The Camera Phone as a Medium for Collecting Memories

Having grown up between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the US, and now currently living in the UK, Laura El Tantawy tells us about her work Beyond Here Is Nothing and why she used her smartphone to reflect on the notions of heritage, belonging, and the idea of home.


© Laura El-Tantawy, from the series Beyond Here is Nothing

“I think it’s an extremely exciting time to be a visual author” reveals Egyptian photographer Laura El Tantawy, who worked on a very personal project for more than five years. In her opinion, the new technologies “gave a whole new level of complexity to photography and the nature of the pictures we are able to make and how we create this visual content”. Having used her camera phone to approach her surroundings, contemplate her identity, and record her state of mind, we discussed with her how her project Beyond Here Is Nothing (2012-2017) - shot only with a smartphone - became an acclaimed self-published book.

Hi Laura, can you briefly introduce our audience to your project?

Beyond Here Is Nothing is a series I developed over nearly five years. It’s a meditation on home and belonging. I have lived between east and west most of my life, so the idea of home is something I have been contemplating for many years.

In what ways has the use of a mobile device shaped the development of your project? How has it stylistically influenced your work?

The series is essentially about making a connection, to a place and ultimately with the people in my surroundings. So, the fact that I created it on my phone is totally symbolic of that. I did not plan this, however. I started taking the images not thinking this is a book in the making. I work in an organic way. There is always the intention to create the images and be completely honest and expressive in what I am saying visually, but the big ideas take shape over time.

Looking at the world through the small screen of my phone definitely gave me a different perspective. It’s almost like everything became much smaller. Details I normally wouldn’t have noticed suddenly became apparent and interesting. The size of the phone and how easily it sits in the palm of my hand makes it a comfortable and non-intrusive tool to make images. It also makes photography fun in a whole different way. So chasing those small details was exciting and challenging both at once. The phone also got me excited about taking pictures in a vertical orientation. I was never one to make photographs in verticals because I always found it odd and restrictive. However, I only photograph in verticals on my phone and I absolutely love seeing the world in this way.

© Laura El-Tantawy, from the series Beyond Here Is Nothing

How do you think the democratisation of the medium and the rise of new technologies has affected our visual culture, and, more generally, the photography industry?

It’s given a whole new level of complexity to photography and the nature of the pictures we are able to make and how we create this visual content. I think it’s an extremely exciting time to be a visual author. The fact that everyone can take pictures with a certain degree of ease makes the role of serious visual narrators extremely relevant.

There’s a whole array of responsibilities that we must now step up and take on, though - ethically and artistically. The problem with technology is that it can overshadow the role of its creator. So we must decide and be aware of what kind of visual creators we are and be completely honest and transparent about that.

There are, of course, major challenges and those have been there since I began working with photography - getting work, getting paid on time, etc. Technology isn’t to blame for this. There’s a whole realm of how this technology, and the way it allows photographers to communicate directly with the audience, has become a platform for activism, education and inspired change. Visual authors can now take matters into their own hands: create, disseminate and make money from their work without the need for third-party channels to do that for them. I think that’s extremely liberating and empowering.

Mobile photography is predominantly perceived as something immediate and used in a direct way to gain feedback and reach online audiences. How do you think it can alternatively become employed as a powerful storytelling medium?

For me, the most important characteristic of mobile photography is its ability to bring people together. A photo becomes an idea to share and a caption beneath a photo is a story to tell. This has so much impact. My series Beyond Here Is Nothing developed over Instagram. In fact, there was a point where you could probably see 80 per cent of the images in my book on my Instagram feed. I started to take Instagram seriously after self-publishing my first book In the Shadow of the Pyramids, which explores my personal narrative as an Egyptian with the political events in Egypt. Instagram gave me the freedom and the audience to create images that were purely observational in my everyday life. There was no big news happening, it was just me making photographs of little vignettes that captured my attention. So my personal attitude towards mobile photography is that it's about having something to share. It’s not about showing what I’m doing but sharing with my audience.


© Laura El-Tantawy, Beyond here is Nothing book spreads

Your photobook has been well-received. Can you reflect upon, in a wider sense, the actual process of putting on paper what first existed as a digital image produced by a smartphone?

Bookmaking is always an exciting part of the process for me. The challenge is always how to bring life and reflect the spirit of the visual concept of the series into what is a static object. This is where the excitement begins. In Beyond Here Is Nothing, it was important for me to take viewers on an experience reminiscent of how I was feeling throughout the process of making the pictures - I felt anxious and constantly felt like I was searching for something and didn’t know what it is. It’s an unsettling feeling. I felt this way over the period of several years and carried this feeling along with me. I was on a journey to try to find this mysterious connection to this place where I found finally see the light.

The book takes you on a journey and it winds and turns. It’s a book that divides people because some don’t have the patience for it. It’s not a book that you can flip through. It’s a book where you get lost and unlost and you have to take your time with it. I should mention I don’t design my books myself and I’m lucky to work with a great designer who always manages to translate my vision and feelings into the book form.

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In this series of articles, PHmuseum gets to know the experiences of photographers who have produced a successful body of work with their smartphones. To challenge yourself and become part of our research project on the mobile phenomenon, apply to our first Mobile Photography Prize. The Final Deadline is 13 June.

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