John F. Kennedy once said, “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” In a country like Egypt where freedom isn’t easily exercised, artists strive harder to be heard. Two Egyptian photographers, Mohamed Taher and Ahmed Fathy, have recently launched their one of a kind project Ballerinas of Cairo and it does more than break boundaries. The project combines three art forms: photography, ballet and architecture. Taher and Fathy aim to reveal a side of Cairo that goes unnoticed, with warts and all, through their project. They are both filmmakers who are passionate about photography and on their way to reclaim freedom and public spaces for women.
1- Your project is inspired by Dane Shitagi’s Ballerinas Project in New York, but we have to ask, why ballerinas? Why not dancers in general?
We chose ballerinas because we thought ballet is the most sentimental and gentle dance of all. Ballet is the kind of dancing that is so smooth and therefore effortlessly emphasizes on the contrast between the elegance of the art of ballet and the rough looking streets of Cairo with its unique architecture. This soft and hard combination crafts a unique storytelling that we hope would communicate a new perspective of Cairo to the people. We want to highlight the depth of Cairo’s culture and texture through mirroring the harshness of it all with the softness of every ballet move.
2- What was the hardest challenge so far throughout your journey to make this project happen?
The hardest challenge was making what we do turn into something “normal”. Girls in Egypt find it hard to walk the streets without people staring, let alone dance. We need people to start accepting any kind of art performance on our streets. Our streets are dull with hidden beauty that we ignore because we don’t take a moment to just look around. But art in the streets can revive this beauty and make people stop for a second and appreciate it. The main challenge was to make people get used to seeing us shooting and filming on the streets and create an awareness for our art.
3- Do you really believe that people’s perception towards women will change because of the project? Will women finally “reclaim the streets of Cairo”? Please elaborate.
We really hope so! Sometimes when we’re shooting, we want to avoid a street because it’s crowded and we worry about the girls’ safety, but the ballerinas insist on shooting in it. We hope that this kind of attitude and perseverance will reflect in their lives as a whole and make other people change their beliefs and understand that women should be free to do whatever they want, wherever they want. Many people are saying that this project gives women in Egypt hope and also reclaims some of the beauty that has long vanished from the Egyptian streets, and we’re very glad to hear that.
4- What’s the process you usually go through when choosing a new shooting location?
There is no certain process. Whenever a place comes to our mind, we just go for it. We then choose the clothes that are most suitable for the place we’re shooting in and that’s it. But it’s always exciting to explore new locations or even new cities, as we did recently in Aswan.
5- Did you face any physical or verbal harassment incidents while shooting?
We get a lot of looks that scream “this is wrong” or “why is she wearing that?” but, aside from the looks of disapproval, we didn’t face any physical harassment. On the other hand, when someone catcalls any of the ballerinas, the ballerinas themselves would actually speak up and immediately fight back. People would suddenly get shocked of their bravery, as if they’re not expecting them to talk back. But the more harassment we face, the more we will be driven to go through with our vision because, at the end of the day, this is what we strive to achieve from the project. We want to normalize dancing in the streets.
6- What are your project’s plans of expansion and branching out to other cities in Egypt?
We plan to expand in Egypt. We started with Aswan and are planning on branching out to Alexandria next. Yet, we are really hoping to find a special edition for each city rise from the people in the city itself.
7- How many ballerinas are currently involved in the project? And how do you usually go about contacting more?
So far, there are 12 ballerinas involved. We usually ask around about new ballerinas and once we find good dancers, we welcome them on board. Some ballerinas also contact us and when that happens, we’re always happy for the opportunity to shoot more Cairo-ian ballerinas. Soon, we plan on shooting with some Alexandria based ballerinas as we have been receiving many request forms from them as well.
8- Do you think your project could help revive tourism in Egypt? Please elaborate.
The project has different layers such as exploring new places that have the potential to be hugely touristic, creating a pool of artists for the project, empowering the ballerinas, giving a glimpse of happiness to the community and promoting a “different Cairo”. At first, we didn’t start the project for touristic purposes, however, now that we’ve seen people’s reactions, we see a multitude of objectives for the project and hope to be able to explore every one of them. And of course, we always love to make shoots and videos solely for touristic reasons.
9- Do you usually focus more on the setting or the discipline and technique of ballet while capturing the photos?
We focus on both so they would complement each other. We like to describe our project as “Walks of Life” as in that each photograph within the project conveys the dancer’s life story portrayed through her dance technique, emotion, the costume, and the craft of her pose to the camera, the onlooker, the venue and the surrounding scenery.
10- Since you started the Ballerinas of Cairo Project, do you find yourselves studying the art of ballet itself in order to get your pictures just right?
Of course we do. We’ve been reading about the art of ballet and watching as many performances as we can to understand it better. The ballerinas are also guiding us through and helping us learn the art. When the project started, they sometimes used to tell us to go for another take, as the pose is not right. Now, we go for the second take without them pointing out anything if we saw that the pose is not right. We simply became more and well informed about ballet!
11- What are your plans for the future?
We hope to expand in Egypt, increase the number of the ballerinas, make one big photography exhibition that features our favorite photographs, both published and unpublished and make dance videos as music clips.