Born of Egyptian parents and raised in Queens, New York Abdelrahman Gabr grew up in a fascinating cultural melting pot consisting primarily of Korean and Egyptian families, so he was certainly no stranger to the joys and challenges of cultural diversity. After 13 years in the U.S. his family moved to Alexandria, Egypt, another city noted for accommodating diverse nationalities and religions but with a distinctly Mediterranean flavor. After finishing high school, he went on to study Computer Engineering but never went to the field. “I always wanted to be a director and photographer,” he recalls. “So my friends and I started a magazine and then an advertising agency, eventually working with some very prestigious clients such as Dove, Clear, Sunsilk, Mercedes-Benz, CAF and more. This intensive experience certainly made me understand more about the advertising market, its high-pressure work ethic, and how to work with demanding clients, but after the Egyptian revolution I started pursuing filmmaking and photography as a profession.” Here is the amazing and heartfelt story of his ongoing “Faces of Egypt” project aimed at revealing the true soul of the Egyptian people to the world.
Q: You used the Leica S-System for your “Faces of Egypt” project, correct? What specific camera body and lenses did you use?
A: The body is the Leica S (Type 006) and the lenses are a 35 mm and a 70 mm, both Summarit-S lenses.
Q: What made this camera and equipment especially suitable for this project? In other words, why did you use it?
A: Well insofar as my lighting equipment is concerned, it was not an ordinary thing to use studio lights under these kinds of field conditions, but I needed them to provide good light and to capture the full tonal range of my subjects, especially when they were backlit by the sun. As for the camera, the Leica S is a perfect medium format camera. It’s robust, compact, and weather sealed, you can move anywhere with it easily and of course not to mention its astonishing image quality. It’s a camera that you really trust.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: I think you can describe it as “cultural environmental portraits”; it’s a combination of people, culture, and the environment they live in. The images in this portfolio capture the essence of the Egyptian people.
Q: What was your goal for “Faces of Egypt” and do you think you achieved it?
A: After the revolution in Egypt, I wanted to show the country to the world through my eyes instead of the news on TV, so I decided to make a time-lapse movie, and during my travels to these exotic locations, I meet so many people and observed how they really live. One day in this location in Sinai I awoke very early in the morning preparing for a time-lapse shot. Suddenly I saw that a couple of women carrying huge pots on their heads were walking up a huge hill and the sun was right behind them and BAM! The idea came right to me of capturing the people of Egypt. I know there are dozens of books out there about Egypt, but I wanted to capture the people in a very cinematic and natural way, so that’s why I wanted to use the Leica camera. My goal is to make a unique book of the people and to record their traditions and customs through images. As time passes by slowly, all this will fade away and someday the cultural traditions we see now won’t be around any more. I still have a long way to go to finish the book. I’m still in the beginning of my journey, since I have to cover Egypt from the borders of Sudan to the Mediterranean Sea.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?
A: When I was a little kid my mom and dad always took pictures of my sister and me, so by default with all those cameras around and the resulting pictures I fell in love in photography, but as a profession and mode of expression it was six years ago.
Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: No, I had no formal education, but photography for me is an instinct, almost second nature to me, so mostly I was self- taught. However I was definitely inspired by the works of Annie Leibovitz, Marco Grob, Mark Seliger, Jason Bell and lastly Joey L.
Q: In what genre or genres, if any, would you place your photos?
A: Portraits and landscapes
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: From a friend of mine named Mac. I learned a lot from him in the early days of my photography, but he once told me about how amazing the Leica M was. From there I started to seek out more information about Leica cameras, especially when I entered the video business. Leica Cinema lenses are truly one of a kind.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: It’s 100% pure passion. You feel this adrenaline of joy in you when you capture images and especially when they turn out beautifully in the camera.
Q: Can you tell us more about your background in starting a magazine and working in advertising, commercial photography, and filmmaking? These are not ordinarily considered professions you can just jump into and become successful without some experience or educational background, so how did you manage to bring this off?
A: After graduating from the school of engineering I couldn’t see myself in a desk job, which I felt was a waste of my creative talents. During my years at the school I had mastered the use of Photoshop for a lot of my school projects so I decided that would be a good start for me.
I gathered some of my friends with different professional talents and we decided we should start a social/cultural magazine together, with myself as the designer. Of course at the beginning it was an enormous challenge trying to run a monthly magazine by ourselves, but this gave me a glimpse into the professional world and how to manage tight schedules and set priorities.
After our first year and after acquiring some good contacts in the marketing departments of different companies, we started a “Media/Advertising company” to cover our clients’ demands for designing their advertisements and helping with their marketing strategies.
I know that to anyone reading this, it may seem peripheral to the field of photography, but for me it couldn’t have been closer. As I mentioned, I had been really into photography since I was a kid and during these couple of years I had the pleasure of working closely with a lot of photographers. This was enough to reignite my passion. I started following them closely, asking them questions about different shots and even borrowing their cameras to try to capture my own vision of the shot, of course with their help in the beginning.
After I had learned a lot of the basics and handling a camera became more natural to me, I started reading up more on the subject. Learning was a bit difficult for me at first, and I just read whatever I could find on different techniques and watched tutorials. Then at some point after seeing I was already getting better at it than a lot of the photographers I previously used to watch, I decided it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I started taking it more seriously than just as a hobby and freed up more time for learning and acquiring hands-on experience.
Q: You mentioned that you used studio lights to capture at least some of the cultural environmental portraits in this portfolio. What kind of lighting equipment did you use (presumably it was battery powered), and did you use reflectors, umbrellas, etc.? Can you describe your typical lighting setup and what techniques you used to achieve such a natural looking balance between ambient and artificial illumination?
A: The battery I used was a Profoto Pro-B3 1200 AirS power Pack. In Aswan I used only one modifier, the Elinchrom 39” Rotalux Deep Octabank; however, in Alexandria I used the Elinchrom Octabank 7-inch. In all of my shoots I only use one light source, and my backlight is always the sun. I rarely use reflectors, since I usually like the hard shadows on the subject to give a more dramatic look.
Q: Aside from the typical advantages of its compact form factor, robust, weather-resistant construction and outstanding image quality, what specific features or characteristics of the Leica S did you find especially useful for this project?
A: The viewfinder is a work of art, and the grip is made very well and just feels like it’s a part of you — it’s all what you could possibly want or need from a medium format camera. I characterize it as a trusted friend you can travel with anywhere in the world, not to mention the battery life, which is outstanding.
Q: You note that you used the 35 mm and 70 mm f/2.5 Summarit-S lenses to capture the images in this portfolio. Which lens did you use most often, and how would you describe the advantages of each in executing this assignment? Also, do you believe, as many have claimed, that Leica lenses have a distinctive and identifiable way of rendering the subject — the so-called “Leica look,” and is that important to you?
A: I used both lenses for approximately equal amounts of time, but I guess I used the 35 mm more often when I wanted to capture the subject and the landscape behind. I am still new to using the Leica S lenses, but the difference is really noticeable once you start seeing the results.
Q: You described your goal in creating this project as capturing the people of Egypt in a “very cinematic and natural way” and to document cultural traditions that will in time “fade away.” What exactly do you mean by “cinematic” when referring to a collection of still images, and what motivates you to preserve these traditions in the form of images and convey them to viewers around the world?
A: Maybe the word cinematic wasn’t the most to the point as there is no movie behind it. What I meant was that these images are down to earth and that amazing people deserve to be viewed as celebrities by the society. They deserve being captured in the best way possible, maybe even as stars of the movies of their lives.
Researchers could go on and on about cultural traditions and how people live their day-to-day lives and deal with their struggles and hardships, but no amount of words can show this daily strife as well as a photograph.
Q: You describe yourself as a self-taught photographer, but you go on to mention that the works of Annie Leibovitz, Marco Grob, Mark Seliger, Jason Bell, and Joey L. inspired you. What are a few of the things you learned from studying the works of these accomplished masters?
A: I learned a lot from Marco Grob, Mark Seliger and Jason Bell about the lighting around the subject and how to achieve the perfectly balanced shot. Annie Leibovitz inspired me with her background stories about her subjects, which made me change my perspective looking at the photos and seeing them in new light. As for Joey Lawrence, he is a young photographer whom I think will be one of the greats in his generation. The way he shoots under tough conditions and his special bond with the people he shoots all around the world is quite inspiring.
Q: Your friend Mac evidently inspired you to look into Leica cameras by extolling the virtues of the Leica M, but how did you make the transition into the Leica S-System, and can you tell us about some of your experiences with the unique capabilities of Leica Cinema lenses?
A: When I was considering working on my book I was planning to buy a medium format camera. The team at Egypt Photo Summit invited me to a Leica Workshop in Alexandria. I attended and then Keem Electronics (the sole agent for Leica in Egypt) introduced me to Jean-Jacques, the sales manager for the Leica S. After trying the camera and lenses, I was hooked.
Q: You provided some incisive and heartfelt descriptions of four of your subjects, and noted that Hagag “has a family and kids, but he’d rather stay alone with his camels.” The image titled “Hagag 1” certainly captures this aspect of his personality, and it’s a beautiful statement about the affectionate relationship between him and his camels. Where was this masterfully composed picture taken and what aperture and lens did you use to throw the background beautifully out of focus and draw attention to the subjects?
A: This photo was taken in a place called BarBar near the Nubian Village in Aswan. In the picture of Hagag hugging the camel I used the 35 mm Summarit. The exposure at ISO 100 was f/2.5 and 1/125 shutter. The other camel picture was taken with the 70 mm and the same settings. To throw the background out of focus when shooting in bright light I used 2 ND filter from LEE Filters.
Q: The image titled “Aswan 2-5” is a lovely picture of a young boy holding a goat and it bespeaks a great tenderness and caring for the animal, and a sublime innocence on the face of the boy. Do you agree, and what do you think this image says about traditional Egyptian society?
A: It says a lot about the traditional Egyptian family and how they do treat the animals as part of the household as they consider them a huge part of their lives and income, so the children are brought up to love and respect those animals and even treat them as their own pets.
Q: “Aladdin” is a beautifully composed, perfectly lit picture of a man standing by the shore with his boats. The shadows in the foreground and the sunburst behind the boat are perfect pictorial touches, and the man, standing very erect despite the uneven footing in his traditional garb, conveys a great sense of dignity and presence. Do you concur with this assessment, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release? By the way, did you use any supplemental illumination to capture this image?
A: Of course I totally agree with the statement; the way this man carries himself around with dignity in his eyes and posture was what inspired me to take that shot. All I could think about when pressing the shutter was an Egyptian traditional saying “No wind could move such a mountain” which in other words says that no matter how many hardships this man faces, his dignity and strength of character will always prevail. As for the illumination, it was only one light source with the sun in the background.
Q: Your incisive portrait of Abo Shanab conveys a sense of indomitable strength, intensity, and focused energy — a man who knows who he is, what he wants and how to make that happen. You mentioned that he owns a cafeteria and is saving up to send his son to a good college “to change the path of the family name.” Since being a restaurant owner is an honorable profession, what exactly do you mean by that? Also, where did you shoot this technically outstanding image and can you please provide the tech data including lens, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and lighting setup?
A: Abo Shanab is an owner of a small cafeteria in Aboukir Harbor area that serves fishermen and dock workers. His job is quite honorable but provides low income, so all he could think about is to make his children better off than he is, which is the dream of every father. This was taken in his cafeteria with an Elinchrom Octa bank 74” and a Profoto Pro-B3 1200 AirS power Pack. The modifier was on his left-hand side four feet away just for the light to wrap around him nice and softly. I used the 70 mm lens and the exposure at ISO 100 was f/9.5, and 1/125 sec.
Q: There is something timeless and compelling about your remarkable picture of Ferra holding his pet crocodile. His calm and dignified pose, expression, and the way he is holding the beast almost looks like something you would find in stylized, carved form on an ancient Egyptian monument. What was your goal in posing the subject in this way or was that his natural pose that you simply captured. And what do you think this image communicates to those that view it?
A: Ferra told me that he found this crocodile while he was fishing. At that time the crocodile was only three months old, so he took him back and watched the crocodile as it grew up, and a strong bond developed between them. As for his pose, it was quite astonishingly natural. All I told him was to hold the crocodile for a camera shot and I was amazed at how he just stood up naturally posing for the camera in such a manner as if he has been doing it his entire life. I believe anyone who sees this image can sense the companionship between the man and his dangerous pet.
Q: What to you think you accomplished in creating this portfolio, and do you intend to continue your cultural portrait documentary of Egyptians going forward. Also, do you intend to present these images as a gallery show, and when do you think the book project you mention will be finalized? Do you envision this as a print or online book, or both?
A: I am still at the beginning of this journey, as I want to cover all Egyptian tradition. All I want to accomplish with this work is to show people the Egypt I love and its amazing people so they will fall in love with it the way I have. Having something online that reaches millions of people is the main idea of the project; however, I still believe in the authenticity of holding a book in your hand and owning a piece of history.
Q: How do you see your photography, both the commercial and personal creative sides, evolving going forward, and do you have any other projects in the works that you can mention here?
A: Commercial photography is a way for photographers to make money doing something they love. However, nothing compares to the passion one puts into a personal creative idea. So I would love that they both grow in tandem. Right now I’m putting all my energy into this project (Faces of Egypt) since it is a dream of mine.
Q: How do you think your unique multi-cultural background “growing up in Queens, New York among Egyptian and Korean families” and then moving back to Alexandria, Egypt, has influenced your perceptions of life in Egypt and shaped your creative vision?
A: Having a multicultural background that includes the Far East, the West, and the Middle East in your upbringing makes you look at the world from a different angle, accepting everything and everyone that is different. Also growing up somewhere and just hearing stories about your homeland is a totally different experience than being born there. Once you arrive you see things from a totally different perspective than the people who live there and take their day-to-day lives for granted. I think this is what set me apart from other Egyptians I know as it made me more perceptive as to how special Egypt, is and how unique its people are.
Thank you for your time, Abdelrahman!
-Leica Internet Team
To see more of Abdelrahman’s work, check out his website. Watch a video on this project here.