Laura El-Tantawy

Book Review Laura El-Tantawy:
In The Shadow of The Pyramids

© Laura El-Tantawy

Photographer Laura El-Tantawy’s seminal work lays on the cusp of an explosive chapter and moment of great change in Egypt and narrates life during the period in which the Egyptian people reclaimed their nation.


─── Isabel O'Toole, April 28, 2021


El-Tantawy’s aptly named
In The Shadow of the Pyramids, narrates life under an oppressive totalitarian regime, one whose dark shadow had long been cast over the Egyptian people, plunging them into the very tangible darkness of corruption, economic degradation, social divide, and political upheaval.

Ten years after its initial release, a second edition has been published, which retains the same imagery as the original, but adopts a more reflective tone: examining how the last decade has impacted the revolution and those involved.

Color photo by Laura El-Tantawy from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PYRAMIDS. Heliopolis, Cairo, Egypt, Revolution
February 11, 2013 | Heliopolis, Cairo, Egypt — "Ready To Fight"


Egypt, formerly the Middle East’s pillar of stability, and home to more than 80 million people, had become one of the world’s most corrupt nations under President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak’s regime, which had stifled the national pride of the Egyptian people for 30 years.

Wealth and power rested in the hands of the minority, and the poor had been forced to build homes in cemeteries. El-Tantawy’s chronicle of this time is a well-balanced but tumultuous observation of life under Mubarak in 2005, and life during the revolution in 2011, as well as the years that preceded it. 

Color photo by Laura El-Tantawy from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PYRAMIDS. Cairo, Egypt, Revolution, woman crying
February 22, 2012 | Police Academy, New Cairo, Egypt — “Faces of a Revolution #7: Safeya's Tears"
Color photo by Laura El-Tantawy from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PYRAMIDS. Blood on hands.
February 2, 2011 | Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt — "Blood on Our Hands"
Color photo by Laura El-Tantawy from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PYRAMIDS. Police on the streets. Heliopolis, Cairo, Egypt, Revolution
February 11, 2013 | Heliopolis, Cairo, Egypt — "Police Take the Streets"


In her book, El-Tantawy, a British-Egyptian national, raised much of her life away from Egypt, combines her passion and emotional investment in the Egyptian nation with the distance of a well-research reporter. Her interpretation of the ‘Arab Spring’ as it became known, one of the most important modern expressions of dissent in the Arab world, is saturated in reds and oranges.

These colors can be read as metaphors for the blood spilled over the period, and the imagistic tone, a grainy, impressionistic one is one that is as indeterminate as the outcome of the revolution itself. Her photos of nocturnal protest are blurry and confusing, perfectly encapsulating the way events unfold during moments of protest- erratic, without order. A crescendo of chaos.

Color photo by Laura El-Tantawy from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PYRAMIDS. El Hussein, Old Cairo, Egypt
April 10, 2006 | El Hussein, Old Cairo, Egypt — "Three Boys" from "In the Shadow of the Pyramids"


“This work is a portrayal of Egypt through my own eyes. Guided by my childhood memories and a struggle to understand the country I call my home, In the Shadow of the Pyramids is my journey through Egypt to explore the essence of Egyptian identity in the hope of coming to terms with my own — from the time of Mubarak to the revolution and Egypt’s looming future.”
Laura El-Tantawy

Color photo by Laura El-Tantawy from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PYRAMIDS. Tahir Square, Cairo, Egypt, Revolution
February 8, 2011 | Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt — "The Square I Remember"
Color photo by Laura El-Tantawy from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PYRAMIDS. Police on the streets. Heliopolis, Cairo, Egypt, Revolution
February 11, 2013 | Heliopolis, Cairo, Egypt — "Police Take the Streets"
Color photo by Laura El-Tantawy from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PYRAMIDS. Cairo, Egypt, Revolution, Boy crying
December 8, 2011 | Cairo, Egypt — "A Boy Named Contentment"


In contrast to the more ‘poetic’ structure of the first edition, the images, which are accompanied by the date on which they were captured, are presented chronologically (from 2005 -14) in order to convey how the events developed and unfolded over time.

“I want it to be a book that remembers these events, so that they are not forgotten.”– Laura El-Tantawy

Color photo by Laura El-Tantawy from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PYRAMIDS. Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, Revolution
February 3, 2012 | Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt — "Almost Dead"


The dual-narrative that permeates throughout the book –  that of El-Tantawy’s pre-revolutionary experience and the days of the revolution, are parallel accounts of a nation – the personal and the collective memories of a changing landscape.

Her own story and that of the uprising, present two different worlds; the impressionistic street photographs that best describe her style, are juxtaposed with quieter moments of frustration, which are vital to experience in order to fully empathize with the Egyptians. El-Tantawy’s desire was to explore the Egyptian identity, which had been interrupted by her time away from the country.

 

"Girl on Swing" from "In the Shadow of the Pyramids" by Laura El-Tantawy 2005-2014
Color photo by Laura El-Tantawy from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PYRAMIDS. Relection, desert, Egypt, Revolution
"Rest Stop" from "In the Shadow of the Pyramids" by Laura El-Tantawy 2005-2014


The often frenetic pace throughout the book is a viable reflection of the way events unfolded in the years she spent away from the country.
Her aesthetic does not distract us from the facts, quite the opposite, it plunges us deep into the mindset of a nation bent on change. Her work is indeterminate and inconclusive, as the events at Tahrir Square themselves.

Color photo by Laura El-Tantawy from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PYRAMIDS, window, curtain, Cairo, Egypt.
March 20, 2013 | Agouza, Cairo, Egypt — "Sunset Through My Childhood Window"


Much of the book’s success is in El-Tantawy’s ability to blend the personal with objective realities, the fragmented almost surreal feeling of seeing your own fate being sealed or everything you held dear crumbling before your eyes, and the images we are used to seeing on television or news broadcasts.

Color photobook by Laura El-Tantawy from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PYRAMIDS, page spread
Color photobook by Laura El-Tantawy from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PYRAMIDS, page spread


The final pages feature a selection of her own personal prose, followed by faded photographs from her childhood. Meditative and introspective, together, these fragments of thought and memory soliloquize her own emotional response to the events that occurred between 2011 and 2014, and serve as a fitting conclusion to what is a deeply compelling account of a profoundly important moment in history.

 

Edited by Josh Bright

– In The Shadow of The Pyramids 10 Year Anniversary Edition is available to order directly from the author’s website.

All images © Laura El-Tantawy