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14+ Photo Essay Examples & Samples in PDF

Photo essay, narrative photo essay example, student photo example example, great depression essay example, what is a photo essay, how to write a photo essay, travel photo example, free photo essay example, purpose of a photo essay, 5 tips for creating a photo essay, most interesting photo essays of 2019, toys and us, the faces of nature example, the country doctor example, new york city coffeehouses, hungry planet: what the world eats, photo essay example, photo essay in pdf, sample photo essay example, basic photo essay example, printable photo essay example.

narrative photo essay

  • Don’t be afraid to experiment. Find the right angle and be dramatic with your description, just be creative.
  • Pay attention to detail. Chances are, your audience will notice every single detail of your photograph.
  • Shoot everything. Behind a single beautiful photo is a hundred more shots.
  • Don’t think twice about editing. Editing is where the magic happens. It has the ability to add more drama to your images.
  • Have fun. Don’t stress yourself out too much but instead, grow from your experience.

toys and us

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26+ examples of essay outlines, how to start an essay, tips for writing an effective essay, 29+ examples of college essays, 6+ literary essay examples, samples, 6+ analytical essay examples, samples, 7+ personal essay examples, samples, 4+ travel essay examples, samples, 6+ expository essay examples, samples.


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photo essay lettering



Photo essay : human trace.

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(For Thai, press here ) 

We all walk and build our homes on the ground of this earth. We cultivate the land, search for food, nourish ourselves, and lead our lives. Our existence thrives on this planet’s horizontal plane, bound by gravity’s embrace. This place is filled with human traces, unsurprisingly so. 

In every moment of our lives, journeys embarked, endeavors pursued, we have left traces or fragments of ourselves, both tangible and abstract. 

I got curious. I set out on a journey to explore and unravel the depths of human nature.  I hypothesized that through documenting and linking human traces, the nature of humanity may be reconstructed, like assembling Lego pieces.  We gather fragments left behind by others, weaving them into our own, sharing pieces of ourselves, as others do with us. And there are times when we unknowingly leave parts of ourselves behind, along the way. 

This series of photographs captures human traces that have been left on the earth. Through displacement, those traces are emphasized. These images beckon you to reconsider and redefine humans and humanity, with nothing but your own thoughts and judgments. So, have fun.


Ditta Sutheppratanwong was a student of structures, now a capturer of architectural beauty, an independent artist, and a photographer for W Workspace.

facebook.com/dittaphoto instagram.com/ditta25


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David Chipperfield once said, “Good architecture provides a setting, it’s there and it’s not there.” And his works embody just that. If there is anything recognizable about these buildings, I think it is a very fine line separating brilliance from something absolutely banal.

The Hepworth Wakefield, Wakefield Turner Contemporary, Margate One Pancras Square, London

Karjvit Rirermvanich is an art4d editor, an architect, founder of Physicalist, and an Asian tourist.



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Things that quicken the heart

The heart of an average person beats 60–100 times per second. This is considered normal. But, as I traveled from place to place, coming across these creations quickened the beat of my heart.

They drew me in as my curiosity developed. I became interested in and intrigued by all the processes that go into these creations—designing, sculpting, framework building, color selection, and the rationale behind deciding where they would be placed.

I imagined the days when these works had been completed, when they were installed, how the artists felt, and how everything came to be.

Why do they make me feel these strong emotions? Why was I so passionately drawn to them? How can they make my heart beat so fast?

Yossawat Sittiwong ‘underdoc film’ Advertising Director / Photographer / Artist M Yoss

facebook.com/Myossmusic facebook.com/underdocfilm


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‘Japan Way’ is a captivating journey that delves into the exploration of flaws and imperfections within Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun is currently in full bloom, akin to an intriguing flower that entices outsiders with its enchanting scent and radiant beauty. It offers a unique and extraordinary experience that surpasses one’s imagination. 

Photographs of events that have been extensively documented reflect the diverse moments in history, passed down through generations and influenced by the evolving societal context. These images capture the ongoing changes with past traditions, cultures, and history that have shaped the present and will continue to shape the future, like a distant shadow.

Thanachai Tankvaraluk, who was born in Udon Thani, Thailand, earned a bachelor’s degree in Communication arts with a Journalism Major from Rangsit University. He is currently a business owner, but has always had a keen interest in everything around him, as well as an unwavering love and passion for travel and photography.

facebook.com/profile.php?id=100031795672130 instagram.com/thanachai_diary


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(For Thai, press here ) 

‘The Distant Everyday’ is a visual conversation between architecture, observation, and everyday sceneries. It can be argued that architecture is a product of the convergence of multiple ideas and notions. As keen observers of our surroundings, we constantly seek out the underlying connections that exist across diverse contexts. The collection of photographs presented here is a glimpse into our extensive archives, which have been accumulating since 2016. Unordered and free from any specific arrangement, these images capture random scenes and objects in Bangkok and Tokyo. Individually, they appear unremarkable, but when juxtaposed they transform into a source of inspiration and contemplation. Furthermore, they unveil the inherent ability of architecture to bridge connections between all things.

Bangkok Tokyo Architecture is an architectural studio founded by Wtanya Chanvitan and Takahiro Kume in 2017. We are fascinated by open-ended structures and the assembly of ordinary elements; blurring the lines between ordinary and exceptional.

btarchitecture.jp facebook.com/bangkoktokyoarchitecture


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I started attending Expo Milano in February 2015, less than 3 months before the opening date.. The site looked like an anthill amidst traffic jams of trucks and thousands of workers; I had never seen such a large and complex construction site due to the number of projects being carried out simultaneously.  

The big canopies of the Decumano were already there, the pavilions were starting to grow, almost all of them built in dry construction to speed up the assembly process; some countries were erecting their structure very quickly and for others it seemed that only a miracle would help them to finish on time.  

The entire site was under police control because of threats of demonstrations and riots by the notorious black blocs, but walking towards the control turnstiles there were “zones of condescension”: a queue of immigrants who every morning waited outside the fences to be hired by the day. The organisational system had collapsed and the informal economy was the only option for getting the work done. In the last phase before the opening, make-up professionals – trade fair and TV set installation companies – joined the construction companies to disguise what was unfinished and make it ready for the official opening on 1 May 2015.  

Twenty-one million visitors followed, and the press celebrated this success with triumphant articles about the rebirth of Milan and Italy.  

The rules of the BIE stipulated that fourteen months after the end of the exhibition, the participating countries should return the apple as they received it and try to reuse the pavilion elsewhere. Not many virtuous ones managed to find a second location; unfortunately, the list of destructions is longer than the list of those pavilions dismantled and reused. However, Expo is slowly adapting to the times: the waste of an event of this scale is unacceptable and a strategy to avoid it is being considered.  

Expo Milano ended in October 2015 and later this year its gates reopened to trucks and workers to dismantle the pavilions like a big jigsaw puzzle. I was able to access the site on two further occasions since it was closed to the public. After having seen the entire construction process and accompanied the months of the event’s development, a cycle closes, documenting the traces of what was there, and with them the metal-devouring machines, the saws and the patient labour of the workers sorting the materials.  

Some pavilions seemed to have evaporated. In the earth were some traces of foundations and mud; others were lacerated, others looked as if they had been bombed but stood stoically.  

Where a few months ago I struggled to find a good shooting point, I now walk alone along the Decumanus, a post-atomic landscape all around me. Volunteers rescued many plants, but the greenery that cannot survive without artificial irrigation was already dead and, in the meantime, the Third Landscape (G. Clement, 2004) has gained some space among the skeletons of structures and abandoned gardens. In this way, too, the Expo has its own charm.

The photographic series presented on these pages wants to raise some questions not only about architecture but also about our society and the meaning of these events.

Filippo Poli is a photographer specialized in architectural photography; he is based in Europe and collaborates with architecture firms, institutions and publishers.

His personal work is focused on cultural landscape, on the relationship between Man and Nature and its results in the Space.  

His photographs are part of the permanent collection of the new Art Centre of Santander of public Enaire Foundation and his work has been presented in venues in Europe (Climate Summit (COP25) in Madrid, Venice Biennale, Arco Madrid, Photo España, Deutsches Architekturmuseum, …) and USA and are part of private and public collections.  

He regularly publishes in the most important architecture magazines and his work has been awarded by Fundación Enaire, PX3, European Architectural Photography, Architekturbild, IPA, Photography Master Cup, Philadelphia Basho, ArchTriumph among others.

Filippopoli.com facebook.com/filippopoliphotography instagram.com/filippo.poli


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This project is called ‘Future Board’ and it is a photo series of campaign posters from people who are volunteering to run the country in the future.

The initial intention was to go out and take pictures around the neighborhood. While I was riding in a car, I saw campaign posters on both sides of the road that caught my interest to explore different aspects of the campaign posters.

The posters are filled with policies, speeches, letters, and little connotations. Taking pictures is a way to record the promises made by politicians on the posters.

Campaign posters posted everywhere during elections may make the city vibrant, but they can also be visually polluting. Some posters are hastily posted without regard to pedestrians. Taking these pictures of posters raises the question: are campaign posters still effective?

Peerapat Wimolrungkarat (addcandid) The photographer who loves to capture moments and memories that’s hidden in still images.

Leica Ambassador (Thailand) Architecture photography @somethingarchitecture

facebook.com/somethingarchitecture facebook.com/addcandid


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If you ask me when the most anticipated time of year is for Muslims, I will provide you with an answer right now: it is Ramadan. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. Fasting is intended to be a time of spiritual discipline, a deep contemplation of one’s gratitude and relationship with God. When compared to other months of the year, Ramadan is the time when Muslims refrain from entertainment and engage in extra religious activities. However, faithful Muslims welcome Ramadan with joy and consider this faithful experience as a great blessing for the spiritual advancement they will receive during the holy month.

One of the things that makes Ramadan so special to me is being able to observe people’s lives and activities during this special time. This series of photographs depicts the way of life of Muslims in Thailand at the start of Ramadan this year (2023 is the year 1,444 in the Islamic calendar). I spent time photographing people at work or on their way to mosques to participate in religious ceremonies, as well as how they stopped to buy food in the afternoon to prepare for their first meal after sunset. Throughout different periods of the day, I noticed a different color, felt something different in the air, and witnessed people’s lifestyles differ from how they would normally live in other months of the year.

This is the first year I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with my own photography as I contemplated life during the month of Ramadan with a simpler perspective while my own personal emotional experiences were hidden inside each picture. I hope viewers will join me on this journey and discover new dimensions of life during this sacred time.

Teechalit Chularat graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture from King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang. He is currently working as a freelance architect under the name TEECHALIT ARCHITECT, the studio that he founded, with a portfolio that includes the architectural design of four mosques. He is also a photographer and the administrator of the Facebook page, Thai Minimal Photography.

instagram.com/minimalmccalen facebook.com/minimal.mccalen


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(For Thai, press here) 

Christmas in England and most Christian countries is our main holiday and celebration of the year. In the dark and cold winter months it is something to look forward to, a chance to spend time with family and loved ones. The whole country shuts down for a few days, with New Years so close they become intertwined. It’s a chance to celebrate, rest and reflect on the year that’s gone, and the one that’s about to start. I got to spend Christmas 2022 in Thailand, and was fascinated by how enthusiastic Thai people were about it. From giant shopping mall displays, to office Christmas parties and secret Santa’s between friends, so many of the traditions were embraced fully or slightly altered to fit Thai culture. It was interesting to see Christmas interpreted through a different culture and I hope my project shows the spirit of Christmas in Thailand.

Barry Macdonald was born in London, UK. His dad used to take photos with a 35mm film camera as a hobby and taught him how to use it when he was quite young. He had his own film camera by the time I was 15. The camera opened up a way to interact with the world that made sense to him. Composing a frame and timing the moment brings a satisfaction when everything falls into place. His camera has allowed him to travel and meet a lot of people, and He is always grateful to it for changing his life and helping him make sense of the world.



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A series of photographs documenting a memory of the Plan House 1 building on Sathorn Soi 10 Road in its final year as the office of Plan Architect Co., Ltd. after more than 30 years of use since its construction. As the contract for the land on which the building is built comes to an end in 2023, the day will come when this place will become nothing but a mere memory.

Jittinun Jithpratuck is an architect who joined Plan Architect Co., Ltd. in 2012. She has documented a corner of his workplace as the days and seasons passed.


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Advice for an Unforgettable Photo Essay

Six steps for turning your images into a memorable photo essay, from curating your best work to crafting a title.


A man sits alone on a chair on the side of the road. We see him from above, surrounded by grey cobblestones neatly placed, a broken plastic chair, and some pylons scattered along the curb. A street cat wanders out of the frame and away from the man. He appears lonely, the only person inhabiting the place in which he seems so comfortably seated. As the eye wanders throughout the frame, however, the viewer discovers more: a vast city cast beyond the street and behind the man’s chair. This image closes Sarah Pannell’s photo essay Sehir , a quiet study of urban life.

Possibilities, discovery, and stories: these are some of the most effective elements of a photo essay. Collections of images can help produce a narrative, evoke emotion, and guide the viewer through one or more perspectives. A well-executed photo essay doesn’t rely on a title or any prior knowledge of its creator; it narrates on its own, moving viewers through sensations, lessons, and reactions.

Famous photo essays like Country Doctor by W. Eugene Smith or Gordon Parks’ The Harlem Family are acclaimed for showing a glimpse into the lives of the sick and impoverished. Other well-made photo essays offer a new way to look at the everyday, such as Peter Funch’s much-reposted photo series 42nd and Vanderbilt , for which Funch photographed the same street corner for nine years. As shown by these photographers’ experiences with the medium, a collection of photos can enliven spaces and attitudes. Strong photo essays can give voice to marginalized individuals and shine a spotlight on previously overlooked experiences.

You don’t necessarily need to be a documentary photographer to create a powerful photo essay. Photo essays can showcase any topic, from nature photography to portraiture to wedding shots. We spoke to a few photographers to get their perspectives on what makes a good photo essay, and their tips for how any photographer can get started in this medium. Here are six steps to follow to create a photo essay that tells a memorable story.

Choose a specific topic or theme for your photo essay.

There are two types of photo essays: the narrative and the thematic. Narrative photo essays focus on a story you’re telling the viewer, while thematic photo essays speak to a specific subject.

The most natural method for choosing a topic or theme for your photo essay is to go with what you know. Photograph what you experience. Whether that includes people, objects, or the things you think about throughout the day, accessibility is key here. Common topics or concepts to start with are emotions (depicting sadness or happiness) or experiences (everyday life, city living).

For photographer Sharon Pannen , planning a photo essay is as simple as “picking out a subject you find interesting or you want to make a statement about.”


From Paper & Stories , a photo series by Sharon Pannen for Schön! Magazine.

Consider your photo subjects.

The subjects of your photographs, whether human or not, will fill the space of your photos and influence the mood or idea you’re trying to depict. The subject can determine whether or not your photos are considered interesting. “I always try to find someone that catches my eye. I especially like to see how the light falls on their face and how a certain aesthetic might add to their persona,” says photographer Victoria Wojtan .

While subjects and their interest factor are, well, subjective, when considering your subjects, you should ask yourself about your audience. Do other people want to see this? Is my subject representative of the larger idea my photo essay is trying to convey? Your projects can involve people you know or people you’ve only just met.

“Most projects I work on involve shooting portraits of strangers, so there’s always a tension in approaching someone for a portrait,” says photographer Taylor Dorrell . For Wojtan, that tension can help build trust with a subject and actually leads to more natural images “If there’s tension it’s usually because the person’s new to being photographed by someone for something that’s outside of a candid moment or selfie, and they need guidance for posing. This gives me the opportunity to make them feel more comfortable and let them be themselves. I tend to have a certain idea in mind, but try to allow for organic moments to happen.”

Aim for a variety of images.

Depending on your theme, there are a few types of photos you’ll want to use to anchor your essay. One or two lead photos should slowly introduce the viewer to your topic. These initial photos will function in a similar way to the introductory paragraph in a written essay or news article.

From there, you should consider further developing your narrative by introducing elements like portraiture, close ups, detail shots, and a carefully selected final photo to leave the viewer with the feeling you set out to produce in your photos. Consider your opening and closing images to be the most important elements of your photo essay, and choose them accordingly. You want your first images to hook the viewer, and you also want your final images to leave a lasting impression and perhaps offer a conclusion to the narrative you’ve developed.

Including different types of photos, shot at different ranges, angles, and perspectives, can help engage your viewer and add more texture to your series.

Says photographer Taylor Dorrell: “After I have a group of images, I tend to think about color, composition, the order the images were taken, the subject material, and relevance to the concept.”


From Taylor Dorrell’s photo essay White Fences : “White Fences is an ongoing photo series that explores the theme of suburban youth in the United States, specifically in the midwest suburb New Albany, Ohio.”

Put your emotions aside.

Self-doubt can easily come into play when working with your own photography. The adage that we are our own worst critics is often true. It can be difficult to objectively select your strongest images when creating a photo essay. This is why putting together photo essays is such a useful practice for developing your curatorial skills.

“The most important part for me is getting outside opinions. I don’t do that enough, and have a bias in selecting images that might not be the most powerful images or the most effective sequence of images,” says Dorrell. Your own perception of a photograph can cloud your ability to judge whether or not it adds to your photo essay. This is especially true when your essay deals with personal subjects. For example, a photo essay about your family may be hard to evaluate, as your own feelings about family members will impact how you take and view the photos. This is where getting feedback from peers can be invaluable to producing a strong series.

Collecting feedback while putting your photo essay together can help you determine the strengths, weaknesses, and gaps within the collection of photos you’ve produced. Ask your friends to tell you their favorites, why they like them, and what they think you’re going for in the work you’ve created. Their opinions can be your guide, not just your own emotions.

Edit your photo selection.

Beyond post-production, the series of photos you select as your essay will determine whether you’ve executed your theme or narrative effectively. Can the photos stand alone, without written words, and tell the story you set out to? Do they make sense together, in a logical sequence? The perfect photo essay will give your audience a full picture of the narrative, theme, or essence you’re looking to capture.

A good method to use to cull your images down is to remove as many as half of your images straight away to see if your narrative is still as strong with fewer photos. Or, perhaps, deciding on a small number you’d like to aim for (maybe just five to ten images) and using this as a method to narrow down to the images that tell your story best.


From Taylor Dorrell’s photo essay Over the Rhine , featured in Vice.

Give your photo essay a title, and add a concise written statement.

Finally, you’ll want to create a title and written statement for your photo essay. This will help position your work and can enable the viewer to fully understand your intention, or at least guide their perspective.

A solid written statement and title will be relevant to your topic, detail your primary objective, and introduce your point of view. It’s an opportunity to clarify your intentions to the viewer and ensure they walk away with a clear interpretation of your work. Depending on your photo essay, you may want to include several paragraphs of text, but even just one or two sentences of background can be enough to expand the viewer’s understanding of your work.

Consider if you’d like to add the written statement at the beginning of your essay to introduce it, or at the end as a conclusion. Either one can be impactful, and it depends how you’d like people to experience your work.

For his photo essay White Fences, excerpted above, Taylor Dorrell wrote only one sentence of introduction. But for his series Over the Rhine, Dorell included a longer written statement to accompany the work, which is “an ongoing photo series that seeks to explore the Cincinnati neighborhood of the same name and its surroundings. The series was started in response to the shooting of Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black man, by officer Ray Tensing of the University of Cincinnati Police, which happened July 19th, 2015.” Dorell’s text goes on to offer more background on the project, setting up the viewer with all the information they need to understand the context of the photo essay.

Depending on the motivations behind your photo essay and what sort of subject it depicts, a longer text may be necessary—or just a few words might be enough.

Looking for a place to share your photo essays with the world? Take a look at our guide to creating a photography website for tips on showcasing your photos online.

Cover image by Taylor Dorrell, from his photo essay Hurricane Over Sugar .

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Photo essay

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Heavy rainfall brings flash floods to the city

Illustration of the Statue of Liberty partially underwater

‘I miss flocking’

Illustration of two penguins ‘talking’, each on top of a chunk of melting ocean ice

The most powerful entries in this year’s Prix Pictet, the photography prize focused on sustainability, explore the alchemy between people and their environment

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Rosebank development has become a focal point in UK climate debate

A Banx cartoon of a diver drilling underwater

‘When I grow up, I’d like to do something that makes a lot of money, where I won’t be replaced by a computer, and that brings profound meaning to my life’

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‘We can stop entertaining ourselves now, Ian’

A Banx cartoon of one person holding a paper with a headline that reads writer’s strike over and another person juggling while playing a trumpet

‘Just think of all the money we’re going to save not going to Manchester’

Illustration of a man and a woman seated in armchairs. The man is reading a book while the woman is reading the paper with ‘HS2’ in the front page

The son takes over

Cartoon of a man seated in an armchair and reading a newspaper

‘We’re on track for net zero’

A Banx cartoon of two people at the Conservative party office looking at an electoral poll survey

‘The secret to my productivity is sleeping when everyone is awake’

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‘Remember when we used to waste our entire lives for free?’

A Banx illustration of a couple in a living room looking at their mobile devices

‘There’s a red light at the end of the tunnel’

Cartoon of a woman reading a newspaper with ‘HS2’ on the front page, while a man reads a book. They are seated on armchairs facing each other.

Ominous marriage of convenience

Names Kim and Putin carved on a tree with a heart and an arrow piercing through it

And I was told thumb sucking was bad

A Banx cartoon of man sucking his thumb while holding a paper that reads disposable vape ban

‘I have fewer distractions here’

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‘He says he’s not spying for Beijing, and sometimes I’m tempted to believe him’

A Banx illustration of three people in a living room watching a television show

‘He had his booster today’

Cartoon of two women talking on the street. Standing beside them is what looks like a giant male wearing pants and shoes, the upper part of his body hidden from view

‘He’s been performing longer than Mick Jagger’

Illustration of a tortoise in front of an office table

‘It’s all the January sixes I’ve missed’

A Banx illustration of a Proud Boys member talking to someone in jail. Behind him are counting sticks on a wall

‘I became a morning person for the food’

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‘Bad news, the local sewage plant is made of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete’

A Banx cartoon of a man in suit with dirty boots entering a living room to speak to a woman. He leaves behind a trail of dirt

‘Welcome to the ever-so-slowly-drying-out man festival’

Illustration of a sodden landscape with three flags and a welcome sign

When is the rescue team coming?

Illustration of a couple on the roof of their flooded home

Where are all the birds?

A Banx illustration of a man, wearing a shirt that says ‘plane spotters club’, looks up while a bird is perched on his hat

‘We can be old-timey office workers for Halloween’

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International Edition

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Égypte/Monde arabe

Accueil Troisième série 17 Part 3. A moving everyday life A City of Walls. A Photo Essay on...

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A City of Walls. A Photo Essay on Writing on Walls in Alexandria, 2011-2017

Outdoor walls of Alexandria are full of writings. Stencil graffiti, sprayed messages, painted advertisements, ball-pen notes, stickers and billboards create a mostly anonymous conversation of different messages struggling for space, mostly transient and at times poetic. Especially political graffiti during and after the 2011 revolution became the site of an often uncivil debate made up of deletions, crossings-out and changes to graffiti by others. But also love messages, religious phrases and advertisement have important messages to tell. The writings on the cityʼs three-dimensional walls often mingle with the metaphorical walls of social media feeds as inhabitants of the city are engaged in poetic, transient conversations and commentary on their phones while they move through their city. Sometimes the different poetics and materialities of wall-writing also converge when social media mimes reproduce or simulate photos of graffiti. In Alexandria today, both ways to write on walls are common and productive of spaces and social relations in the city. These forms of everyday textual conversation and presence push the limits of conventional understandings of literary vs. ordinary language. They also tell important stories of the coexistence of different visions and ways of life in a plural but not pluralistic city.

Les murs extérieurs d’Alexandrie sont remplis d’écritures. Graffitis au pochoir, messages à la bombe aérosol, annonces peintes, notes au stylo-bille, autocollants et panneaux créent une conversation anonyme composée de différents messages rivalisant pour l’espace, messages en général éphémères et parfois poétiques. Les graffitis politiques en particulier, sont devenus pendant et après la révolution de 2011, le lieu d’un débat souvent incorrect avec des graffitis supprimés, biffés ou modifiés par d’autres. Mais les messages d’amour, les phrases religieuses et les annonces ont d’importantes choses à dire. Les écritures sur les murs tridimensionnels de la ville se mêlent souvent avec les murs métaphoriques des médias sociaux alimentés par les commentaires ou les conversations poétiques et éphémères des habitants qui se déplacent à travers leur ville. Parfois, les différentes poétiques et matérialités des écritures murales convergent quand les médias sociaux font mine de reproduire ou d’imiter des photos de graffitis. Aujourd’hui, à Alexandrie, les deux manières d’écrire sur les murs sont répandues, produisant des espaces et des relations sociales dans la ville. Ces formes de présence et de conversation textuelles quotidiennes repoussent les limites d’une interprétation classique opposant langage littéraire et langage courant. Elles disent aussi des histoires importantes de coexistence entre différentes visions et façons de vivre dans une ville plurielle, mais non pluraliste.

Entrées d’index

Mots-clés : , keywords: , texte intégral, introduction — walls, writings, cities.

1 In 2011, a single word could be found on walls all over Alexandria: Leave (see figure 1). When it was sprayed in January or February 2011, there was no need to say who the addressee was. That much was clear, and the message was everywhere.

Figure 1. “Leave”

Figure 1. “Leave”

Kom El-Dikka, Alexandria, November 2011.

Source: Samuli Schielke

2 Writing on walls is as old as writing, which has a very long history in Alexandria and Egypt. The story might begin, if not with the invention of writing, then at least with the spread of literacy that made writing in the open widespread, pragmatic, and plural in its uses. The story might also begin with the availability of spray paint, which made it possible to write large, visible messages very quickly. The story could also begin with Alexandriaʼs iconic wall-writer Gamal El-Dowaly (Khaled 2012; Abu El-Maʽati 2016), a dedicated fan of the Ittihad football team, who wrote and signed his messages on walls of Alexandria from the 1980s until the 2000s, and even drew the regime’s attention when he wrote of his intention to run for the presidency on a wall. Another beginning might be messages like “Would you accept it for your sister?” that warn youths on the Corniche against romantic encounters, and which spread along the seashore when the Islamic revival gained societal dominance over the city and the country. Yet another beginning could be the line of poetry borrowed from Amal Dunqul that was sprayed on the Corniche in autumn 2010: “Dream not of a better world / Behind every Caesar who dies is another Caesar”.

3 January 2011 is therefore an arbitrary starting point for a history of Alexandriaʼs wall-writing, but there are two reasons behind it.

4 The first is that it almost coincides with the beginning of my fieldwork on literary writing in Alexandria, in March 2011. I had already developed an interest in the aspirational, moral, and political dimension of visible surfaces such as graffiti, stickers, and posters some years earlier (Schielke 2012). When my fieldwork turned towards issues of text, language, messages, and communication, it was logical to continue to pay attention to writings on walls; however, I began to pay more attention towards graffiti as texts: slogans, announcements, denunciations, declarations of love, invitations, advertisements, lines from songs, or the marking of a space with oneʼs name. What can these texts tell us about the claims, struggles, and strivings of the people who live in the city? What kind of relationship – if any – might there be between wall-writing and literary writing?

5 An important methodological and aesthetic choice that resulted from this research interest was that I shifted to working in black and white, consciously avoiding colour, which is usually the preferred method of photographing graffiti. I initially worked with a medium-format analogue camera, and later shifted to a faster-to-use analogue SLR camera. Restricting my vision to black and white and taking fewer pictures (due to my reliance on film) was a way of training myself to be a reader of writings and walls rather than a spectator of graffiti.

6 The parts of Alexandria where I took my photos are broadly those areas of the city around which I would regularly move: El-Mandara, El-Asafra, and Miami in the east, the Corniche Road, Ramleh Station, El-Manshiya, and El-Shatby quarters, the Abu Qir train line, and the Chinese Housing in Agami. I cannot present a representative survey of wall-writing, and indeed have never aimed for one; rather, my intention has been to document continuities and changes in messages on walls over time.

7 This leads to the other reason for beginning the story in January 2011. The revolutionary uprising of 25 January marked the beginning of an intensive and highly-politicized period of wall-writing that tells a story of the struggles and shifts of mood in the city during and after the failed revolution. The story of this photo essay continues until the autumn of 2017 (the moment when this essay was completed for publication) to include the depoliticization that followed the establishment of El-Sisiʼs new old regime as well as the ongoing societal dynamics that are reflected in wall-writing. It is important to note, however, that even at the height of the political contestation and its various expressions on walls, political writings never dominated exclusively; they mingled with a remarkably constant use of wall-writing for religious, romantic, personal, commercial, legal, and other purposes.

8 Some might be seduced into mistaking political graffiti for something more real and relevant, and into dismissing other themes of wall-writing as trivial or meaningless. In this photo essay, my premise is that all writing on walls is relevant and meaningful. Writing something on a wall already implies a claim of relevance, importance, and reality. The search for work, real estate business, love stories, faith in God, and the claim that this is my street – none of this is trivial. The question is therefore what kind of story of life in a city these different, yet intermingling, writings can tell.

9 This story may be specific to Alexandria, but of course wall-writing is not. Wall-writing or word graffiti is a globally circulating and exceedingly accessible and plural form of communication (Northoff 2004; 2005). Alexandria is not fundamentally different from, say, Athens, New York, Cairo, or any other city insofar as various forms of graffiti appear to be a general feature of urban living. Around the world, stencilled graffiti, sprayed messages, painted advertisements, ballpen notes, scratching on mortar, stickers, and billboards create a discourse of various types of message struggling for space, mostly transient and at times poetic. There are regional and national differences in genres, of course: for example, forms of primarily visual graffiti and tags in which the content of the text becomes secondary or altogether illegible prevail in much of Europe and North America, whereas in Egypt, by contrast, wall-writing usually conveys a more or less clearly legible and intelligible message. The same is true of most street art in Egypt. Also, while genres travel with relative ease, the stories wall-writing tells are more situational, more specific to a place and time about which they provide an ongoing commentary (Karathanasi 2014; Tsilimpounidi 2015) – as in Alexandria during and after the uprising of 2011.

10 Outdoor walls are, of course, not the only medium for public writing. Homes, shops, and vehicles carry commercial advertisements as well as messages of a more personal nature. The arts and ethics of home and vehicle decorations in Egypt have attracted their fair share of attention (for example, Parker and Neal 1995; Oweis 1999), but there still remains much unexplored potential for ethnographic research. For example, aphorisms, witticisms, and pious phrases on toktoks might tell interesting stories if one relates them to their owners and drivers, their friends and girlfriends, and the craftsmen who paint the texts on to the vehicles. In contrast, wall-writings are more difficult to analyse because their authors are usually unknown, because they are usually short-lived, and because erasures, alterations, and overwriting make them not only intertextual but often also illegible (see figure 2). This poses an analytical problem.

Figure 2. Layers of wall-writings rendered illegible

Figure 2. Layers of wall-writings rendered illegible

Azarita, Alexandria, October 2016.

11 A textual analysis is of course possible, and can be successful. Sayed Oweisʼs (1999) famous Chanting of the Silent is a systematic analysis of writings on vehicles in late 1960s Egypt, and provides striking insights into the public values and emotions that professional drivers and cart vendors expressed on their vehicles. Despite all the inspirational debt I owe to Oweis, I have not tried to reproduce his approach. He provides a systematic account that focuses on varieties of messages and the values they express, and pays less attention to materiality, time, and location. I have not tried to be systematic; instead, my main interest is in the texture of time, location, and materiality, and the urgent issues that writers express on walls.

Struggles and genres, alterations and transformations

12 Soon after the president stepped down in February 2011, a campaign of cleaning and beautification began. It was at least partly driven by a revolutionary desire to make the country oneʼs own, but it also involved a somewhat counter-revolutionary erasure of signs and slogans relating to the struggle (Winegar 2016). Most anti-Mubarak graffiti were painted over in the months after February 2011 – sometimes not very carefully, as in figure 3 where “No to Mubarak” was left legible because whoever painted it over economised with the paint.

Figure 3. “No to Mubarak” (erased)

Figure 3. “No to Mubarak” (erased)

Ramleh Station, Alexandria, November 2011.

13 At the same time, a euphoric and opportunistic identification with 25 January resulted in the renaming of businesses: for example, a real estate agency on the Corniche in the east of the city called itself “The Sons of 25 January Property and Furnished Apartments” (see figure 4).

Figure 4. “The Sons of 25 January Property and Furnished Apartments. Tel. 0100 553274”

Figure 4. “The Sons of 25 January Property and Furnished Apartments. Tel. 0100 553274”

Miami, Alexandria, February 2012.

14 As the initial euphoria faded, different voices began to compete for attention, and posters and slogans of Islamist movements rapidly gained visibility, while other, weaker movements (which after a while became known as “the revolutionaries”) tried to revive street protests. Graffiti and printed posters and stickers by various Islamist movements spread around the city, while revolutionariesʼ wall-writings called for demonstrations and an end to military rule, especially at the sites of demonstrations such as Port Said Street, the University of Alexandria, and al-Qaʼid Ibrahim Square. In September 2011, activists calling for street protests against military rule stencilled their slogan “Weʼll be back” on a wall in downtown Alexandria, together with the iconic portrait of the martyr Khaled Said, who was killed by policemen in the summer of 2010. Two months later, the Salafi Nour Party plastered the same wall with their election posters. Rather than covering over Khaled Saidʼs portrait, they left him surrounded by bearded men (see figure 5).

Figure 5. “Weʼll be back” (sprayed). “Together we build Egypt. Nour Party” (election posters)

Figure 5. “Weʼll be back” (sprayed). “Together we build Egypt. Nour Party” (election posters)

15 During the summer and autumn of 2011, competition among different voices on the walls became more aggressive. Graffiti against the military rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (February 2011-June 2012) began to spread, and were repeatedly altered or sprayed over. Some graffiti were altered several times. A mural that was painted during the clean-up campaign in February 2011 originally read: “The people and the army are in the service of Egypt.” Later, somebody added “the police” (it is recognizable as an addition because it is sprayed while the rest of the text is painted) between “the people” and “the army”, after which somebody else crossed out both “the army” and “the police” and added “killers” above “the police” (see figure 6).

Figure 6. “The people and the army and “the police” are in the service of Egypt”

Figure 6. “The people and the army and “the police” are in the service of Egypt”

Corniche between Shatby and Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, November 2011.

Figure 7. “Egypt”

Figure 7. “Egypt”

Shatby, Alexandria, November 2011.

16 Unity among Muslims and Christians had been one of the slogans and powerful symbols of the January uprising, symbolized by the crescent and the cross, as in figure 7, where they are placed above the word “Egypt”. This message was sprayed at some time during autumn 2011, when sectarian violence against Christians was increasing. The wall had recently been whitewashed to cover earlier writings, and the paint began to flake quickly, eroding parts of the message. In October 2011, Christian protesters were massacred by the military in Cairo. Weeks after the massacre, somebody tried to alter the message by scratching away the cross, but managed to leave only a minor mark. The outcome was unintentionally symbolic: both the cross and the attempt to erase it were left visible – until the entire wall was whitewashed again.

17 Other writings expressed grievances in the form of an appeal to the authorities for justice. A photocopied poster on the seafront in downtown Alexandria in November (see figure 8) was framed by four photographic portraits (counterclockwise from top right): “the first deceased person”; “the deceased wife”; “the father and husband”; “the surviving son”. The text in the middle reads:

“An appeal to all supporters of the weak who have lost their rights in this world. I only want justice. I call upon all gentlemen in positions of responsibility and the noble media of communication to report on lawsuit number 6216 of the year 2009, Second Chamber of Raml Court, Alexandria, to reopen the case, and to reveal the manipulation, lowliness, and deception of justice involved in it. My question is: is the owner of the car, registration number 281 Private Cairo, really above the law? So far they have proven that they are above everything. Egyptian citizen al-Sayyid Gamal, tel. 122 408 78 48, profession: driver in the district of East Alexandria.”

Figure 8

18 Other grievances would be absurd-poetic in tone. In Port Said Street, a regular route of the protest marches in 2011, somebody had sprayed between political slogans: “Oh my head” - which can mean “you give me such a headache”, “Iʼm going crazy” or “give me a break” (see figure 9).

Figure 9. “Oh my head”

Figure 9. “Oh my head”

Port Said Street, Alexandria, November 2011.

19 Political wall-writings come and go, depending on the moment, the perceived urgency and the opportunity to write oneʼs message in an open space. Private, commercial, legal, and religious messages are the more persistent genres. In November 2011, shortly before the parliamentary elections, somebody sprayed “I love you ...” over electoral posters of political parties in Sidi Gaber. Half of the name of the beloved is covered by yet another poster sponsored by a nearby mosque inviting people to the Eid prayer (see figure 10)

Figure 10. “I love you...” (name partly obliterated)

Figure 10. “I love you...” (name partly obliterated)

Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, November 2011.

20 Meanwhile, at the commuter train station of al-Mandara in the east of the city, stickers and handwritten advertisements (see figure 11) offered natural healing, the services of a marriage registrar, and satellite dish installation, and looked for apartments. Below the ads, someone declared their allegiance to the Zamalek football club.

21 In a period when the police were relatively absent and many social taboos had been shaken, illicit businesses also sometimes made themselves visible on the wall, making use of the comparatively safe guise of the English language (see figure 12).

Figure 11. “Looking to buy an apartment for a suitable price”. “Looking to buy an apartment”. “Natural healing in homes“. “Marriage registrar”. “Satellite dish installation”. “Al-Zamalek”

Figure 11. “Looking to buy an apartment for a suitable price”. “Looking to buy an apartment”. “Natural healing in homes“. “Marriage registrar”. “Satellite dish installation”. “Al-Zamalek”

Mandara Station, Alexandria, November 2011.

Figure 12. “Mistriss [sic] slave 010 5434267”

Figure 12. “Mistriss [sic] slave 010 5434267”

Al-Qaʼid Ibrahim, Alexandria, February 2012.

Figure 13. “Mobile 0123760878. Registered plot not for sale or partnership”.

Figure 13. “Mobile 0123760878. Registered plot not for sale or partnership”.

Kom El Dikka, Alexandria, March 2012.

Figure 14. “Garage: no parking, you shameless donkey”

Figure 14. “Garage: no parking, you shameless donkey”

El Mandara, Alexandria, November 2011.

22 Among the firmly-established forms of wall-writing in Egypt are legal notices. Squatting enjoys a degree of legal protection in Egypt, which is why empty buildings and plots of land are usually marked by large messages such as this: “Registered plot not for sale or partnership” (see figure 13).

23 Another persistent, and at times innovative, genre is parking prohibitions. At a garage entrance in al-Mandara, somebody had written: “Garage: No parking, you shameless donkey.” (see figure 14).

24 Even more persistent and present are religious messages. In homes, shops, and vehicles, they identify the inhabitant or owner as a Muslim or a Christian. In streets and squares, the religious messages are almost exclusively Islamic. Sometimes they are small handwritten messages or prayers, and sometimes the result of more systematic poster, sticker, and stencilled graffiti campaigns (for example, figure 26 right). In 2014, handwritten or photocopied notes saying “Did you pray for the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) today?” (see figure 15) proliferated quite suddenly all over Egypt. The campaign had no clear author, and was ostentatiously apolitical and consensual in the midst of an extremely polarized situation after the counter-revolution of 2013, but it did have political resonance as a moral or ethical message: it reminded Muslims of their commitment to the Prophet Muhammad, and related to the idiomatic use of “pray for the Prophet!” as a way to call agitated people to calm down.

Figure 15. “Did you pray for the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) today?”

Figure 15. “Did you pray for the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) today?”

Ramleh Station, Alexandria, October 2014.

25 An important sub-genre of religious messages is the elaborate calligraphies of Qurʼanic verses that bring together protective, moral-ethical, and aesthetic dimensions. A Qurʼanic verse (see figure 16) on the wall opposite a café and sponsored by the owner reads: “In the name of the All-Merciful God: { Whatever good you may have, it is from God. } This is the true speech of the Mighty God.”

Figure 16. “In the name of the All-Merciful God {Whatever good you may have, it is from God} This is the true speech of the Mighty God”

Figure 16. “In the name of the All-Merciful God {Whatever good you may have, it is from God} This is the true speech of the Mighty God”

Ramleh Station, Alexandria, February 2014.

26 Some of the sprayed and stencilled political wall-writings in 2011 and after were made by Alexandriaʼs small scene of dedicated graffiti artists, who also created some of the murals that were painted on the seaward side of the Corniche shortly after Mubarakʼs resignation, and who later participated in other specially organized and sponsored projects. Later in 2011, a stretch of concrete wall on the inland side of the Corniche near Stanley Bridge became a prominent site of visually ambitious political graffiti. But most street art in Alexandria during that time – including the murals near Stanley Bridge – was produced by football ultras. The ultrasʼ murals often combined commitment to the club with revolutionary claims and themes – increasingly so after the massacre of 74 supporters of the Ahly Club in Port Said in February 2012. Although the art of the ultras has attracted less international attention than the aesthetically ambitious street art produced by the small circle of internationally-acclaimed graffiti artists in Alexandria and Cairo (for a critical review, see Eickhof 2016), some of it has been included in canonical collections like Walls of Freedom (2014). The art of the ultras was very visible in Alexandria thanks to the prominent location of many murals along the cityʼs main thoroughfares, especially the Corniche road. With its use of English and its iconography of urban rebellion, this mural on the Corniche in Sidi Bishr in February 2012 (see figure 17) signed by the Ultras White Knights represents the style of ultras graffiti and murals from the period.

Figure 17. “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards). Signed: “U.W.K 07” (Ultras White Knights 07)

Figure 17. “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards). Signed: “U.W.K 07” (Ultras White Knights 07)

Sidi Bishr, Alexandria, March 2012.

27 Much like the writings that marked the sites of demonstrations, the art of the ultras also marked (and in small patches here and there still marks) urban spaces, claiming mastery and ownership over them (see also Tsilimpounidi 2015; Selvelli 2016). The marking of spaces is, of course, not a prerogative of the ultras and other revolutionaries – parking prohibitions and legal notices do it, too. And in the widespread genre of writing oneʼs name on a wall, marking a space is the message itself. On a wall in Azarita, a certain Muʼmin wrote his name in several places (see figure 18) in 2016. He added no comment – his name was enough. Later, an unrelated stencilled advertisement was sprayed above Muʼminʼs signature: “Isaadʼs marriage, workforce and real estate services.”

Figure 18. “Isaadʼs marriage, workforce and real estate services.” “Muʼmin”

Figure 18. “Isaadʼs marriage, workforce and real estate services.” “Muʼmin”

28 As the political situation shifted, so did the politics of the messages on walls. The election of Mohamed Morsi as president was initially greeted by enthusiastic messages. In Miami in 2012 (see figure 19), a text sprayed on a roadside wall read “Morsi Morsi 2012 God is great”. A shop to the right had the Egyptian flag painted on the wall with the words “God is great. Morsi 2012. EYGPT” [sic, in Latin letters].

Figure 19. Right: “God is great. Morsi 2012. EYGPT [sic]”. Left: “Morsi Morsi 2012 God is great”

Figure 19. Right: “God is great. Morsi 2012. EYGPT [sic]”. Left: “Morsi Morsi 2012 God is great”

Miami, Alexandria, October 2012.

29 As conflicts and opposition to Morsiʼs rule arose, a veritable battle of wall-writings began. In the winter of 2012-2013, a stencilled advertisement message announced: “Isolate your ceiling before the winter.” Playing with the double meaning of the verb yi’zil (to isolate; to remove from office), somebody changed it into: “Remove Morsi from office before the winter.” (see figure 20)

Figure 20. “Isolate your ceiling Morsi before the winter 01211174112”

Figure 20. “Isolate your ceiling Morsi before the winter 01211174112”

Ramleh Station, Alexandria, January 2013.

30 Supporters of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were actively spraying their messages as well. After the former presidential hopefuls Hamdeen Sabbahi and Mohamed ElBaradei had joined a “National Front of Salvation”, supporters of Morsi accused them of masterminding a campaign of wreckage, violence, and chaos. A message sprayed near Alexandria University (see figure 21) called for “No to the Front of Wreckage and Destruction and Bankruptcy” and underlined its call with a prophetic saying that bans Muslims from looting and killing other Muslims: “Your property and blood are inviolable.” Between the two messages stood a stencilled portrait message from another side of the struggle, calling for the release of the imprisoned revolutionary socialist Hassan Mustafa.

31 In the polarized and paranoid atmosphere that evolved in 2013, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between the truth and lies. The general paranoia was also reflected in writings such as figure 22 which I spotted in al-Mandara in January 2013: “America spies on all humans through satellites (on every home)”.

Figure 21. “No to the Front of Wreckage”. “No to the Front of Wreckage and Destruction and Bankruptcy”. “Free Hassan Mustafa”. “Your property and blood are inviolable”

Figure 21. “No to the Front of Wreckage”. “No to the Front of Wreckage and Destruction and Bankruptcy”. “Free Hassan Mustafa”. “Your property and blood are inviolable”

Shatby, Alexandria, February 2013.

Figure 22. “America spies on all humans through satellites (on every home)”

Figure 22. “America spies on all humans through satellites (on every home)”

El-Mandara, Alexandria, January 2013.

32 After the military seized power in summer 2013, my photographs of wall-writing became fewer and more sporadic. Paranoia increased, and photographing in the streets raised suspicions. I shifted to using a smaller camera and took fewer and fewer pictures. I therefore only have a few images of the abundant graffiti by supporters of the Muslim Brothers protesting against the coup dʼétat. The few I have were mostly taken from a moving car, such as figure 23 taken in spring 2014 in Sidi Bishr in eastern Alexandria, an area where pro-Morsi demonstrations were common and well-attended in 2013 and 2014. Every protest would leave a dense trace of graffiti, which the city authorities would only manage to paint over after some delay. On this wall, slogans for and against Morsi and Sisi mingled with commercial ads and ultra slogans: Framed by the stencilled four-fingered Rabea sign of the Brotherhood supporters on the right and left, the messages read: “Furniture transportation and lifting: winches and manual”; “Football belongs to the crowds”; “Morsi is my president”; “Liar” “Down with Morsi Sisi ” “30/8” (date of a demonstration); “Real estate agent”; “CC is a killer”; and “Traitor”

Figure 23

Sidi Bishr, Alexandria, February 2014.

33 CC, a phonetic abbreviation for Minister of Defence and (since 2014) President el-Sisi, was all over the walls in those days, in expressions of love and hate alike. In February 2014 in Sidi Bishr, a mural painted by a professional advertising company (covering a graffiti by ultras, traces of which remained above the mural) declared in English: “I love you C.C.” and in Arabic: “We love you El-Sisi and I hope you will be my president.” (see figure 24)

Figure 24. “Al-Mutamayyiz Advertisements, mobile 01220092941. We love you El-Sisi and I hope you will be my president. Egypt first. I love you C.C. With greetings from Your Presidentʼs Support Campaign“

Figure 24. “Al-Mutamayyiz Advertisements, mobile 01220092941. We love you El-Sisi and I hope you will be my president. Egypt first. I love you C.C. With greetings from Your Presidentʼs Support Campaign“

34 On the other side of the struggle, countless rapidly sprayed messages accused CC of being a killer and a traitor. Despite systematic efforts to erase these messages, one accidentally made it on to a scene in a Ramadan soap opera that was aired in 2017. The video still (see figure 25) went viral, causing major embarrassment to the channel and the production company ( Almogaz 2017; Aljazeera 2017).

Figure 25. “Traitor C.C.” in a scene from the soap opera The Sun Will Never Set ( La tutfiʼ al-shams )

Figure 25. “Traitor C.C.” in a scene from the soap opera The Sun Will Never Set (La tutfiʼ al-shams)

Source: http://urlz.fr/​6dys , published 11 June 2017, viewed 23 July 2017.

35 Because of increasing difficulties with photographing anti-regime slogans in particular, I do not have any photos of the political graffiti that still occasionally emerge along the Abu Qir train line, such as a 2016 message that read “Down with the illusion of stability and the dogs of Daesh in the Sinai” in a rhetorically somewhat cumbersome gesture of rejection towards the regime and its Jihadist enemies alike. I also do not have a single photograph of the once widespread “Morsi will return”, which has been painted over almost everywhere in the meantime. But in the public housing area of the Chinese Housing (al-Masakin al-Siniya) in the far west of Alexandria, a message sprayed in a side street in 2014 was still withstanding the passage of time in 2017: “Mohab will return, God willing.” (see figure 26 left) I do not know who Mohab is or where he went, but a friend who lives in the area claims that he was a small-time drug dealer who was imprisoned.

Figure 26. Left: “Mohab will return, God willing”. Right: “The speech God loves most: exalted be God; and praise to God; and there is no deity but God; and God is great”

Figure 26. Left: “Mohab will return, God willing”. Right: “The speech God loves most: exalted be God; and praise to God; and there is no deity but God; and God is great”

Al-Masakin al-Siniya, Alexandria, February 2017.

36 The writings from between 2011 and 2017 that are depicted in this essay tell the contemporary history of a city that is plural, but not pluralistic. Sometimes messages live side by side in apparently peaceful coexistence. Sometimes they seem to simply ignore each other, like the message of love sprayed over electoral posters and then partially covered by another poster (see figure 10 above). Especially when it comes to politics, walls become a site for an uncivil debate of competing claims, erasures, and alterations.

37 Scratchings on mortar, “spray and run” messages, stickers and posters, and elaborate murals all not only spread messages, but also contribute to the aesthetic feel of a place. During the revolution and the struggles that followed it, the protest sites were recognizable by the density of sprayed messages (see, for example, figure 23 above), and the stateʼs imposition of its control was marked by whitewashing the walls again (for example, figure 3 above). In residential areas, the names of individuals cover many walls with the simple message that this is so-and-soʼs street or that so-and-so and their friends were there. Working in a different sensory genre, Charles Hirschkind (2006) has described Islamic cassette tape sermons of the 1990s as an “ethical soundscape” that made the call to craft oneself as a God-fearing person highly present and persuasive. Wall-writing works in a similar way, creating a persuasive presence (Starrett 1995). And just like different sounds and moods constantly mingle in the soundscapes of Cairo, which even at the peak of the Islamic revival in the 2000s were never exclusively dominated by pious messages, in a similar manner the walls of cities and villages host a visible, constantly changing presence of different values and struggles, some more pervasive and prevalent than others, but none exclusively dominant.

Poetry of open-air and virtual walls

38 Are these writings literature? Some have undeniable literary or poetic qualities, and even where they do not, they contribute to something akin to a poetry of open spaces – poetry in a wider sense, in that they suggest imaginative and associative ways of restructuring open spaces, of giving them symbolic depth and complexity. But literature is both more and less than the aesthetic, imaginative work of words: it is an institutional field (Bourdieu 1998) in which certain forms of writing, speech, and reading are included, while others are excluded (Allan 2016).

39 The question is thus not whether wall-writing is literature or not, but how some wall-writing may become literature. Social media are instrumental to this process.

40 The writings on the cityʼs three-dimensional walls often mingle with the metaphorical walls of social media feeds as inhabitants of the city engage in poetic, transient conversations and commentary on their phones while they move through their city. Sometimes, the various poetics and materialities of wall-writing also converge, when social media memes reproduce photos of wall-writing. During the intense days of revolutionary political contestation, photographs of expressive messages on walls were often shared and distributed to underline individuals’ positions. Since then, messages on walls have become increasingly distributed online as out-of-context aphoristic texts. This growing online circulation of wall-writings has in turn inspired new ways of writing on open-air walls. As the mood has become more subdued and fearful in recent years, and political wall-writing has become rarer, a different genre has become more visible: poetic messages – often lines from songs by popular bands (see figure 27).

Figure 27. “And I wonder how your fragrance spreads without your presence”. Line from a song by Jadal, a Jordanian pop-rock band. To the right of the line is a stencilled advertisement for hearing aids.

Figure 27. “And I wonder how your fragrance spreads without your presence”. Line from a song by Jadal, a Jordanian pop-rock band. To the right of the line is a stencilled advertisement for hearing aids.

Corniche by Ibrahimiya, Alexandria, September 2017.

41 This is a decidedly hybrid genre that thrives on the interface between the virtual and open-air walls.

42 Two young women I know from a village near Alexandria often post photos of wall-writing on their social media feeds, either as background images for their Facebook walls or as individual posts. They collect and save images on the Internet, where one of their main sources is the Facebook site Gudran/Walls ( https://www.facebook.com/​godran.walls/​ ). The site had over 100,000 followers by the summer of 2017. It is administered by an Egyptian, but many of the wall-writings posted on the site recently appear to come from the Levant. The writings are sometimes religious, philosophical or political, but most importantly they are romantic. They often have clear literary ambitions, tending towards an aphoristic or poetic form. Many are also signed, thus laying claim to individual authorship.

43 S., a university student in Alexandria in her early twenties, told me why she often posted images of this genre of graffiti on her Facebook account:

In my view, images of graffiti are better because everybody sees them and they communicate what people want to say, while posts are not seen by everyone, because images draw the attention of the eyes. […] And besides, people interact more with an image than when you write text.

44 A., a university student in her late teens who lives between her village and Alexandria, saw the online images of graffiti as part of an emerging generational youth culture:

In my opinion, I find them very useful, especially after the revolution and the spread of underground artists, and they also have a better future because most people of my generation are interested in this kind of writing.

45 The two womenʼs appreciation of these hybrid messages – analogue turned digital, at once both writing and image – and their skill in dealing with them is a telling example of the transformation of both written and visual culture in the digital age. The crossover between walls of brick, mortar and wood, and digital walls is central to the attractiveness of the genre.

46 Just like three-dimensional wall-writings, their digital avatars are mostly anonymous. Additionally, they also become decontextualized and delocalized. Images posted on Gudran/Walls always contain a transcription of the message because the handwriting may be difficult to read. Some of the writings are signed, but their circulated images are never dated and never localized, except incidentally through dialect and references to events like the Syrian civil war. Their indexical and referential relations with specific persons, conflicts, or issues are entirely, or largely, severed. They are transformed into travelling aphoristic literary texts that are appreciated as such by those who circulate them. According to A:

The images I post are by unknown people, and I donʼt know what the motivation is behind the pages that upload them. … I select them on the basis of the similarity between what is inside me and what is written. … That is, I use these images to express what I donʼt know to write in a direct manner in a Facebook post.

47 For A., images of wall-writing work in a way that is similar to the memorized verses of poetry, songs, and proverbs that have been part of the culture of expression in different languages since time immemorial. The digital walls of S. and A. generate something resembling a poetic map of some of their stances, moods, and public emotions. In their wall-writing posts, they both appear as romantic, sentimental, committed to their parents and families, sometimes religious, and often ironical (see figure 28). A. also often posts images that are explicitly political or socially critical, reflecting her more outwardly rebellious attitude (see figure 29).

Figure 28. “Never mind”

Figure 28. “Never mind”

(An expression used in Egyptian Arabic as an excuse or to soothe somebody who is upset). In the comments section, M. has posted a caricature in which a person is surrounded by characters who all say “Never mind.” Posted by S. on 22 March 2017. Probably on the Alexandria seafront.

Date, photographer and original source unknown.

Figure 29. “They sedated you in the artery and said: your apathy is good for the homeland”

Figure 29. “They sedated you in the artery and said: your apathy is good for the homeland”

Line from Al-Watan (Homeland) by the Lebanese band Mashrou Leila. Forwarded to me by A. on 21 July 2017. Photography and original post by Fares Abdallah, 23 February 2017. Location unknown.

Source: https://lc.cx/​gTPQ

48 Some of the images A. sent me as examples were lines from songs by her favourite bands, such as the Lebanese group Mashrou Leila in figure 29. While the images of these texts are delocalized for A. and others who circulate them, they resonate with knowledge of the entire song as well as the class habitus and world views associated with the artists and style of music. The music of Mashrou Leila in particular resonates with a liberal, even rebellious, attitude but importantly also with (aspirations for) a bourgeois, cosmopolitan habitus. But this is not the only story A. and her virtual wall have to tell, of course: a different selection of her online posts would show her as somebody who is very committed to her mother. Like the poetry people cite since age immemorial, the images people post in the digital age move in that productively ambiguous space where they are common popular culture and intimate expression at one and the same time, and may stand in contrast to other roles and expressions they cultivate, without necessarily entering into conflict with them (Abu-Lughod 1996).

49 Wall-writings can thus be literature when they participate in a poetic making of moods and space that relies on words and imagination, and - most importantly – when they are read and circulated in that capacity. But in another sense, they differ from the institutional meaning of literature, because “literature” in the institutional sense has aesthetic, formal, linguistic and other mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion, which wall-writing does not have.

Conclusion: Speaking out loud and remaining invisible

50 Writings on all kinds of walls – those made of mortar, brick, and concrete as well as virtual ones – combine disclosure, anonymity, and intimacy, and cross over the conventional divisions between ordinary and literary language. This makes them interesting as historical witnesses of conversations that take place among inhabitants of a city, both straightforward and poetic.

51 Whenever I arrive in Alexandria (I live in Berlin but often go there for short or long visits), I take the minibus from al-Mandara to al-Manshiya and read the graffiti on the Corniche. Having read them frequently and knowing where to expect them, I also read their absences. For me, this has proven a good way to gauge a sense of the current mood and situation, because wall-writings tell me about issues that would not make it into the news (such as love affairs and job ads), and because they contain voices I may not otherwise hear of people whom I may never meet.

52 The people whose messages on vehicles Sayed Oweis (1999) studied in the 1960s were “silent” in the sense of being subaltern; they were not among the hegemonic voices heard in late Nasserist Egypt. And yet in Oweisʼs work, the subalterns certainly do speak, and eloquently so, but they do this on the condition of their being invisible. I doubt whether 21 st century wall-writers generally speak from the subaltern position in which Oweis found drivers and vendors in the late 1960s. The music of Jadal and Mashrou Leila cited in figures 27 and 29 speaks mainly to young people who either command or aspire to a cosmopolitan sense of global connectedness (see also Tsilimpounidi 2015). Rather than being a means of expression for people who are otherwise silenced, walls are better understood as a space that is accessible to subaltern and non-hegemonic voices, but not to them alone.

53 Wall-writing relies on the productive tension between speaking out loud and remaining invisible. This tension makes wall-writing a very effective means of communicating and contesting public moods and values, and also of expressing impolite or aggressive positions or stances that may otherwise be censored. Wall-writing and street art therefore thrive in times of protest and conflict (Northoff 2004; Walls of Freedom 2014; Karathanasi 2014; Rolston 2014; Selvelli 2016; Tsilimpounidi 2015). Their ability to mark and occupy physical space makes them even more potent as a means of conflict and contestation. The rise and decline of revolutionary graffiti in Alexandria and elsewhere in Egypt since 2011 is a case in point here, but wall-writing can also be, and is, used to legitimate those in power as well as for altogether different aims. This open-endedness towards different uses – both contrary and unrelated – makes wall-writings a helpful entry point among others for understanding life in a plural, but not pluralistic city, such as Alexandria. It is a city connected by roads, railway lines, streets, and the circulation of people, goods, money, ideas, messages, and images, while at the same time divided by lines of class, demography, and religious and political faiths. Wall-writings express and make visible a plurality of stances and views, but also highlight the precarious, and at times explosive, nature of their coexistence.

Starrett, G. 1995. “Signposts along the road: Monumental public writing in Egypt.” Anthrpology Today (en italique), vol. 11, n° 4, pp. 8-13.

Some of the images and ideas featured in this essay were previously published in a photo essay co-authored with Jessica Winegar, to whom I am especially grateful. Some were shown at the exhibition entitled El-Hita/The Wall in the Dokan Art Space in Alexandria in 2012 thanks to an invitation and support from Aliaa ElGready, Abdalla Daif, and the Gudran Association. I am also grateful to A., S., Rasha El Awady, Mahmoud Saad, Mukhtar Shehata, Daniela Swarowsky, Mohamed Muslih, and Constantinos Diamantis for their support, feedback, knowledge, and ideas for this essay. Kameraservice Ostkreuz, Fotoimpex, and Jet-Foto in Berlin provided priceless technical support, and development and scanning services. Research for this essay was funded by Leibniz Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin and the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research.


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Aljazeera, 2017, “ʼʽCC khaʼinʼ tashab al-halaqa 14 min ʼʽLa tufiʼal-shamsʼ”, 10 June. URL: https://lc.cx/gTWR , accessed July 19, 2017.

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Table des illustrations

Pour citer cet article, référence papier.

Samuli Schielke , «  A City of Walls. A Photo Essay on Writing on Walls in Alexandria, 2011-2017  » ,  Égypte/Monde arabe , 17 | 2018, 157-191.

Référence électronique

Samuli Schielke , «  A City of Walls. A Photo Essay on Writing on Walls in Alexandria, 2011-2017  » ,  Égypte/Monde arabe [En ligne], 17 | 2018, mis en ligne le 28 février 2020 , consulté le 03 octobre 2023 . URL  : http://journals.openedition.org/ema/3858 ; DOI  : https://doi.org/10.4000/ema.3858

Samuli Schielke

Samuli Schielke is a social and cultural anthropologist. Born in Helsinki, Finland, in 1972, he received his PhD in Social Sciences from the University of Amsterdam in 2006. He is currently a research fellow at the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin. His ongoing ethnographic research in Egypt touches on topics of religion and morality, aspiration and frustration, migration and imagination, conventional understandings revolutionary politics and literary lives, class, and social mobility. He is the author or editor of the books You’ll Be Late for the Revolution (in Arabic, 2011), The Perils of Joy (2012), Ordinary Lives and Grand Schemes (with Liza Debevec, 2012), The Global Horizon (with Knut Graw, 2012), In Search of Europe? (with Daniela Swarowsky and Andrea Heister, 2013), Egypt in the Future Tense (2015), and Until the End of Oil (in Arabic, 2017). He has co-directed three films: Messages from Paradise #1 (2009) with Daniela Swarowsky, The Other Side (2010), and The Secret Capital (2013) with Mukhtar Shehata.

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