Monday, February 22, 2016

Context Matters

“I like my exhibitions in Egypt more than my exhibitions abroad”
Randa Shaath

For the Palestinian photographer Randa Shaath who was born in the United States, grew up in Lebanon and currently lives in Egypt, where she teaches photography at the American University in Cairo, the context surrounding a photograph is paramount.

This is particularly true for her work which is based in the Middle East. It is an ethos she developed working for six years working as the Al Shorouk daily newspaper’s photo editor and over a decade as a photographer for Al-Ahram Weekly

As she explained in Marwa Zein’s short documentary film Randa “When September 11 happened everyone was in shock and disbelief and everyone was glued to their TV’s. So some official from an American organization called me and told me to go down into the street and photograph the people dancing in celebration of what had happened that day. I told him, you mean I should go down into the street and document what’s happening on the Egyptian streets?

He told me, No I want the people who are dancing in the streets. I told him there are no people dancing in the streets. He told me, no there are people dancing in the streets! And he yelled at me a bit and then hung up. He called me about five times that day telling me that there are a lot of American magazines waiting for these pictures and saying they would pay a lot of money.

I tried to explain to him that if it were a matter of me documenting the actual situation that would be fine. But for me to go in search of people dancing, well, they could be people dancing at a wedding for example! And even if there were people dancing, one would have to explain the history of the Middle East and everything in order to understand why some family would be dancing in such circumstances. But for me to capture people dancing just like that takes it completely out of its historical context. So I refused and he hung up and hasn’t phoned since. He was an occasional source of income and he hasn’t phoned me since.”

This devotion to context also drives Shaath’s personal work. Like her 2002-2003 series Under the Same Sky: Rooftops in Cairo which was shown in New York at the Aperture gallery in 2005. In which Shaath captures scenes from the rooftops that surround her high rise apartment whilst being invisible from the street.

Shaath’s latest series of works goes inside the buildings documenting domestic spaces exploring the question “when does one feel at home?

Forty works from this series are in her Indelible exhibition which is currently on show at Cairo’s Gypsum Gallery until the 5th of April

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