The two rooms devoted to picture editing are small and the three computers old. But there is a dedicated staff member to serve visitors tea, coffee, a glass of water or a bottle of cola. Hanging on the wall in a corner, three hard hats, a selection of gas masks and bullet-proof vests.
From the smaller of the two rooms, Randa attempts to organise the work and lives of 16 professional photographers. She is supervisor, friend, teacher, intermediary between publishers and photographers, and, in some cases, a substitute mother.
Around ten male and female members of the photography team have gathered. The others are on assignment or at home. It’s cramped, and there’s plenty of coming and going. In a corner, half hidden under a table, Ravi, one of the team, huddles, dozing. There’s some concern about his state: he’s been eating too little, and twice in recent weeks he has collapsed, unconscious. He is very thin.
The group is young – very young. It’s no surprise that Randa develops motherly feelings for her ‘children’ – as she sees her co-workers. She feels responsible for them.
Only four of the photographers have a journalism background. All the others are switching careers. Before they made photography their profession they were lawyers, engineers, artists, dentists or students.
Most of them became interested in politics because of the revolution, and see photography and journalism as a way of documenting, reflecting on, and better understanding the transformation of Egyptian society. They all realise that they are a part of this evolution. That they are living in a time when journalism is taking on responsibility for society, and that this is not some vague ideal, but rather a fact to be acknowledged.
For an independent newspaper, the biggest challenge is remaining simultaneously open and critical. Not allowing the powers that have set up camp on the Tahrir Square to influence them. Photographers in this field are the most vulnerable. On the frontline, they are exposed to dangers that their writing colleagues can still escape from.
Take the example of Heba. She is a single mother of a two-year-old. Her training as a visual artist hardly prepared her for the problems she is faced with today as a photo journalist. Tear gas, rubber bullets, flying stones, thugs, or police batons that rain down on her (in the best case) or on her equipment (the worst case). There is no insurance, and her employer is not likely to repay her if she were to lose her gear.
Before my departure, I meet Randa one more time for dinner. She is upset, close to tears. It’s the middle of the month, and the photographers haven’t received their paychecks yet. Two of them had to stay home in the morning because they didn’t have enough spare change to travel to work. I think of Ravi and hope that he has at least had something substantial to eat today. Then we order.
All photos © the photographers/al-Shorouk
Text : Thomas Kern