Egyptian and German collaborators celebrated the publication of their latest book about Cairo’s informal areas on Wednesday at Goethe Institute’s downtown branch. Guests sat through two dreary hours of academic reading and discussion about the remarkable proceeding that went through creating a visual portrayal of life in informal Cairo.
The photographs enlivened a collection of English articles assembled by GTZ Egypt and the Egyptian-German Participatory Development Program in Urban Areas, titled “Cairo s Informal Areas, Between Urban Challenges and Hidden Potentials – Facts. Voices. Visions.
Informal areas are unplanned, unlicensed residential neighborhoods neglected by the government and lacking many of the most basic conditions for housing. There are over 50 such neighborhoods throughout Greater Cairo.
Four articles regarding slums around the world were read aloud at the event – a rather dull format considering the academic focus of the articles. “I just don’t feel it, announced one guest.
The discussion gathered steam, but the opening of the photo exhibit, of the same title, provided a necessary new perspective.
Photojournalist Claudia Wiens, who has spent over 10 years in Cairo, covered the city’s slums for the publication. Her photographs do not shock, but instead offer a tamed view into the lives of the residents. Smiles abound, to the surprise of the wine sipping visitor expecting to see the desperation of poverty.
But the viewer should need no reminder of the troubles of life in these neighborhoods – if they do, their next assignment is a reading from the book. Wiens has avoided the straightforward imagery of hardship, without losing touch with the struggle of life in the area. Her willingness to delve deeper into the community is evident throughout her work.
In one image, two women and two children stand together in an empty alley in the City of the Dead. The women smile, as if laughing at the idea of their photograph being taken in this most infamous of informal areas. But suffering is left for the viewer to presume – the street is clear of trash, the lighting is bright, and the image sharp.
In a similar photograph, a woman and her two children sit on a bed beside the stove. The peeling blue wall against the beige furnishings and sunlit window provide an artful background. Together with the contented expressions of the small family, the photograph gives the sense of a painted portrait that Wiens spent the afternoon working on inside their home – an apartment that Wiens later said was made up of that single room.
Indeed, Wiens’s work led her into the communities and homes of Cairenes across the city, where she said she was given the time and the freedom to find her images. Working with the publication to expose the hardships of informal areas, Wiens did not ignore the individual.
“I was trying to catch a little bit of the soul of the person, she said. “I think, I hope, I show them dignified.
She said she was happy to see several of her subjects attend the opening – as were the other guests at the reading, when the subjects spoke up and contributed their perspective to the monotone discussion.
The photographer’s images offer subtle meanings that in some cases can seem to border on boring. A photo of the Cairo skyline, for instance, could just as well fit on a postcard as in this exhibit.
“Informal Building has a different effect. Looking out on the skyline of the neighborhood of Boulaq Dakrour, there is no direct indication of poverty – but the subtlety in this image is powerful. Without a person in sight, the buildings appear void of humanity.
That is precisely the myth that “Facts. Voices. Visions. rejects.
“Cairo s Informal Areas, Between Urban Challenges and Hidden Potentials – Facts. Voices. Visions runs until July 20 at Goethe Institute’s downtown branch.