By Jakob Sergei Weitz
Emine Gozde Sevim is a Turkish photographer who lived in Egypt from 2011 to 2013, during the revolution to overthrow former President Hosni Mubarak and the tumultuous years that followed. Her photos capture the personal stories and memories that make up the complex lives of the people that lived through this historic time, beyond the cold narrative you can read in five minutes on the internet. World Policy Journal sat down with Sevim to discuss her new book, Embed in Egypt, her experience as a Turkish woman amid the riots and protests, and the current political climate in Egypt.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: What did it feel like to be in the situation where these pictures were taken?
EMINE GOZDE SEVIM: During the anniversary of the revolution in Egypt in 2013, 19 women were raped or molested in Tahrir Square; one of the photos was taken that night, in that square. That was one moment I felt very scared. I was on top of a building, and all I had was these friends who came with me as a way of protection. But they were downstairs and I was on the roof of the building. They told me not to come down because something was happening in the square, and then this woman they were after ran into my building and they all chased after her. It was very tense. I had no idea what was going to happen next. Many people ask me what it is like to work in these kinds of environments, especially as a woman. It is hard to be a woman every day. But it’s not as though every day I think about how hard it is to be a woman. I think about being a person from Turkey—that can be more difficult. Sometimes any situation—no matter what gender—is just plain unsafe. But I never think, being a woman is so difficult. It’s not productive. Riots are different. Riots move so fast and get so violent. Everyone turns. I go into riots, though, because I am curious and I don’t think the media represents them well. But I grow white hair.
WPJ: But still, the things you produce. I think about what being there with a camera must have been like.
EGS: The thing about documentary photography is that it puts you in that scene. I don’t think of myself as a photographer, I think of myself as a citizen who is curious about something, and this is the medium of my exploration. In a sense, this whole book is an existential dilemma for me, and all of my work is like that, because I have a hard time understanding how history moves. My personal opinion is that history moves through people’s lives, but that is not how we write about history. We write about the grand narrative, not the personal level.
WPJ: Could you tell me a little bit more about yourself?
EGS: I was born in Istanbul. I came to the U.S. for high school when I was 13. I got here two weeks before 9/11. Foreign people don’t really realize how Americans define themselves as “Irish-American” or “African-American” or things like that. My mom is from Afghanistan, and I thought, does that make me Afghan-American? Then 9/11 happened, and I thought, no, I’m only Turkish. When 9/11 happened, we all had to go to a room and watch the one TV, see the towers crash down. I didn’t speak very much English, but I just remember hearing Afghanistan, terrorism, Afghanistan, repeated over and over. I didn’t know what was going on, but I remember the images. I still remember the images. That introduced me to the idea of the visual narrative to tell stories and identities. I went to Bard [College] because they had a great photography program, but I felt like that alone was incomplete, so I also studied international relations and sociology. I didn’t set out to be this person obsessed about history, but I wondered. In 2007 I went to Afghanistan. I went there and it was not what I had been told by my family or the news. Then I went to Israel and the West Bank. Then, the Arab Spring began, and I found myself there. It is certainly a period of my life.
WPJ: Does the title [Embed in Egypt] refer to you, or…?
EGS: It refers to the experience. Definitely not me as a photographer, but about the experience of being there. Before “embed” was appropriated by documentarians it was a military term, to be somewhere and be invisible. That was the thing for me. To just be there, observing, not narrating.
WPJ: What are you trying to say with this book?
EGS: I see these photos saying, look, there is this grand narrative you’ve read about, but I will show you something that is not sexy, but is. People lived through it. That is why it is called Embed, because I was embedded in the life of Egypt. The book is modeled after the notebooks that I carry with me when I travel. There is very little writing. It is a very quiet work. I was surprised that anyone cared about these single moments. There was some writing in the book, and in the art world, there are buzzwords, especially since “Arab Spring” is a term now. This young group in Cairo, they were telling me that there is this subconscious thing that happens when you experience a historical time period like that. It changes you. And it is important to me for the universality of the images. People actually lived through that period, looking at memories that are their own. And I am not misrepresenting it by writing about it, just presenting it as is. No captions, no nothing. For instance, there is a photo of a country club for policeman. The police are such an important part of Egyptian life. The secret service is everywhere, and they look like everyday people. They have this perfect compound. But there is no need for me to tell the viewer that. It would be a nice trivia fact, but just to see that this order exists—that it only belongs to this one section of people in Egypt, but it exists—that was the important part.
WPJ: What is going on in Egypt right now? Politically, socially, culturally?
EGS: Egypt is one of those countries that we don’t talk about anymore. It got shuffled away once Mubarak stepped down. The media started concentrating on Libya and Syria. But things are still going on there. I follow all I can find. There is news about everyday stuff, like if you can get visas now, or if so-and-so’s house got raided by the police. In a sense, nothing has changed. The figures that represent the regime, from Mubarak to [President Abdel Fattah el-]Sisi to the [Muslim] Brotherhood, the names have changed but nothing really else. In fact, it may be worse than it was right after the revolution. The thing I found from my experience is that people don’t give up. There was this “Blue Bra” incident. This girl was dragged through the street by the police, and people were watching, and they took off her clothes and she was wearing a blue bra. On that Friday, women went out and said “You cannot intimidate us,” and they were all wearing blue bras over their hijabs. You would think that when people see graphic images of that kind of violence, they would give up. But they don’t. They protest in the streets. And because of this complex political makeup, things won’t simmer down. It is not safe.
WPJ: What would you like to see happen in Egypt?
EGS: There are signals we are getting from extremists, from their strongholds. The facts haven’t connected yet. It’s not just about Egypt. A similar thing is happening in Turkey. Humankind reacts. You can oppress people, but somehow they resist it, they don’t just go with it. But then they are scared of freedom. They pick up guns and shoot people. I don’t know who benefits from the mess. It must be a very small group of winners.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jakob Sergei Weitz is an editorial assistant for the World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Emine Gozde Sevim]