discussion with the chief editor we agreed that if a suspect is a public figure, we could take pictures of their face, but if they’re unknown, we shouldn’t, especially as if are found innocent, this probably won’t be remembered.
Of course, we were promised that we could produce and print photo stories, and that’s why photographers I mentored in the newspaper [until 2012] shot events with the eye of documentarians. So if there is a protest, we get the usual info of who is there, how many, where and why are they protesting and we would use a picture of them as a group protesting in the front page.
But there’s a whole lot of details [that are not in the single front-page image], like are people angry? Are they happy? What are the surroundings like? What are passersby doing? Are residents throwing things at the protest? We are documentarians of our country and of things that happen in it. The streets are changing and so are houses, dress culture, etc. I encouraged these young photographers to create photo stories in their extra time. If someone was assigned to cover news, I would give them the space and tools to do more if they wanted. We managed to publish one or two photo stories.
But now we’ve lost many things, including giving credit to the photographer. So I guess the main take-away is that I trained a group of photographers who care about what they are doing and who believe in the depth of documentary work and the way in which the image should speak to the text.
LA: Why do you think there is so much visual illiteracy when there is a revolution of images surrounding us?
RS: Photography is not taught in universities and when it is, it is done in a solely theoretical way without practice. There was no one school where photography was thought about discursively and practically. Meanwhile, there’s a generation of photographers raised in the newsrooms and photography departments of Al-Shorouk and Al-Masry Al-Youm newspapers. Independent galleries have also opened up with photography workshops, where instructors from abroad come to teach. So we have started to have a different generation.
LA: How do you feel about taking this mentoring role you have assumed in the formal space of [the American University in Cairo]?
RS: It is a role that started crystallizing in Al-Shorouk. There’s nothing more gratifying than passing on the knowledge you have. I don’t have money to pass onto people but just those 25 years of experience, whereby you give away some learning and then you find these photographers surpassing you in their work and doing better than you. At university, we are challenged because it is more than just the classroom. In Al-Shorouk, we had a lifestyle. We would eat together, watch movies together, etc.
Indelible shows through April 5 at Gypsum Gallery, 5 Ibrahim Naguib St., Apt. 2, Garden City, Cairo. Daily from 12-8pm, Friday 4-8pm, Sunday off.