Roy Samaha: An Artist’s Eye on the 2011 Egyptian Revolution

A Lebanese living in Beirut, Roy Samaha is a respected teacher, accomplished filmmaker, and longtime Leica enthusiast who recently won a Leica V-Lux 2 as part of Leica’s In the Footsteps of Great Explorers. Here, in his own heartfelt and compelling words, is the amazing story of how he wound up in Egypt in the midst of a revolution, photographed it from an intensely personal and serene perspective, and managed to get back home after harrowing encounters with pro-regime thugs.

Q. How long have you been shooting pictures seriously?

A. About twelve years ago I attended photography school in Beirut, but photography was my hobby at home before that. My dad taught me tricks with his film camera during the 80s and 90s. I went to photography school for one year—at one of the first schools of photography in Beirut, but was disappointed, so I switched my major to filmmaking and video art.

Q. How did you hear about the Leica “In the Footsteps of the Great Explorers” contest?

A. I received a tweet about it, since I follow Leica Camera on Twitter. I had just gotten back from doing an art residency in New York City, and for my assignment I was supposed to document a whole month of impressions of the city—a concept similar to what you see on the Leica Explorer website. I submitted the link to what I had documented in New York and Leica replied that I was accepted. I received a Leica V-Lux, some cash money, and a cash voucher for The North Face gear.

Q. How do you think your training as a videographer influences your still photography, or does it?

A. I usually separate the two mediums in my mind. Still, photography is reality minus the movement and sound. Basically it’s cutting out a segment of reality and presenting it. Video is literally recording experiences in time. I don’t think they are connected; they are totally different mediums. I like both. The V-Lux is amazing because it has very good HD video capability and also takes high quality still pictures. At every moment, I could take a still picture and then record a few seconds of video that I can use later for different work.

Q. We understand your basic concept of still vs. video, but what type of reality are you trying to create with each?

A. I start from the very basic conception. Gary Winogrand said photography is a description of reality. When I want to describe a scene or object, I shoot still images. Film and video are more about recording time. When I’m dealing with time I use video. In short, you could say that photography is about space. Video is about time. When you have a final product in photography, it’s two-dimensional, it has nothing to do with time itself—it has to do with the object you’ve seen. It’s hard to describe – it’s my intuition.

Q. Why did you decide to go to Egypt, particularly at this time of turmoil?

A. I went there three years ago, and I was attracted to the country and its people. I was showing one of my films in 2007, and in conjunction with that I was invited to attend an international film festival, including all the venues: Belgium, Germany, and Amsterdam, and Egypt. At that time, I was in Egypt for only four days, a short visit. So when I saw the Leica V-Lux 2 offer, I thought maybe I’d apply. I basically didn’t see anything much on my first trip to Egypt, so this was a chance to go back and explore the city. And I got it, and I went-that was it.

Q. When did you arrive in Egypt this time?

JANUARY 28 2011 06/02/2011

Arrived today, big demonstration planned at noon.

No internet

No telephones

A. My trip was planned for January 31st, and on the 25th of January that’s when the popular uprising against the Hosni Mubarak regime started. I knew I had to go at once, so I switched flights and went to Egypt. I thought to myself: “That’s it, I have to go now.” Everything was set to go—I already had my visa, but I couldn’t leave on Tuesday because I had to post grades for a class I was teaching, so I left on Friday, January 28th. That was the day when they decided to cut off phones and Internet.

I wasn’t interested in documenting the revolution. Twitter, Facebook, and millions of pictures and videos were already out there, so it was useless to record whatever everybody else was recording.  The original trip, planned before the uprising, was to go from Alexandria to Aswan, so I decided to keep my original plan. It would be interesting to do that: film and record the land while it’s in this weird situation. Typically, Egypt is a tourist experience, but this was a totally un-touristic period. It was a chance for me to record Egypt in a more real, genuine way. I quit my journalistic work last year, so this was something different and very different also from what I do as a teacher, which is giving different courses—a technical course about video making, a broadcast journalism course for TV, and a video art course.

Q. You didn’t want to go as a typical photojournalist, but you wanted to photograph the daily life—banal everyday life, but at a time of transition?

A. Yes, because this is when daily life is very genuine, so every act is very genuine because people are afraid and exist in a kind of hyper-reality. I felt this in Lebanon when I was a video journalist for ABC news during the 2006 Lebanon War. I covered the entire war for fifty-three days and into post-war period. Peoples’ states of mind are totally different from what they are during an ordinary period.

Q. In other words, you wanted to express the state of being of those people in that particular way, as an artist, but with an underlying documentary or journalistic thrust to some extent?

A. Yes, I didn’t want to highlight all the images we see on the news. It’s already been done. For me, this was a chance to just look—look at the city, the people, the land, the architecture, the streets. Maybe you can call it the back-story.

Q. How was covering Egypt with the Leica V-Lux 2? What was it like compared to other Leica cameras you’ve used?

A. The V-Lux delivers both very good video and high-quality still-imaging. It’s very compact, lightweight, and the extreme focal-length range, wide angle to super telephoto, is excellent. It’s a very flexible and useful camera. My only criticism: it’s a bit awkward in manual setting mode, especially compared to a rangefinder. I usually shoot still pictures with my Leica M6. I’m a rangefinder user—I use a Leica R8 SLR from time to time, but I shoot a lot with Leica rangefinders. It makes you take more time to take pictures, and that’s a good thing. I still use film for some of my work. Digital is practical, but it’s a totally different experience.

I got my first Leica three years ago, in January 2008, when I was in Berlin. Before that I used other brands, but at that time I bought a Leica M6. As for lenses, I started with 35mm f/2 Summicron, but I slowly shifted to the 50mm. I found a 50mm f/1.4 Summilux quite by chance at an attractive price in Damascus, Syria, so I switched, and that’s what I mostly use on my M6 now.

Q. What film do you shoot?

A. Mostly I shoot the 100-speed films. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I find the Kodak Ektar, sometimes Fuji Reala.

Q. Ultimately, you had a rather hair-raising experience getting out of Egypt. Can you tell us what happened?

FEBRUARY 4 2011 06/02/2011

No use to stay here anymore, the city is too aggressive and photography is literally prohibited now.

Back to the airport;  arrested twice_ first time searched and interrogated for two hours, second time had to pay my way out_

A. I had friends that went down to the protests in Tahrir Square. I went down there every day to see them, but then things started to change. During the last two days, last Friday, it was announced that anyone with a camera would be detained or arrested. Pro-Mubarak thugs were attacking any person with a camera. It was totally impossible to take pictures. While there, I had to hide my SD card and use one that was empty. If you were merely seen walking with a camera you would get into trouble. At that point, I tried to get to the southern part of the country, figuring maybe it would be easier there, but I couldn’t get out. I thought to myself, “I’m locked here in Eqypt, so I have two choices: go back home, or take part in the revolution.” Since I didn’t want to just stay in the hotel, I decided to return home to Lebanon.

My plane was scheduled to take off at noon, so I took a taxi at 7am, assuming it would take a lot of time to move through the city, given the protests and the checkpoints. I picked up the taxi at 7am with a friend-the first taxi that came to us. “Where are you going?” the driver asked.  “To the airport,” I said. There was a lady sitting next to him, and the taxi driver told us he had to drive her home first and then would take us to the airport. We said okay. We were afraid we wouldn’t be able to find another taxi. He drove that woman to a dangerous neighborhood near the Ministry of the Interior, where there were many pro-government thugs and police. I tried to stop him from proceeding, and then he stopped and told the lady to get out. “She’ll be okay on her own,” he said.

In my opinion, that taxi driver was kind of a collaborator who deliberately took us into an area where he knew we’d be arrested, although my friend disagrees with this theory. We were stopped and strip-searched. Then they let us go. But 200 meters later, there was another checkpoint. “We were just searched,” I explained. “We don’t care, we’re going to search you again,” said the guy who stopped us. The whole time I was mainly concerned about losing the pictures—the SD card had important pictures on it that I had hidden in my pants. My strategy was to cooperate with them. There’s no point in stirring up trouble—I just wanted to preserve the pictures. During the interrogation they started to laugh when I told them the Leica story, and they didn’t believe that this trip had been planned two months ago and had nothing to do with the revolution. Another interrogator asked the same questions. And then another person would come and ask us the same questions.

Finally, they decided to deliver us to the police. The people who stopped us were thugs, the ones with the big swords, people that are just standing around in the streets. Since there were no police officers, they hired these people to make sure that any journalists or foreigners weren’t spies. I had to convince them I had no weapons, convince them I’m not a spy. That was it.

And then, after the police interrogated us, one of them finally said, “Okay, I believe you.” The police got us a taxi, and the taxi driver was a nice guy, but before we got to the airport, we were stopped again by a new group of thugs. “Got drugs on you?” No. “Dollars?” No. “Just give us something to release you.” All we had were Egyptian pounds, so that’s what we gave them. After that, it was just a highway drive, and it was totally safe since the army was deployed. Physically I wasn’t mistreated, probably because I was a foreigner.

There’s an element of luck in all this, and an element of human relationship. I believe the way you respond to an antagonistic relationship situation is by being calm and cooperative. If you get antagonistic yourself, you’ll get a violent response, but stay calm and they will just talk with you. I learned that from my journalistic career. The first thing to do when confronted by aggressive people with weapons is to stay calm and be very nice. Never show aggressiveness because that will get you in trouble.

Q. Were you ever threatened?

A. Well, two or three of those thugs did mention that they wanted to take revenge for what happened to their friends, but it’s not important. I just made it, and that’s what matters. I don’t want to go into sensational conversation about it, but, hey, they probably could have killed us, and they didn’t. It’s a question of chance or luck.

Q. What were you trying to say with images that you captured…what did you achieve with your pictures?

A. I just showed what I saw. I didn’t try to achieve anything. When anxiety is stalking you, you sometimes see poetic moments. That’s basically what I’m always looking for, whether in New York, Paris, or Beirut. I’m always looking for that moment, outside of the ordinary flow of time, a moment worth taking a picture of. Fundamentally I’m concerned with the reality of the human condition, and I see objects as indexes of our loneliness. While there are protests, chaos, and burning people, my interest is drawn to a car covered in a sheet. I found a letter, abandoned because nobody had time to check their mail that week, and photographed it. It’s a deeply human and poetic artifact that’s directly related to what’s happening. Even though it doesn’t show what was happening, it captures a general feeling or atmosphere.

These abandoned places and objects reveal something beyond themselves, pointing toward the loneliness and abandonment that expresses the underlying emotional context more effectively than images of the actual people taking part in the revolution. I did take a few pictures of the protests, but I think they should be balanced with the other parts of life, the calmness and serenity of objects left behind. An image that reveals that we don’t have time to open a letter that we received can say more than a picture of angry conflict.

Q. Is there any picture you took in Egypt that stands out or is especially memorable from your viewpoint?

A. Yes, it’s of a framed picture hanging in the window of a photography shop, a memento of the traditional Egyptian agricultural way of life. I think I shot on the 3rd or 4th day of my trip. Juxtaposed next to it is a sign: “Cairo is changing very fast.”

Q. What does it say to you?

The framed picture itself is amazingly beautiful, and the closely cropped photograph just emphasizes the picture, showing where it’s hanging. The moment is amazing, illuminated by the hazy light of dawn. I shot it with the V-lux 2; I basically scanned it from the window.

There’s another picture I like of an empty street with a red door. The serenity of all such objects has a deep meaning for me. They are all just as important as one another—there’s no hierarchy of significance. They all have something to show us. Objects do record our interaction with them; scientists say that they retain small particles when you touch or handle them. I believe that’s true, but it’s more profound than that. The object that we use is loaded with us, our memory, our physical interactions with it.

Q. Do you think you use a “Leica M” approach when shooting with your V-Lux 2?

A. Yes, it’s very much like that. When you’re used to a certain type of camera you keep doing the same type of thing. Perhaps that’s why my memory card didn’t contain as many images as other photographers shooting in Egypt during these tumultuous days, but I do hope they will be memorable and significant and help people to feel the emotional texture behind these events.

Thank you for your time Roy!

-Leica Internet Team

To see more of Roy Samaha’s photos from Cairo and the other nine Leica Explorers, please visit http://leica-explorer.com/.