You’ve probably seen his work many time in different venues across Egypt, but didn’t know who he was. His signature photographs hang royally in ministries, banks, airports and classrooms. Staring at the portrait of former president Anwar Sadat, dressed in full military regalia and looking straight into the eyes of the viewer, inspired me to seek out the man behind the lens.
The man is esteemed Egyptian photographer Essmat Barakat. Born in Kafr El-Sheikh in 1923, Barakat is a descendent of Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq, the companion of the Prophet.
At school, he was a keen cub scout, learning independence and developing a great passion for camping which he passed to his children. He caught the shutterbug very early in life. By the time he graduated from high school, he was fully convinced that it would be his life-long pursuit and duly joined L’Ecole Des Beaux Arts (Faculty of Fine Arts) in 1940 to receive a professional training.
Immediately after graduation, he was snapped by Egyptian daily Al-Ahram and worked in the advertisement department for 16 years were he honed his skills. While he tested his own wings in Al-Ahram, he participated in diverse photography competitions. His perseverance finally paid off when he won the gold medal in one of the competitions organized by the Ministry of Culture in 1948, an impressive accomplishment considering the fact his rivals were prominent Egyptian and foreign photographers.
With a gold medal under his belt and more than a decade and a half in experience, he decided to go independent by opening his own atelier where he was he was able to choose his personal projects.
The technique and art of many of portraits produced in this atelier are considered a real leap into Egyptian photography. Barakat picked the subject of his portrait from the street, asking different people to pose for his camera: the Arab merchant with his handlebar mustache and piercing eyes and the Nubian bust are some of these examples.
Barakat remains famous though for his celebrity portraits that include the aforementioned Sadat photo which was selected by the late president to be his official portrait in 1975.
His all-consuming passion for photography aside, Barakat was a first and foremost a family man. He raised a large family of four sons and daughters to whom he passed the artistic gene. Being athletic, he encouraged his children to excel at sports, aiding two of his sons to win local competitions of track and field games, Judo and Taekwondo.
Family and photography were not the sole focus of his existence. Barakat was blessed with the natural gift of learning foreign tongues, mastering English, French and German. In fact, Goethe Institute awarded him a certificate for teaching the German language.
He passed away on April 18, 2006 leaving behind an enormous legacy of photographs that not only stand as document of Egyptian life in the early 20th century, but carry the true essence of this nation.