When most Egyptians think of child labor, the image that comes to mind is of a young, dirty-faced mechanic’s apprentice lying under a car to help his mentor. But such kids should be considered among the lucky ones: a vast majority of Egyptian child workers labor under much more extreme and dangerous conditions. Official child labor statistics in Egypt vary, but it is estimated that there are between 1.3 and 3 million child workers.
To take one example, the working conditions of child laborers in the quarries of Menya are appallingly hard. There, the children have to handle primitive and very dangerous stone cutting machinery to carry out their work. The threat posed by the blades and defective electric connections are faced every day and have led to countless injuries and deaths. For those who survive, the daily dust inhalation leads to severe respiratory and pulmonary diseases.
With the economic crisis, families have little choice. Although they know the dangers of Menya, they are forced to send their children to work there because they have no other way to survive.
The children of Menya drop out of school to bring home less than $15 a week. They work from 4 PM to 3 AM in the summer (to avoid the heat) and from 7 AM to 4 PM during winter.
Ali, one of the children who works at Menya, remembers, “A boy my age came to work here around the same time that I did. He used to put bricks together. One day, he just dropped dead.”
In her work, Myriam Abdelaziz treads the line between documentary storytelling and conceptual photography. While she aims to tell stories about the world, she also expresses her perspective with a unique aesthetic. Assistant editor Alexander Strecker reached out to her via email to find out more.
LC: Tell us the story behind “Menya’s Kids”. How did you first become interested in the subject? Once you found out about the story, how did you gain access?
MA: I was hired by an international NGO to do a story about empowered women living in the countryside of Menya. During my assignment, I learned that many local families were sending their children to work at the nearby quarries. I was intrigued. After I saw the place, I knew I had to come back to document it. The locals helped me with access so I could tell their children’s story.
LC: What was your relationship with the subjects as you shot them? Were they comfortable in front of the camera? Did you direct them at any time or did they act naturally?
I don’t like to direct my subjects—my intention is to portray their essence and not my personal vision of who they are and how they should look. I try to make my subjects relaxed enough so that they can forget about my camera and just be themselves. After that, it’s up to me to catch the right moment of what they have revealed.
LC: How much do you prepare and research before commencing each project? How much do you learn while shooting?
MA: I research as much as I can before I start shooting but I always keep in mind that research only serves as an introduction. It is always through shooting and making photographs that I really understand what is going on.
LC: How do you balance beauty vs. realism in your work? Can beauty detract from a documentary series’ ability to effect change? For example, if a portrait is too beautiful, perhaps the viewer won’t feel strongly about the issue.
MA: I think beauty can exist in everything—it all depends on how you perceive it. In terms of the viewer, I feel that beauty attracts and then encourages the viewer to pay attention to material that they would dismiss if it were too difficult to look at. Put differently, beauty can make harsh subject matter more accessible to a larger audience. Furthermore, beauty brings dignity to the people I document. No matter how harsh their situation, I want my subjects to be looked at with respect, not pity.
—Myriam Abdelaziz interviewed by Alexander Strecker