Since the beginning of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, photographer Bieke Depoorter has travelled to the country on a regular basis, photographically documenting intimate moments of domestic life in its various cities. After being introduced to families through a translator, her subjects invite her to stay in their homes, where she photographs their quieter routines behind closed doors, hidden away from the societal pressures of conservatism. After many years of pursuing this illuminating work, Depoorter found herself with a project made up of countless arresting portraits and candid shots, which she edited and carefully selected to publish as a book.
But when she brought the images together, sequencing them in a narrative for publication, something still felt disjointed. “When the book was almost finished, I started to question myself as a Western photographer,” she explains. “I started to question how to show the complexity of the country, so I went back with the dummy of the book to ask people on the street what they thought of the images.” In 2017, Depoorter travelled back to Egypt with the bound dummy in hand, asking Egyptian citizens to write their thoughts, opinions and reactions on top of each photograph. These same images, now overlaid with the notations of her extended subjects, resulted in a project that Depoorter considers to be far more complete than her initial draft of the images standing on their own.
Each inscription gives a voice to the community she hopes to reveal and, on a larger scale, highlights the subjectivity of image taste and reactions. “I want to question the audience,” she explains. “If we see images, it’s totally different to how they see images, because while many people don’t like the images I took, other people really like them. It’s a very personal thing. If we look at images, I might like it and you might hate it. It’s very subjective.” This range in reactions resulted in an interesting pattern regarding the ratio of image vs. text. “The more they don’t like the picture, the more they write on it, so that we don’t see it anymore.”
On a cultural level, the new images also highlight the contrasting views on religion, society and photography in Egypt, bringing a range of voices into conversation with one another, opinions laid bare on each page. A booklet accompanies the official publication of the work, featuring the handwritten notes in original Arabic aside English translations. By bringing all these voices into solitary visuals, Depoorter hopes to present a more delicate and nuanced perspective on the country. “Everywhere you go, people interpret pictures in a different way,” she explains. “A lot of people in Egypt recognize themselves in these images, and those are the ones they care about the most.”