In January 2011, New York-based photographer Myriam Abdelaziz was on a regular excursion to her native Egypt when revolution broke out in Tahrir Square. Taking to the streets, she spent eighteen consecutive days documenting the protests, which unfolded as President Mubarak’s thirty-year rule was overthrown. Many of the images later became part of her Egyptian Revolt series, which capture the fragility and transition permeating those weeks. Her un-posed, close-range shots articulated the immediacy and grassroots character of the political convulsion, and were often quite literally taken from the ground up. The focus of these photos, reflecting her background in journalism and political science, was on the real-time experience of a country’s evolution – navigating the boundaries between a problematic past and an unknown future.
The theme of a chronological threshold continued in her later pieces, Transition and After the Revolution, which sought to uncover the impact of the uprising. Transition’s innovation was that it eschewed images of people in favour of the graffiti appearing on city walls in the revolution’s aftermath. For Abdelaziz, the writing reflected an ‘aggressive dialogue’ between groups contending for power in Mubarak’s wake, a struggle that was ‘ephemeral’ and ‘constantly renewed’ as the armed forces sought to cover over the markings that kept reappearing. The fluidity in urban landscape served as another reminder of the dynamic nature of this particular historical moment.
Yet, not all Abdelaziz’s work since graduating from the International Center of Photography in 2006 has focused on unfolding events. Many of her images are intimate and studied portraiture. In them, it is her subjects – rather than political happenings – that are liminal, occupying the boundaries between insider and outsider as they integrate (or don’t) with the communities around them. Navajoland, for example, looks at the experiences of the American Indian Navajo tribe as modern housing and wage labor permeate their traditional ways of life. Darfuris in Cairo meanwhile documents the plight of Sudanese refugees in Egypt whose illegal immigrant status prevents them from accessing the job market or healthcare.
There is a powerful social justice theme in her photography, reinforced by Abdelaziz’s detailed captions. Her work on child labour in Egypt’s limestone quarries, Menya’s Kids presented shocking statistics about the number of young workers in the country – between 1 and 3 million, according to Abdelaziz. The eerie, dust-shrouded images were later given to a local charity to help raise awareness of this issue, and display a literal manifestation of the way her photography crosses social thresholds, bringing forgotten groups and outsiders into international consciousness.
With this contemporary relevance and strong political message, it is no great surprise that Abdelaziz’s images have been published everywhere from Newsweek and Time Magazine to Le Monde and The British Journal of Photography. Yet for all this success, her work also reflects the ambivalent place of the photographer in society. Abdelaziz herself admits that being an insider sometimes ‘opens doors’ to a story: whether as an Arabic-speaker during the Egyptian Revolution, or as a woman hearing intimate stories from female survivors of the Rwandan genocide. At other times, however, her gender and camera equipment have aroused suspicion and even harassment, making the street a ‘stressful environment.’ Her experience highlights the tension between the photographer’s desires for intimacy and anonymity, and the mixed receptions they receive.
As expected, the issue of gender is also a big consideration for her. She is a founding member of the Middle Eastern women’s photography collective, RAWIYA, whose name means ‘she who tells a story.’ Its members seek to document the experiences of real women from the region, reversing the Western photographic stereotype of Middle Eastern women as mere victims of local violence. Instead, they draw out their professional and personal identities, conducting lengthy interviews to ensure the final images reflect the life stories of their subjects. One piece by Abdelaziz in this vein focuses on Egyptian belly dancers, who she argues are an ‘endangered species.’
Of course, the name RAWIYA also reminds us that Abdelaziz and others are women who tell stories of their own through their lenses. As such, they occupy liminal spaces themselves, drawing out personal and political meanings from their subjects on the one hand, even as they engage aesthetically with prospective viewers on the other. It is this exploration of the in-between, which makes Abdelaziz’s images so compelling.
By Rachel Peat