Egypt Every Day: The Photography of Yasser Alwan
By Shamoon Zamir
I am assuming that many readers are not familiar with the photography of Yasser Alwan or know only some of it. So I want to start with a selection of images. Yasser and I had long planned to publish a book of his photos. It is a very great regret that I was only able to complete this work and find a publisher for it after Yasser’s sudden death earlier this year. The resulting book, Egypt Every Day, was recently published by Hatje Cantz. What you will see is the selection that makes up the book.
Almost all of Yasser Alwan’s photographs are portraits. There are many of family and friends. But the photographs Alwan perhaps most consistently exhibited and published are those of individuals he encountered in and around Cairo, in the streets, at the racetrack, in cafes, and in their places of work—tanneries, quarries, bookshops, potteries, the crowded pavements where all kinds of trade are conducted daily. The majority of these images are of laborers living in conditions of severe poverty, and of near total political and civic dispossession: a fifth estate. The images of friends and family accrued over time; they were never planned as a project, but, nevertheless, they add up to a collective portrait of the Egyptian urban middle class, or at least a certain segment of this class. The affectionate sense of familiarity and gentle engagement with every-day life in these images has taken on the quality of an unexpectedly pressing address at a time when narratives of war, religious violence, the collapse of civil liberties, and the failures of democracy have been crowding out other ways of seeing and understanding the peoples of the Arab world. In contrast to the leisurely making of these photographs, and the slow emergence of a sense of purposive design in them, the portraits of workers and laborers were a project from the very beginning, a pre-determined pursuit: most of them were made during a period of intense work between April 1997 and the end of 1999.
A selection of ninety-nine of these images of laborers and city dwellers was brought together in Scream: Documenting Human Rights, a photobook self-published by Alwan in January 2000. Alwan’s prefatory note to the book clearly states what he tried to achieve in his photographs and also describes the kind of documentary practice this entails. So, I want to start by quoting Yasser himself:
I assume that documenting poverty involves more complexity than a technical description of the living and working conditions of people, otherwise anyone with a still video camera could describe the surface of poverty with relative ease. This project’s central premise is that poverty is only one aspect of a huge number of Egyptians’ lives, albeit an important one. One of my goals has been to show conditions that need to be corrected. Another was to photograph aspects of life that need to be appreciated. Only in this way, by showing the possible incongruencies and affinities between the physical, social and emotional realities of such communities, can structural poverty be documented with some accuracy, in its full context. This kind of representation can result in images that do justice to the sense of social cohesion in such communities while not shying away from the difficult conditions in which people live and work. This has meant—as much as was possible—photographing poverty from the inside, from within these communities. Such an approach has entailed a way of seeing that goes beyond the directly visible. Only through a way of seeing that requires an ‘extended knowing’ could I hope to draw out the humanity from those who seem, at first, to have none.
Alwan’s images arise out of a sustained relationship with particular locales, oftentimes also with particular individuals (there are images “based on relationships going back a decade or more,” some stretching back over “twenty-five years”).  Alwan took his time; he lost himself (often quite literally) in the labyrinthine city. It is this sense of a true inhabiting (so much more than a “hanging around” in the hope of a good shot) that finds its fulfillment in the human face sedimented with time and experience in the portraits. Even the images that seem to conform more closely to the norms of street photography (images captured as people wait for a bus, for example), seem to be marked by a careful ethics of regard that speaks of the same senses of time, place, and personhood. The project began when Alwan was taken to the horse races at what he himself referred to as “the once very posh Gezira Club” by a “friend’s uncle.” Alwan returned “every weekend and eventually started photographing the small community of men who bet at the track.” By the end of the third season, Alwan “had met almost every single person who came to bet regularly.” It was the time spent with these men that then led Alwan to the neighborhoods of these men (especially Waily and Dar al-Salaam), “the areas where the vast majority of the city’s population lives.” This is how Alwan describes the way he worked with the communities he photographed:
I work very, very hard to break down the barriers and their prejudices about why and what I’m trying to do. I show them photographs that I’ve made in the past. We talk. And I spend an enormous amount of time in the community, learning about what this community is. I’m in a place where I’m entirely off balance, where they are much more comfortable. This is their social setting. And the way that I become comfortable is to slowly over time gain people’s trust. One way I do that is to return pictures to people so that they see the kinds of images I make. And that’s the real work. If I do that honestly, then I can often make a photograph.
Alwan was himself an outsider–insider. He was born to well-to-do Iraqi parents in Lagos, Nigeria in 1964. After some years in Lebanon and Iraq, the family moved to New York City in 1972. Alwan first came to Egypt in 1986 with the assistance of a grant from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. The Watson Fellowship enables graduating seniors from a number of US colleges (Alwan had just graduated with a major in French from Colby College) to pursue an original project independently of an affiliation to an academic institution for a year. Alwan came with a plan to photograph and was immediately enthralled by the chaos, “mess,” and “frenetic” dance of the city. But that first experience of living and working in Cairo also made Alwan acutely aware of how (and I quote) “the fact that [his] parents were Iraqi didn’t give [him] any kind of access to Egyptian society whatsoever.” This is why he studied history and politics at Georgetown University for his master’s degree, focusing on Iraq and Egypt: it was preparation for a planned return, the continuation of a personal flight that began to take shape in Alwan’s childhood. He recalled that while he was growing up his “name was associated with Yasser Arafat, whom the mainstream media portrayed as the devil incarnate.” Alwan resisted talking about himself but could “say without hesitation that mainstream media coverage of the Arab world had a direct impact on [his] life.” The plan after the completion of his MA was to go to Iraq, but the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and of the subsequent Gulf War of 1990–91 made that impossible. Some months spent in Jordan failed to produce the connection Alwan had felt for Egypt. So, Alwan found a way to get back to Egypt. That was 1994, and from then until his sudden death in 2022 he used photography to be in and of the city and its communities, to be an insider as much as an outsider.
There are other photographers, several of them contemporaries of Alwan’s, who have made sympathetic and accomplished portraits of Egyptians. But I don’t know of any who have matched the variety and sustained accumulation of Alwan’s portraits, and none who have engaged with working communities and individuals with Alwan’s dogged commitment and sustained aesthetic accomplishment. What most sets Alwan’s images apart is their achievement of a visual language that can communicate, as much as any photograph possibly can, the ethical experience of meeting another human being across the inequalities of social class and cultural difference. There is an arresting sense of vulnerability in these images: not so much the vulnerability of the people photographed but the vulnerability of the viewer. Alwan, who, like many artists, struggled when asked to speak about his own work, suggested that Judith Butler could serve as a surrogate voice for the concerns that animate his own work. The same questions that preoccupy Butler’s ethics are articulated by Alwan’s photographs: “Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, What makes for a grievable life?” For Butler, one cannot confer or receive recognition from another human being without an opening up one’s own self-identity, and accepting one’s own dislocation. Butler writes: “one can give and take recognition only on the condition that one becomes disoriented from oneself by something which is not oneself, that one undergoes a de-centering and ‘fails’ to achieve self-identity.” This de-centering is an essential part of Alwan’s experience as photographer: as he said in his description of working among neighborhoods of Cairo’s poor, “I’m in a place where I’m entirely off balance.” And Alwan’s photographs ask the viewer to accept the same loss of balance. I feel unsettled by Alwan’s portraits because by showing me so much more than any other photographs of Egypt have shown me, they, paradoxically, make me acutely aware of the limitations of my vision and the limitations of my understanding. Yet it is in these very photographs that I have the sense that I am beginning to see a face behind the outward appearance of a face: this may be what Alwan means when he says he strives for “a way of seeing that goes beyond the directly visible.”
Alwan spoke of his project of photographing Cairo’s workers and laborers in terms of incompletion or partialness. Alwan said that when he started, he “was trying to create something like a portrait of the working class. But that’s a fairly heavy task to handle. What I did manage to do was to photograph labor.” It should come as no surprise that August Sander’s ambitious project of creating a collective portrait of the German people of the twentieth century remained a constant point of reference and inspiration for Alwan. But for both Sander and Alwan the scale of their original ambitions offers only part of the explanation for their failure to bring their impossible projects to conclusion. Sander’s work was curtailed in the 1930s by Nazi censorship and hostility. Alwan’s relations with the Egyptian state’s security apparatus were marked by a similar precarity. In 1986, during his first visit to Egypt, when a state of emergency had been imposed following the assassination of President Sadat, he “spent three days in a state security prison for making pictures.” Then in the 1990s, when he started focusing on labor, the state security service had Alwan followed for three months, simply because the kind of photography he was pursuing was unusual enough to arouse undefined suspicions. Alwan’s dark room was broken into and some of his pictures taken. More damagingly, state security “systematically tried to destroy” Alwan’s “relationships with people”; the people he was photographing were “threatened and terrified,” so much so that they “didn’t want to see [him] again.” In other words, as Alwan affirmed, “photographing in this particular social setting is threatening to the power structure of Egypt. And that makes the environment very, very difficult to work in because on the one hand people imagine you are doing something wrong and on the other hand, the state tries to prevent this work from coming into existence.” Except for the brief moment of liberalization made possible by Egypt’s Arab Spring in 2011, increasing state paranoia and the continuing assaults on the remaining vestiges of a liberal civil society in Egypt made it impossible for Alwan to pursue his kind of photography with any regularity since the early 2000s.
It is not possible in the time available to speak about the full range and variety of Yasser’s work. So I am going to conclude by just looking briefly at two of his portraits of laborers.
There is in the portrait of the man with the raised hammer, as in many others by Alwan, what I see as an unresolved movement between time and its suspension, between the historicity of labor and the refusal to treat the face as merely the object of history. The face and the hammer work as two centers of gravity within the visual field of the image. Alwan’s portrait does not reduce the man to the work he does; nor does it allow him to pull away entirely from the conditions of his work.
The human figure and face are at the center of Alwan’s pictures; they are almost always framed by the conditions of labor, but never presented as only illustrations of the effects of the environments in which people work. Alwan rarely includes wide views of work environments to help establish explanatory contexts for his portraits, which means that the exact nature of the work being done in the photographs (as with the man with the hammer) is often not entirely clear. Alwan invited the individuals he photographed to pose themselves. Each portrait is, therefore, an act of self-presentation to some significant degree. The men (and given the prohibitions on photographing women among the working class in Egyptian culture, it is nearly always men) mostly turn to face the camera, which means the work they are doing is momentarily suspended. In some of the portraits this is simply a consequence of the pause needed for the taking of the photograph. But in others there is much more a sense that the forms of labor we are seeing are being performed as essential aspects of the presentation of self; what we seem to be seeing in these images is not work being done but work being acted out. This is palpably the case in the portrait of the man with disfigured skin holding a crowbar. This man worked in the same place as the man with the hammer. Given his skin condition, Alwan was unsure that the man would want to be photographed, so he initially avoided doing so. But then Alwan was approached by the man himself who felt left out when all his workmates were being invited to participate in Alwan’s novel project. The pose at work is self-chosen. The jacket and hat, even if they are the clothes this man normally wears at work, contrast with the mismatched and worn-out shoes—they bring to the rigid acting out an oddly spruced up sense of self. The crowbar and the hammer, both held mid-air, contribute in very similar ways to the visual dynamics of their respective pictures, and the poised hammer seems no less a part of a performance that uses labor as a vehicle for a self-presentation than is the case with the crowbar in the portrait of the man with disfigured skin. In a strange way, the poised hammer and crowbar seem to be appropriations of the very labor that defines the poverty to which these men are consigned. I don’t mean that they are some sort of an assertion of “the dignity of labor,” by either the men photographed, or by the photographer. I read the images as a recognition of labor as a marshaling of resources necessary to secure continued living without accepting abject defeat; the photographs image a form of persistence, visible to the photographer as a kind of desperate heroism but unlikely to be consciously articulated as such by the men in the photographs themselves, even if felt and understood as such by them on some level. Perdurance is imaged as something achieved and secured through labor, wrested from the indifference of the present, rather than merely a living through it. Alongside this sense of social and historical speficity, the photographs equally, and paradoxically, invite us into a suspension of time, the effect of a photographic encounter that is shaped by Alwan’s slow pace of attention and by the sense of a reciprocal generosity between photographer and subject.
The man with the raised hammer works in a tannery, as does his colleague with the crowbar. The tanneries use wooden frames to hang hides. These frames are regularly disassembled and reassembled. The job of the man with the crowbar is to prize out the nails; what the man with the hammer is doing is to straighten each nail, one by one, so that it can be used again. If you look carefully at the wooden planks behind the man with the crowbar, you can see all the perforations that record a history of this use and re-use.
This ecology of recycling is entirely typical of the substrata of the Egyptian economy. It is evident everywhere—in electronic repair shops, at building and plumbing merchants, and in the city’s sprawling flea markets—but it is represented most famously by the zabbaleen, or garbage collectors. These men and women, concentrated in particular around the Muqattam Hills in a community of some 60,000 or more, are, in Maria Golia’s words, “one of Cairo’s most exemplary communities”.
The t-shirt worn by the man with the hammer catches the entrapment of the lives of ordinary Egyptian working people within the global economic machine. The writing on the t-shirt is the trademarked slogan of the Lee Jeans company: “Made to Fit Better – Since 1889,” however, because of the way the folds in the cloth appear in the image, the eye scans the words more immediately as “made it better.” Either way, the text opens up the image to a range of painful ironies. Who or what has been made to fit better and into what? Who has made what better? One thing is certain: the slogan does not herald any improvement in the human lot of the man pictured at his extraordinary labor of recycling old nails. And the final irony may not be that Egyptian cotton, which helped fuel the industrial revolution in Europe, and which has continued to supply the international clothing trade, here returns home via a global corporate brand; it may instead be that the t-shirt is most likely an Egyptian knock-off, an imitation of a branded global commodity.
For Charles Baudelaire, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, the ragpicker became an emblem of modern life, a figure that stood against the commodity and consumerism:
Here we have a man whose job it is to gather the day’s refuse in the capital. Everything that the big city has thrown away, everything it has lost, everything it has scorned, everything it has crushed underfoot he catalogues and collects…He sorts things out and selects judiciously: he collects like a miser guarding a treasure, refuse which will assume the shape of useful or gratifying objects between the jaws of the goddess of Industry.
The fact that Alwan’s tannery workers or the zabbaleen can continue to serve the same emblematic function within the histories of Egyptian modernization and economic development as Baudelaire’s ragpicker did for European capitalism almost a hundred and fifty years ago is a telling, and dispiriting, comment on the state of the nation.
The text is a slightly edited manuscript of a presentation delivered at the colloquium “Poetics of Presence: Photography, Documentation, and History” on November 4, 2022 at Sarah Lawrence College, dedicated to the life and work of Yasser Alwan (1964-2022).
Structured around the work of Yasser Alwan https://www.sarahlawrence.edu/media/news-events/events/poetics-of-presence-program.pdf
A longer version of this essay was published in Electra Street: A Journal of the Arts and Humanities.
Shamoon Zamir is Professor of Literature and Art History; Global Network Professor of Literature and Art History at NYU Abu Dhabi. He works in the areas of literature, photography and intellectual history. Zamir’s study of the African American writer W.E.B. Du Bois explored literature’s dialogues with philosophy and sociology and his new book, The Gift of the Face, explores the relationship of aesthetics and ethics in the work of the early twentieth-century photographer Edward S. Curtis and examines the ways in which image and text, art and science, pictorialist photography and anthropology come together in Curtis’s portraits of Native Americans.
Zamir is also the Director of Akkasah: Center for Photography at NYUAD. The center is developing a photographic archive, and also a conference and exhibition series devoted to photography, with a primary focus on the Middle East.
 The publication of Scream was financially supported by the embassies of the Netherlands and Switzerland in Cairo, and the book was printed, unfortunately poorly, by the Concord Press. The prefatory note is printed on the inside of the front and back covers, in English and Arabic respectively. The only other substantial presentation of Alwan’s photographs in print has been the catalogue for his exhibition at the Foyles Bookstore gallery in London in 2008: The Liberty of Appearing: Photographs of Egyptian Working People (Portsmouth: Peacock Imprint, 2008), edited by Richard Peacock, with an introduction by John Molyneux. A smaller catalogue of a 2014 exhibition in Doha, which included both portraits of working people and also of friends and their families, is available online: issuu.com/husseinibrahim4/docs/yaser_alwan_book (accessed August 1, 2022). A more comprehensive selection of the work is available on Alwan’s personal website (www.yasseralwan.net/) (accessed August 1, 2022).
 Ibid., p. 102.
 Yasser Alwan, “Photographing Mohamed Ahmed,” in Peacock, ed., The Liberty of Appearing, pp. 42–5.
 Shamoon Zamir, “Egypt Every Day: The Photographs of Yasser Alwan. A Public Conversation,” Electra Street: A Journal of the Arts and Humanities, issue 1 (Spring 2014), p. 91. Unless otherwise indicated, all comments by Alwan are taken from this conversation and page numbers are given in the text. Where I have used comments drawn from the longer, un-edited and un-revised transcript of the conversation, the comments are marked as “transcript.” Electra Street is an in-house publication of New York University Abu Dhabi. The conversation took place on February 8, 2012, on the occasion of a small exhibition of Alwan’s photographs at New York University; this exhibition was a continuation of a much larger exhibition held throughout the campus of New York University Abu Dhabi from October 2012 to April 2013.
 Zamir, “Egypt Every Day,” p. 88.
 Alwan, “Photographing Mohamed Ahmed,” p. 46.
 E-mail to author: June 25, 2018.
 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), p. 20.
 Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), p. 42.
 Zamoor, “Egypt Every Day,” p. 89.
 Ibid., p. 93.
 Ibid. p. 102.
 Quoted in David Campany, A Handful of Dust: From the Cosmic to the Domestic (London: Mack Books, 2017), p. 30.
Citation: Shamoon Zamir, Egypt Every Day: The Photography of Yasser Alwan, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.02.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/45430