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Land of distinction
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 24 - 12 - 2009

Ghada Abdel-Kader wonders at the bizarre contrasts of the city
For the second year running the European Union delegation has organised a Photography Competition in Egypt. Showing the 25 best photographs selected by a jury, it is currently running at the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Downtown Cairo.
Head of operations of the European Commission delegation in Cairo, Raffaella Lodice de Wolff, says the exhibition falls within the scope of the EU's activities in Egypt. "The European Union has long-standing partnership with Egypt," she adds. "It is part of bi-cultural agreement we did with this country. All the photographs are beautiful. A photo is a moment; a second in a life of someone or place. Both exhibitions this year and last year are quite fantastic. They show culture and joy of this country."
The official opening was held last week and attended by Ambassador and head of the delegation of the European Commission in Cairo Marc Franco, who awarded the prizes and certificates of merit to the winners.
The competition theme this year was "Egypt: Land of contrast". The aim of the competition was to promote and stimulate creativity among amateur photographers in Egypt and give them an opportunity to showcase their work to a wide audience.
Director of Townhouse Gallery William Wells told Al-Ahram Weekly : "Last year's photographs were brilliant. We were happy with them. This year it is more focussed on the element of contrast. It is much stronger. It is going to be an annual competition. It is one of the reasons we supported it."
Photographer and jury member Randa Shaath told the Weekly : "Some competitors misunderstood the meaning of 'land of contrast'. It means diversity and differences, but not contradictions. The theme of the competition this year is more difficult and profound than last year."
The competition is open to all amateur photographers living in Egypt, but not to professional photographers. It gives competitors an opportunity to show their personal vision of the various aspects of life in Egypt in all their diversity: the old and the new, the classic and the contemporary, the rich and the poor, the traditional and the trendy. Depicting the human behaviour, scenes of urban or rural life, or Egypt's physical or natural environment, showing how the many different ingredients of Egyptian society coexist together in harmony.
Jury members of the competition are prominent artists in their different fields. The jury has seven members: veteran Egyptian film director Mohamed Khan; prominent writer Alaa El-Aswani; international painter Mohamed Abla; and prominent photographers Shaath and Mohamed Gabr; and Javier Menendez, representing the delegation of the European Commission. The jury's best 25 were selected from among 370 entries.
"This year judging became more critical. The jury is never aware whose photograph each one is. A surprising element is that three of the successful entrances this year were selected last year. This means that we are playing a role in supporting their talents", Wells added.
The 25 winning photographs are to be exhibited in a gallery in Cairo during the month of December, and in 2009 the Townhouse was the chosen gallery. A catalogue of the exhibition, including the 25 pictures will be published. Out of the 25 winning images, 12 will be chosen to be included in the 2010 calendar of the European Commission delegation in Egypt.
There are prizes for the best two photographs. The first prize of 1,000 euros was won by Philipp Spalek, a Middle Eastern Studies student from Germany. The second prize of a Single- Lens Reflex (SLR) Digital Camera was awarded to Ali Hassan, a chemical engineer. The jury also awarded a diploma to a third photographer, journalism student at MSA University Amina Wafik, with a special mention by the jury.
Spalek won first prize for his photograph of Old Cairo, "Illuminations". The picture simultaneously encapsulates the old and modern side of the city: a barber working in his new shop against the backdrop of the old city walls, with presence of sheep in the street reminding us of the more ancient aspects of Egyptian life. Photography has been Spalek's hobby for four years, and his ambition is to be a full-time photographer. But he did not expect to win first prize. "It was a spontaneous decision to actually take part in this contest," he said. I took the picture in the Gammaliya district behind the Hussein Mosque. It was a spontaneous picture too. I took this picture by accident," he says.
Hassan started to explore his passion for photography three years ago. He began by taking some courses in photography. Hassan's winning picture is quite unique. Entitled "Qorasaya Island", Hassan says it expresses the differences in lifestyle between city and countryside. "The way of living of people in the countryside, the vast green areas and how they depend for their living on fishing and agriculture," he says. "This type of population density is different from the city. In the background of the photo, the houses in Maadi reflect the accumulation of the population and the lifestyle of the city." He took his prize- winning picture of Qorasaya Island from the Monib Bridge.
Wafik's winning photograph "Lost between old and new" is a totally new and different idea. "The idea of the broken mirror reflects Egypt in the beautiful old era, and what Egypt looks like today. The setting is a broken mirror reflecting the Citadel, the old era, and at the same time reflects the lifestyle and the slums people live in", Wafik told the Weekly. "I took the shot from the roof of one of the houses in Sayeda Aisha."
One of the winning 25 photographers is Sarah Jennifer, who has been living in Egypt for two years and is a dancer at the Cairo Opera House. On the theme behind her picture, entitled "What is forbidden", Jennifer said: "A girl is sitting in front of the Suez Canal under a signboard reading: 'Taking pictures is not allowed'. For me it looks so nice. It is a like a frame for the picture."
Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz, a journalist, entered a photograph entitled "Old and new". It is Wells's favourite image in the exhibition. Abdel-Aziz has captured a mobile telephone number written on the back of a horse offering his services for anyone who wishes to have a horseback-ride.
"It is completely hilarious," Wells says. "In Egypt, people only get this humorous when things have got this bad."
The exhibition at the Townhouse will continue until 6 January.

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