From pashas to the people: Egyptian photography enters the information age

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CAIRO: As an art form, photography in Egypt was once the province of a handful of Armenian artists who brought the first cameras to the country and established small downtown workshops. Their work was funded by the pashas and princes that once dominated the country’s cultural life, some of whom also began taking pictures as a fashionable hobby. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Egyptian photography was an elite world that few were allowed to enter.

Today, according to Adel Mansour, the vice president of the Egyptian Salon of Photographers, everything has changed. Now, photography is something that almost anyone in Egypt can enjoy.

“The more people we let know about exhibits and other photography activities, the more come, says Mansour.

The Egyptian Salon of Photographers is an association of professional photographers and accomplished hobbyists founded in 1994 by Dr. Baha Madkour, Adel Gazareen and the late Adel Taher. In the years since its foundation, the Salon has seen many changes in the field of photography. Today, it is clear that photography in Egypt has come a long way from the days of princes and pashas.

Photography has moved to the forefront of the Egyptian art scene, and has entered the everyday lives of people across the country. Technological advancements like digital cameras and camera-phones have turned a once elite hobby into a more affordable past-time. And while the country still faces wide spread economic inequality and a 17 percent poverty rate, according to the World Bank, many members of the urban middle class have taken to these new gadgets in a big way.

Sitting inside his airy Garden City home on a bright summer day, Mansour excitedly explains these changes to a visitor.

“The new equipment is so inviting, he says. “Let me give you an example. A father buys a digital camera to get some family pictures, and then either himself or his wife, or daughter or son, get interested in photography, or more into it. Digital technology is a good bait to attract more people to photography.

The growth of photography’s popularity has fed the growth of organizations like the Salon, both in terms of membership and exhibition opportunities. In 1994, the group began with 30 members. Today, it has over 200, as well as 20 to 25 more “Friends of the Society, considered members in training. Some members are prominent artists, like professional photographers Adly Zaki or Walid Kamal. Others have careers outside the arts but are talented hobbyists, such as Wahid Nur Al-Din or Reda Danaf.

“I think that Egyptian photography is more advanced than other art forms in our country, argues Mansour. He notes that a number of Egyptian photographers, including Nur Al-Din and Danaf, have won first prize and critical acclaim in international exhibitions. Egyptian artists working in other media have not garnered such widespread praise.

“They even win in Japan, Mansour laughs, “The land of photography!

The medium’s increasing popularity has made exhibition spaces in Cairo easier to come by for the Salon. Mansour joined the group seven years ago when he returned to Egypt after working in the United States for 35 years. At that time, the Salon was able to organize an exhibit every two or three months, often in cramped galleries. Now, their exhibits are monthly, and there are many galleries to choose from.

The group’s members are eager for more exhibits and larger spaces, and according to Mansour, that is something that Cairenes want as well.

“You can’t even imagine, he says. “Especially our exhibits with a cultural theme – like Pharaonic, or Coptic, or Islamic – they are really, really popular. The bottleneck for exhibits was because of lack of space for shows, but now galleries are more attuned to the idea.

With the expansion of its membership and the growing number of shows, the Salon could use more space for itself, too. The group currently meets once a month in a space donated by the Color Lab Association, a group of photograph developers based in downtown. Now, Mansour says, that space is almost too small for the 60 to 70 people who come to the monthly meetings.

“I hope that we can move to a football stadium soon, laughs Mansour. “That would be utopia.

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