Capturing the Beauty in Decay, the Color in the Chaos
By Lydia Schoonderbeek
Photographer Nour Kamel is making a mark with the stunning images she has taken around Cairo. Even the most humble streets of the city burst with life and energy when viewed through her lens. Cairo West Magazine tracked her down to learn more about the passion that drives her.
CWM: Nour, can you tell us how it all started?
NK: Growing up with an artist grandmother, and a family of art lovers, I was exposed to art from a very young age. Museums, regular gallery visits and Saturdays at the opera were what made my childhood, and today I can clearly identify their influence. As an undergraduate studying comparative religion, I enrolled in as many art classes as I could without really knowing where it would lead. A few years later, I pursued my Msc. in Arts and NGO management and envisioned a life where both would be present.
Today I am working at EFE|Egypt, an NGO that works on bridging the gap between unemployed youth and private sector employers and still manage to pursue my passion for photography religiously.
How did the photography come on board?
I’ve always been a fan of cameras. As a teenager, I was the one with the camera at all the birthdays, but it wasn’t until later that I started street photography- I tried documenting our everyday lives, and the unusual things I came across in the street, the people, the signs, everything everyone else did, really. Later that year I travelled for my Master’s degree and took on street photography to capture the beautiful things I came across in European cities: Sunday markets, flower shops, couples reuniting at train stations… and ever since then it’s been an obsession!
What is your favorite location in Egypt to photograph?
Cairo: in all its magic, chaos and glory. Don’t get me wrong, I love travelling locally, and I’ve spent quite some time travelling in Sinai and across the red sea. It takes my breath away- but nowhere inspires me the way Cairo does. It’s incredible how much soul this city has and how multi-facetted it is. Fast-paced but populated with laid back people offering a warm welcome inside their homes. It’s very loud but with some incredibly serene areas nestled between noisy roads, full of dust yet full of color.
How often do you go on walks to photograph Cairo?
On average I go on photography walks every Saturday, and honestly these walks are my favorite time of the week. They have such a grounding effect on me; they have evolved into so much more than just photography, almost something of a meditative nature.
Best places you would recommend our readers to visit in Cairo especially to photograph?
Fatimid Cairo is especially charming, as it is somewhat of a seamless blend of old and new, young and old, royal and kitsch. Its’ people are warm and welcoming, they’re used to visitors and passersby. The main roads are lined with some of the city’s landmarks and the side streets hold incredible charm. A perfect walk would combine a little bit of both.
What do you use to take pictures with? Your camera or a smartphone, and why?
Both. I started off using my phone, I’m a big believer in phone photography- especially for street photography: It’s handy, discreet, quick and very user friendly, allowing you to capture fleeting moments as you come across them. However, recently I have been using a camera for a few reasons of which not getting lazy is a main one. Phones make you lazy. Everything is so easy, so quick.
From the photos you have taken, do you have a favorite?
Hmmm… that’s quite a difficult question. I’ve liked different pictures at different times- but if I had to pick one, it’s ‘Partly cloudy|Chance of wind’. It depicts a ceiling fan I came across in a barbershop. When I took the photograph, I didn’t think it would be anything special, but I keep going back to it, and often think of going back to that place.
How would you describe yourself in 5 words or less?
Idealist, childlike curious, wanderlust-struck.
Tell us about a memorable situation that happened while on one of your Saturday photo walks?
Each Saturday holds something special and unique. To me, the Saturdays that stay with me the most are the ones where we share extensive one-on-one contact with a person or a family, and they let us into their home. For that to happen, we need to be very few in numbers. I remember almost two years ago, we were on a walk at Bein El Kanayess, and this older man welcomed us into his home, and later into his backyard and the alleyways it led to. To this day, I remember this man and his home and how much I was fascinated by this encounter. On one hand, the man turned out to be the father of the store manager of a café I visited frequently in Zamalek, so it felt like I almost knew a part of his family already, and that it was a story coming together- and on the other, he lived in a beautiful albeit rundown home. The peeling paint on the walls, the beautiful thick wooden doors and the patterned tiles in this house were unbelievable. It was truly one of the most beautiful homes I’ve seen on our photography walks. I keep thinking of that setting and would love to revisit it.
What are the most frequently asked questions you get from people on the street when they see you photographing what seems to them to be an old wall, or a rundown door?
Often the question is why are you photographing this? Why do you seek to portray Egypt in such a negative light? Go take pictures of the beautiful mosques, Khan El Khalili (or the closest touristic landmark).
For many it’s challenging to perceive beauty in decay, or in imperfection. However most people are open to hearing your point of view, and if given enough time and shown previous beautiful pictures of rundown doors, they end up appreciating them too. Sometimes, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find locals who did understand and appreciate the old walls, buildings and doors – and addressed above all, their saddening conditions.
With the onset of instagram, there are a lot of amateur photographers now, what are some of your favorite accounts and why?
Locally, Eslam Abd El Salam is one of my favorites, he’s a huge cinema fan and it’s very obvious through his photographs- I especially enjoy following his account (@eslamuhammad). Nour Amar (@NOUR_EL_DIN) is from Alexandria and following his account is a constant reminder of how beautiful that city is. @Everydayiran is a very cleverly curated account, one of my current favorites. It features different amateur photographers that capture the day-to-day lives of Iranians and if this account has taught me anything, it’s that Iran is one of the most beautiful and underrated countries in the world.
What has Instagram done to photography in your opinion?
Instagram has given mobile photography a platform to exhibit, explore and express. I love it. On one hand, it allows you to discover otherwise unheard of talent, and to follow people that inspire you. On the other, it allows you to post your photographs, receive feedback and connect with people who share the same interests. Instagram and mobile photography in general have made photography accessible to a much broader audience and for me that in its’ self is its’ greatest achievement- and it is incredible to see the photography trends that are coming out of it!