Mosa’ab Elshamy: On escaping death and capturing tragedy

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As the deadly crackdown on the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins by supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi was coming to an end on August 14, word spread that a photographer called Mosa’ab Elshamy was killed. It wasn’t long before the 23-year-old photographer assured his friends and colleagues that it was another Alexandria photographer by the same name who had been killed at the same Rabaa al-Adawya square where he was taking photos. The relief was soon replaced by the realization that another set of strangers were mourning the loss of their friend. This type of tragedy and conflict is what Elshamy is skillful at documenting.

His portfolio is spread out on the front pages of the world’s top publications. One of his photos was chosen among Time magazine’s top ten this year. It depicts a man carrying a lifeless body during a deadly crackdown on Morsi supporters on July 27. Three years abundant with street clashes, with no professional training but with “a lot of trial and error,” have honed an eye capable of capturing both emotion and motion. Elshamy’s courage is often commended by his more seasoned peers.

I first knew of the young photographer when he was arrested in May 2011 during clashes near the Israeli embassy. A military court handed him and others a suspended sentence. He was still a pharmacy student when his eye was injured with glass shrapnel while covering clashes in December of the same year. This paper gave him his first professional assignment in 2012. The first time we worked together was in Suez while covering the presidential elections.

Sitting with him over a year and a half later, his signature smile frailly masked the violence and loss he had witnessed. Our conversation moved from the financial and security risks of being an independent photojournalist to the struggle to maintain professional integrity in a heavily politicized society, especially with his older brother, al-Jazeera journalist Abdallah Elshamy, behind bars. The guilt of having a flourishing career in the midst of tragedy pierced through.

This is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Since June, what has been your most memorable photo?

I think it’s the picture I took in Iman Mosque, which was where the bodies were moved from Rabaa after it was cleared. Some were torched and it was really awful. But there is a picture that really stuck with me which was the photo of the wife of one of the victims. The man was called Mohamed Yaqoot– an engineer. The Iman Mosque was very big and there were over 400 bodies being sorted out, many unidentified. [The wife] has been looking for over an hour for the body. He was lying in a coffin with no identification. So, she was actually going through every unidentified coffin and when she found him, she threw herself on him and obviously it was heartbreaking. So, it was this picture that really stuck with me for such a long while, because it just showed so much of the catastrophe, so much of the human disaster and the insanity that has torn so many families apart.

I remember your tweets on August 14 describing that you left because a bullet flew next to your ear. Was this the most dangerous and life threatening situation you’ve ever been in?

Yes.

Do you think you were targeted or was it random?

I’m more inclined to believe it was random. Perhaps, it would have been a bit safer to know that they were actually there for the sake of law and order, that they were actually confronting the people who had guns, but that wasn’t the case. I was there for more than six hours and people at the very back were being shot. People who were sitting under a tree were being shot. All of these people who were falling next to me showed absolutely no form of distinction. That was the scariest part about Rabaa.

I’d like to believe I was really cautious and I knew I had to be extremely cautious that day and I did stick to all these rules I made for myself. Like not getting close, always being under or next to a car or a tree or a block. Always keeping my head really low, staying in side streets most of the time, making sure I’m not in the middle. They had this pattern of teargassing then shooting in the middle. Never staying in a place for more than 20 seconds. These were the sort of things that I had developed and learned over the months since January [2011]. But the thing about Rabaa is that really it was about how lucky you were that day. That’s what I came to realize – that I was absolutely lucky.

[Photoset of the Rabaa crackdown here].

What got you into photography, specifically photojournalism? You got interested at the time when it was the most dangerous.

I got into photography in 2005. I was 16. The concept of composing pictures really did take over me – mostly just different genres of nature photography. It always terrified me a little bit to go out on the street. Then in June 2010, which was also around the same time I actively got into politics like so many who were moved by the Khaled Said incident and the wave of protests that had taken over the country, I was starting to break at least this fear of going into the street. There were very few incidents where I would take my camera with me. I wouldn’t say it was more dangerous than now, but it had its own risk [of] being on the street with your camera in a protest, especially that [protesters] almost always would get beaten.

In 2011 when the protests started, I also took my camera – not on the first day, not on January 25, but on the 26th and the 27th when there were sporadic protests. It was on Talaat Harb Street. We were sitting at the Borsa [café] and there was this protest that began out of nowhere and it was quite big and it was night. All of a sudden the [protesters] were faced by a cordon and the police started beating everybody, and I had my camera. So it got completely destroyed.

Since then, you’ve lost…

Yes quite few. But that one was really painful because I had gotten it a few months earlier. It was in Summer 2010 that I invested actual money in a camera and then it got broken on January 27, which was such a bummer because then I spend the next 15 days, especially the Friday of Rage, without a camera.

So there is always this bitterness and this extra anger that I don’t have my camera on me and so much is happening, so the most I did was tweet and take some phone pictures.

Being an independent journalist, how do you manage the loss of equipment?

There’s definitely an extra risk. As an independent you really don’t get covered. Not to mention sometimes you don’t have a press identification on you. So it’s not just about the camera. With my brother [in jail] – there’s an independent photographer and he can’t prove to them that he’s a journalist.

The financial aspect of it gets much more pressuring because you have no one who could cover you if you lose equipment, except on very few occasions when you are being assigned. How do I cope with it? I’ve had days when I wasn’t able to do that and had to borrow lenses. It’s rewarding when you are able to [find ways around it].

You mentioned that you became interested in photojournalism when you got interested in politics. How do you balance both and maintain your integrity as a journalist?

This has always been a very difficult. I would say that as a rule: When it comes to choosing, not sides, but choosing what to cover – because there’s always so much to cover – I always find myself inclined to choose the [side of the] ones who get very little media attention. Not just that, but the ones actually facing the wrath of the state, including its media institutions and sometimes even public opinion. So this is why in 2011, when the revolutionaries were always in the streets I was naturally inclined to be out with them. And even though on a very political and personal level, which I obviously almost always keep to myself, I would be with them, I would cover these clashes because they were the weaker side.

The dynamics are always changing. And now, it’s the Brotherhood who are basically back in this spot. It’s easier to take this decision to be in Rabaa, to be in Nahda, rather than be in Tahrir when you know all the cameras are there. I also tend to think, which will be more challenging to cover: a random celebration in Tahrir or a protest which will get teargassed to hell?

As a journalist, I know that at a lot of times I will have to be covering something that on a very personal level I’m not invested in, or even sometimes I’m completely against. But I need to do that because otherwise you are risking your integrity. Which is why June 30 was very difficult on the professional level … a conflicting task. [In Tahrir], the mood was very jubilant, and then going to Rabaa that same night when Morsi was toppled and seeing the complete opposite of that.

There is this conflict and in Egypt as these lines are being drawn and the polarization is [getting] more solidified, it just becomes more difficult trying to keep what I would say your journalistic neutrality – as in being here and being there.

Your brother was arrested in Rabaa and he works for al-Jazeera which is …

The devil!

The devil – yes. How do you factor all of this into your reputation as a journalist away from your older brother?

As a general rule I have absolutely no problem with this fact. We are three in my family and my brother works for al-Jazeera. I’ve expressed to him my discontent with some of al-Jazeera’s work. When he was here reporting I would always try and tell him what I think very honestly and he took that very well. It’s something that did harm him in the end, because even before he was arrested, there’d been too much defamation going on against him. Generally speaking, what he works for doesn’t really change what I think of his own journalistic integrity, especially since I [have been] following his work very closely since he was in Misrata during the Libyan revolution, in Mali, and in Syria. That’s something to be actually proud [of], regardless of the outlet he works for, which I think does have many of its ups and downs. And to be honest, I think they have been vilified a lot more than they should have, but that’s another story.

But when it comes to me, I know that I should be accounted for what I do and there have been instances where also I’ve been accused of such things. It does get crazy because this is the general mood.

To end it on a happy note, what has been the most gratifying moment in your career?

I don’t think this is going to be happy. Starting with June 30 and Manasa [July 27] and Rabaa and Ramsis [Aug. 16], somehow these were the most terrible things I have ever covered or clashes I’ve been to, and the pictures and all the memories. But in a way this completely pushed me forward on a professional and career level. I’ve been to places I’ve always dreamed of featuring my photos in and I got invitations to exhibit my pictures and have been considered for workshops that I’ve always loved. This is always the conflict that we are in: that it takes a disaster or sometimes a very gruesome event for you to be able to move forward in your career. Very, very sadly.

I’m thankful more than anything that I was here when this happened and I at least showed what I wanted to show, which is the loss of humanity on the streets of Egypt, and this has been very morally satisfying. Very simply on Twitter, people told me that they didn’t care much about the people in Rabaa until they saw some of my pictures. On the other side, some people were happy about the Copts being killed in Warraq but when they saw my pictures they were like, “I’m sorry I shouldn’t have thought like that.” More than anything, this is really what I find very satisfying. I’m able in my own very individual and unique and humble way to keep people slightly more human.

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