This past Saturday was a somewhat dreary winter day. Along the streets of downtown Cairo people could be seen clutching their jackets and sweaters tightly, shielding themselves from the cold. At the Townhouse Gallery, however, the mood was upbeat with an abundance of enthusiasm and excitement. Clusters of people milled about, with cameras of all shapes and sizes held in their hands, hung round their necks, or slung across their chests.
The Townhouse Gallery acted as the anchor location for a remarkable event, the “Cairo Photo Marathon,” which marked the first-ever photo marathon competition in the Arab world. The tagline of the event was “Gender in the Egyptian Metropolis.”
Photo Marathons take place in various cities across the globe. According to photomarathon.com, at least 25 such events took place in 2010 alone. The “Cairo Photo Marathon” is the first to take place anywhere in the world in 2011.
The event was a cooperative effort between the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute (DEDI), which aims to enhance political life in Egypt and Denmark, and International Media Support (IMS), a non-profit organization working to support local media in countries affected by armed conflict, human insecurity and political transition. Numerous other local cultural institutions and individuals also played a part in putting on the event.
Muna Bur, gender program officer at DEDI, traveled to Copenhagen this past September to observe and draw inspiration from the Danish Photo Marathon, the world’s longest-running photo marathon, currently in its 23rd year.
Though the Danish Photo Marathon was an inspiration for this week’s event, Bur noticed some elements that would have to be changed to suit the Egyptian context. In Denmark, contestants wore distinguishing armbands so that they could be easily recognized by one another. Given the size of Cairo, paired with the attention that an outward symbol may attract, Bur recognized that this feature wouldn’t be right.
Although Denmark’s photo marathon runs in 12 and 24 hour segments, Cairo’s version was planned for just six and 12 hour segments. This adjustment was made to be more accommodating of women and girls who may otherwise have been excluded from participating in a longer competition.
The turnout for the “Cairo Photo Marathon” was decent, with 51 participants completing the marathon. This included 28 male and 23 female contenders. The completion was open to both amateurs and professionals, and the vast majority of participants were students.
“The point is to critically and creatively reflect on gender issues,” said Bur. Others expressed similar sentiments, indicating that freedom of interpretation and expression was paramount to the objective behind the event.
The marathon structure remained simple. Contestants of the six-hour segment were given six ‘themes’ at once. All themes had to be shot in order, and submitted at the end of the segment to the Townhouse Gallery, which served as the event’s main location.
Those participating in the 12-hour affair were met with an added twist; they were given four themes to start with, and every four hours stopped off at a theme collection point, either the Townhouse Gallery or one of several other designated locations throughout the city, to pick up four new themes until they had all 12.
Since Egypt has a history with media censorship, coupled with the fact that people can be wary of having their photo taken, the organizers of “Cairo Photo Marathon” set up an emergency phone line, and gave the number to all participants, just in case they found themselves in a bind. “Thankfully, it only rang once, and the problem was solved,” recounted Bur. “However, we did have reports from some of our female participants that they experienced harassment in the form of catcalls,” she acknowledged.
Admittedly the title "Gender in the Egyptian Metropolis” sounds simple enough, but the 18 themes were anything but. Comedian and Storyteller Motaz Attalla was tasked with composing the themes.
“We wanted them to be fun, and we had to think about how rich and relevant they were,” Attala said. He also remarked that while they chose the themes, they wanted to leave room for interpretation. “We tried to make it our job to come up with things that would inspire themes on gender,” he said, also mentioning that he made a point of avoiding direct or obvious themes.
Attalla explained that he wanted to leave the themes open enough so that people could “explicitly engage with gender issues if they want to, or refuse to engage with gender issues. We also left room for fun, wit and cheekiness,” he added.
While it’s standard in many photo marathons to have themes that are only a word or two, the creators of the “Cairo Photo Marathon” decided to go a different route. Bur explained, “We’re dealing with statements, where as other film festivals only deal with single words. The themes are much more advanced here.”
Many of the themes were Egyptian proverbs, famous film lines, or well-known sayings. The themes were printed in Arabic and English along with an explanation of the theme’s meaning or origin.
One of four themes from the first round was “Divorce me! Divorce me! Divorce me!” Below that an explanation that reads “The imagined insistent demand of a disgruntled wife; taken from a popular classic film.” A theme from the second round was “O slipper of bliss, I wish I could be thee,” and is explained further as a “rhyming catcall that might be said to a beautiful woman wearing slippers, by which the caller states his desire to be the very slipper holding such feet.”
Contestants were reportedly surprised by the depth of the themes, finding the task of shooting the themes more challenging than they had anticipated.
The event has been in the making since August, and while it is deemed a pilot project, many are hoping it becomes an annual happening. The annual continuation of the event will depend on this year’s success, among other factors.
Osama Dawod, professional photographer and co-manager of the event, stated that seeing “people happy and excited about the photo marathon” would make it a success in his eyes, while Bur said that she wanted to see “playful, fresh, creative interpretations of gender relations in the city.”
Late at night the same day, participants trickled in, to submit their work, tired yet elated. Many of them filled the nearby ahwas to sip tea together and recount the adventures of the day.
Though the excitement of the marathon has wrapped up, there is still more to come. The exhibition of the participants’ work will be held at the Contemporary Image Collective from March 1-8; winners of the marathon will be announced the opening day.