Contested cracks of documentary photography practice – session with Lina Attalah

Four contested cracks of photography

A critical conversation on documentary photography practices

Through a critical conversation, we try to unpack potential failures, controversies and scarcities in our practice. At the heart of defining these cracks is the notion of tactful photography, photography as a tactic.


The photographer as a mediator (archivist, narrator, fortune teller, instigator, inflictor, dramaturge, encoder)


  • Photos as fragments of time

Amidst the urgency of capturing moments by citizen journalists and mainstream photojournalists, a narrative is often missed. How about we restore this narrative by coining a context to captured moments, a context that not only explicates the depths of a particular moment, but that also proposes a political configuration?  How about photos functioning as a forward-looking archive; a memory that we did not yet have.



What are examples of incomplete narratives?

Do we feel sometimes that our photographs’ function solely as a documentation of the past?

What are ways in which we can a. think, b. present an arguable narrative through our photographs?

How do the activists amongst us step out of their comfort zone to act as mediators, to mediate their activism? Do you see yourself as a mediator? Or do you see yourself as solely implicated by virtue of being a front liner or in the midst of it all?

Do we feel photographs are shaping our collective memory?

People who are consciously constructing a digital archive on Flickr and other platforms, are they thinking of different functions of this archive beyond it availing the photos and representing one’s body of work as a photographer?

Do we think of the construction of narratives through the personal?



The evolution of Tahrir and the growing rift between the revolutionaries and couch party. There is definitely the aspect of going out of Tahrir altogether like Kazeboun. But how about demystifying Tahrir itself, unpacking how Tahrir is growingly un-gentrified and hence fell out of the collective stream of consciousness? Who is Tahrir?

  • Photos as conscious artworks

Susan Sontag argues about imperatives of taste and conscience as dictating documentary photography, which even though seeks to relay a certain veracity, is still haunted by the desires of artistry. This is challenged by the accessibility of photography as an activity, a byproduct of industrialization, which made it less the artistry of the riff-raff and more of an act with a social use. But how do we grapple with the pressure of art-consciousness in a documentation process?



Are we conscious of the artistic value of the photographs we make?

How do we evaluate this artistic input? How do we negotiate with it?

Are we alert to how imagery will be consumed while constructing photographs?


(Artistry as aesthetics):

Is aestheticizing a photograph part of its mediation, a tactic to mediate its consumption?

Does aestheticizing a photograph incarcerate it in the politics of taste, which have their own class connotation?


(Artistry as a function):

Do we think consciously of the function of the photograph while we construct it or avail it? Do we ask questions on whether and how it will instigate thought? Or whether and how it offers alternative possibilities to understanding the world?


Iconic photography has managed to grab the discourse and somewhat hegemonize it, stirring controversies and exposing stereotypes. There are traits of artistry deployed in these iconic photographs (or an element of rarity if they are exceptional captures at difficult moments of violence). Do we actively think about these functions when we’re shooting, hence unleashing an ambition to turn all our photographs into iconography?

  • Photos as sensationalist relics

For long, visual anthropologists have grappled with the ills of “socially-responsible” photography, which is concerned with representing sour realities by dramatizing and often sensationalizing subjects. Does a photographer have to produce literal representation of suffering, injustice at the risk of sensationalizing subjects? Are there more critical avenues for visual representation?



Is dramatizing a photo or sensationalizing it or exaggerating it is an act of mediation?

How do we understand the notion of sensationalizing/exaggerating when we position ourselves as capturers? Sontag speaks of appropriation of the “things” we capture, a power relation of some sort. Do we think of these power dynamics when we capture photos? Does this submit the object/subjects of our photographs to our own subjectivities and manipulation?

What are more critical alternatives to sensationalization?


How do we handle death and reactions to death especially from close ones? Experiences of covering Maspero can be debated

  • Photos as “miniature realities”

Walter Benjamin speaks of the “optical unconscious” when explaining how photography makes available to the eye a field otherwise inaccessible. In this context, he promotes visual literacy as an important evolutionary and complementary feature to photography, whereby image consumption is alert to what a photo tells us about reality that we can’t see with our bare eyes. But is the photographer that conscious of image consumption when constructing a frame? Should she be conscious by feeding into this visual literacy and acting as an instigator? Or she is  a mere reproducer of a miniature reality?



What are the frontiers between documentation and mediation in our photographic practice?

What do we think about the state of visual literacy in Egypt? How do people read photographs especially in the media?

There are multiple failures in the way mainstream media deal and present photography, which can be partially described as oblivion to visual literacy. Lacks of context, lack of narrative, lack of captions, lack of logic and subordination to the text are all aspects of this oblivion. Do we see this?


Susan Sontag: On Photography

Walter Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction


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Scenes from the Egyptian Elections

As Egyptians cast their votes in the third and final round of the People’s Assembly Elections, they hope that the parliament will be a powerful representative of their will to change and will challenge the powers of SCAF and force the Military Council that has been ruling this country for almost a year now to step down or at the very least, make concessions in favor of the revolution.

Here are some photos from the process that started on November 28th

Lilian Wagdy

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Revolution Graffiti Scene

If we look at the past year, in terms of public dissemination of art and images we’ve come a long way. Graffiti art or street art uses imagery in reaching the public through walls in ways that traditional imagery and online media cannot.

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ANA – Session II

ANA – Session II
Dec. 21, 2011

PART A (2h)

– discussing & reflecting on the questions remaining from last time (only a few are remaining) + if we’d like to discuss any relevant material that has been circulating between us throughout the week

– discuss very shortly a possible final outcome which relates to (possible guidelines; widely used image-related terms that may require revisiting, re-defining or re-naming for the media, open up possibilities for elaborated definitions, problematic definitions, name-less aspects of our current visual and activists’ cultures..etc.)

this may include the form of a publication including content that is textual (critical and theoretical) as well as visual

– discuss & try to come up with some kind of a plan/schedule of putting together what is mentioned above.

– discuss workshop’s/blog’s name, & any relevant format-/functionality- suggestions

– propaganda: discuss (the will or no) for possibilities of more organized propaganda via our images. And in that case, discuss ideas

(if one or more of the participants has more info, or has a specific interest in digging out more info/samples/references from propaganda papers & publications, this might be a possiblitity of one of the participants’ led sessions)

PART B (1h)

– possibilities of expanding the image into sth. else & expanding it so that it’d engage other professionals (educators, marketing professionals, philosophers, economists… )

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Photo: Challenging Stereotypes of women in Niqab

Challenging stereotypes on women in Niqab

Photo by:  Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

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Interview to Wolfgang Tillmans on Frieze

I just thought it was really interesting, especially for the ones who know his work. If you have the time to listen to it, at some point he talks about the truth in an image and how a photo sometimes reveals more the truth that is behind the camera than the one in front of it…

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Alternative News Agency Statement

وكالة الأخبار البديلة

لقد صار من المستحيل إنكار قوة الصورة الفوتوغرافية في السياق المجتمعي والسياسي المصري خلال السنة الجارية. ولا يعود ذلك إلى موضوع الصور فحسب، بل يعود كذلك إلى هوية من صار التصوير ممكناً بالنسبة لهم. إن التصوير الفوتوغرافي – سواء ذلك الذي يتسلح بهاتف جوال أو بكاميرا احترافية – لهو ممارسة سهلة التناول سهولة التخاطب نفسه. ولقد أبدى المصورون المحترفون والهواة على حد السواء اهتماماً خاصاً بالصورة بوصفها وثيقة محورية وحجة لدى التعبير عن الرأي، وهكذا شاركت الصور ومقاطع الفيديو المتداولة محلياً ودولياً في الانتفاضة المصرية وبشكل حاسم.

ولذا فإننا نمر اليوم بمرحلة ملائمة بشكل خاص لازدهار التصوير الصحافي وتحسين مكانته الثانوية في الإعلام المحلي. ولكننا لانزال نفتقر إلى حيز لمناقشة الصور التي أنتجت ونشرت في مصر في السنة الجارية وتحليلها بشكل نقدي.

لقد وجدت بعض الاتجاهات الأبرز على الخارطة الفوتوغرافية فعلياُ منذ فترة سابقة: المصورون المحليون مقيدون بالصورة الواحدة التي ترافق العنوان الرئيس، والتي لا تستمر بالتالي أكثر من العمر الفتراضي للخبر التقليدي، في الوقت الذي لا يملك المصورون الأجانب الهابطون إلى البلاد وقتاً كافياً لإجراء بحوث تخترق قشرة الحدث. على صعيد آخر فقد برزت مؤخراً مسألة جديدة تخص الفورية: يطلق المدونون والنشطاء وممارسو صحافة المواطن سيلاً متدفقاً من الصور التي تلعب دور الأدلة بالأساس، مما يضفي مشروعية على مطالبهم ويخلق إجماعاً حولها. لقد قام تيار فاعل بتوظيف الصور كوسائل للإثبات أو للنفي في جميع الحالات.

وتظل استخدامات أخرى للصور الفوتوغرافية غير مستكشفة، يشكل أغلبها قسماً من المشروع الثوري العاجل: فهي مثلاً وسيلة للبحث المفتوح حول مسائل محورية، أو للكشف عن المستور أو المسكوت عنه، أو لتحويل موضوعات جرى تبسيطها في الخطاب الإعلامي إلى أخرى مركبة. إن الصورة لا تجيب عن الأسئلة فحسب، بل وتطرحها أيضاً.

هذا ويحتمل المزيد والمزيد من الموضوعات بحثاً. كيف يمكننا قراءة واستيعاب الصور التي تم تداولها خلال السنة الجارية؟ ما نوع العملية الإنتاجية التي تقف وراء صورة تمثل مؤشراً لسؤال وليس لإجابة؟ كيف تؤثر قنوات التوزيع – سواء أن كانت تويتر بيك أو الجرائد أو صالات العرض الفنية – على طريقة التعاطي مع الصورة والتفكر فيها؟ كيف يمكن أن نعيد النظر في الجماليات، فيما يخص العمر السياسي للصورة؟ وهل يجب علينا ذلك أصلاً؟ ما هي المخاوف والمسؤوليات التي يتحتم علينا مراعاتها بالنسبة لـ “صورة” مصر في الخارج وتمثيل الإعلام الغربي للأحداث؟

يقام هذا المشروع وسط أحداث سياسية وثورية بعضها معروف لنا الآن وبعضها لا يمكن التنبؤ به.

تهدف وكالة الأخبار البديلة إلى أن تصبح بؤرة تجمّع ودعم خلال تلك الأحداث، ومقر في وسط البلد للاجتماع والمشاركة والنقاش حول الصور التي نلتقطها من خلال ممارسات تبادل الخبرة. سوف يقوم كل مشارك ومشاركة بتنفيذ مشروعاً مستعيناً بالأسلوب الفوتوغرافي الذي يثير اهتمامه/ا، سواء أن كانت قصة صحافية تقليدية، أو بحثاً على تويتر، أو تجميع أرشيفي. وهكذا لن يصبح المشروع توثيقاً فحسب، بل قناة للمشاركة الفوتوغرافية.

Alternative News Agency

The power of the photographic image has become undeniable in the Egyptian socio-political landscape over the last year, not only for what it depicts but because of who is able to use it. Photography, whether made on a mobile phone or a state of the art camera, is almost as accessible a practice as speech. Both professionals and amateurs have paid special attention to images as essential documents to support their arguments.

As a result, photo and video circulation inside and outside the country have made a crucial contribution to the Egyptian uprising. So, these times are particularly favorable for photojournalism to flourish, and for its status to improve its current subaltern position within local media.

Yet space for the critical analysis and debate on the images produced and released in Egypt during this year is still lacking.

Some of the most visible trends in the landscape of photography already existed for some time: local photojournalists are limited to single headline-photos that do not stay longer than the conventional news-life span, while international photographers parachuted in the country rarely have the time to research beyond the surface of the event.

More recently, however, newer issues of immediacy have arisen: bloggers, activists and citizen journalists release a continuous stream of images functioning mainly as evidence, allowing them to validate their arguments and build consensus around their demands. In all cases, an affirmative tendency has used images as means to either confirm or deny.

Other roles of the photographic image remain, many of which are part of the urgent revolutionary project: a tool for open-ended research on key issues; a revealer of the unseen and unspoken; a provider of complexity and nuance to overtly simplistic categories. As well as providing the answer, photography can also ask the question. Many, many other issues bear investigation.

How do we read and perceive the images circulated in the last year? What kind of production process stands behind an image that is more vector of a question than an answer? How do distribution channels, whether twitpic or newspapers or art galleries, affect the way we take and think of an image? How can we reconsider aesthetics in relation to the political life of the image – and should we? What concern and responsibilities should we take for the ‘image’ of Egypt abroad, and the Western media’s portrayal of events?

This project will take place during political and revolutionary events both apparent now and that will arise unpredictably. The Alternative News Agency aims to be a hub and a support during these events; a space Downtown to regroup, share, consider and discuss the images we are taking through knowledge sharing practices.

Each participant is asked to create a project in any photographic mode that interests them, whether a classical photojournalism story, a research conducted by twitter, an archival compilation. As such the projects will not just function as documentation, but as living (photographic) devices for participation.

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