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Obstructions: Cairo Photo Marathon

When Maha ‘Oun–a public health consultant—took her second photograph titled “Divorce me! Divorce me! Divorce me!” for the 12-hour Cairo Photo Marathon Saturday morning in front of Downtown’s Felfela restaurant, pedestrians did not seem to care. They only gave her a few weird looks as she shot a picture of two fried eggs split in half by a fork–the breakfast of this Al-Masry Al-Youm reporter, who was shadowing ‘Oun along with two other contestants Ramzy Ebeid and Kareem Hammam. ‘Oun, nevertheless, decided to take the rest of the shots in the confines of her friend’s house in Dokki as she addressed all 12 themes that dealt with gender issues using eggs.

Heba Azooz, who also shot all 12 photos in her parents’ house, chose the indoor set for different reasons. “I felt that shooting on the street would be too complicated,” explained Azooz, who took humorous self-portraits responding to each theme with the help of family members and friends.

Shooting photographs on the street has always been a challenge in Egypt.  Most of the problems the participants faced were not from security, but from the public. This, along with the marathon’s witty and challenging themes, drove a number of contestants to approach the competition’s topics creatively on both technical and conceptual levels.

But 30-year-old Hammam, a political science graduate, stayed outside, using downtown Cairo’s streets as his main inspiration. Hammam’s response to the “Divorce Me!” theme was to photograph a store called “Happy” on Talaat Harb Street. Written in red on the store sign with an Arabic transliteration, it made a perfect picture for Hammam.

For “Your Hand!” an idiomatic Egyptian warning, Hammam took a picture of a shoe shine, who welcomed the attention. But, by noon, people’s discomfort with cameras was becoming clearer to Hammam. Walking into On the Run, a takeout coffee and snacks shop located in Mobil gas stations throughout the city, to use the restroom, this reporter was instructed by a security guard “not to take photographs inside the restroom.” Hammam, who was wandering in the store, waiting for his shadowing reporter, was asked to put the camera, which was hanging from a strap around his neck, inside his case, or leave.

Hammam asked a middle-aged woman with bright red hair and sharp features if he could photograph her for the fifth theme “Lace,” which was inspired by a controversial Egyptian movie from the nineties that deals with women issues. She agreed to pose, but a young man passing on the street started shooing Hammam. When the contestant tried to explain that he had her permission, the man insisted that he still objected and asked the woman if she had agreed to have her picture taken. Surprisingly, she now shook her head “no.”

“O slipper of bliss, I wish to be thee” was theme number 7. Trying to photograph a slipper stall on the street, the owner nervously drove Hammam away saying that he was “invading his privacy” and that he should buy a pair of slippers and photograph it at home if he was so interested in slipper pictures.

Ebeid, an interior designer in his late twenties, faced a different kind of photo-phobia. He decided to use the marathon themes to comment on increasing materialism and consumerism amongst the upper socio-economic classes in Egypt. Asked whether he thought this was peculiar to Egypt, Abeid explained “It’s common everywhere. However, in third world countries it’s exceptionally clear because of the large social gaps.” Ebeid picked two of Cairo’s largest designer stores: Beymen at the Four Seasons Nile Plaza hotel and First Mall in Giza to shoot his photographs.

For fear of being denied access to the stores if he declared his motives, Abeid took all 12 photographs on his iPhone. These included a photograph of a LE100 bill and two 1LE coins for the first theme and a female mannequin dressed in an evening gown and fur while seated in a red cage for the “Divorce me!” theme. In response to “Your Hand!” Abeid shot a cotton t-shirt with “Status Symbol” written on the front, along with the garment’s price tag: LE7,700.

All shots of mannequins around the store were taken in complete secrecy to evade the eyes of over a dozen sales attendants. It was only when Ebeid decided to take a photograph of facial wash lotions from the cosmetics section in response to theme number 7, “Drying laundry, do the wash, there’s none like me,” was he forced to request the permission of the sales attendant. Ebeid explained the Photo Marathon to the attendant who was puzzled at the beginning but gave the contestant permission to photograph what he liked when he learned that Ebeid hoped to win. As Ebeid left the cosmetics section, the sales attendant wished him luck with a big smile on his face.

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