January 31, 2011

David Degner in Cairo: The End of the Show?

I was able to reach photographer David Degner on his cellphone yesterday afternoon, which was the middle of the night in Cairo. I wanted to ask him about a series of photos he had posted about the uprising in the city. He was speaking to me from under a bridge alongside the Nile, near the burned out headquarters of the ruling NDP. There was a long period of silence as he dealt with some people on the street. “Just hold on,” he said, then whispered: “In a second, you might hear me getting mugged.” When he came back on the line, he said: “The streets with police and military are safe. So are the streets with citizens’ watch. But besides that….”

When David and I first started talking, it seemed almost incidental that he chose this photo to discuss. “Usually if I took a picture like this,” he first explained, “it would be making fun of my profession.”  Below is the rest of David’s explanation.

— Michael Shaw

“That day started out with just another protest on the steps of the Journalism Syndicate. I’d already been to five of them over the last month. But I realized that this was different, that there was something important happening. The photo was taken on January 26th, this past Wednesday.

“What I’ve never liked about photos of protests here in Egypt is that they give a false image. The government actually plays it up. It lets the protesters give a little show — they let a group of maybe fifty people protest freely in a particular spot and the police form a ring around them and won’t let anybody else come in — except the photographers get to move in and out easily. So it creates a false sense of the freedom to demonstrate.

“It reminds me of when I was studying Arabic in Cairo in the summer of 2006. I was watching a protest of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and after the sun went down, I noticed something strange. After the organic protesters went home, the remaining protesters lined up and filed into security trucks. They were police or military plants.  Maybe a hundred of them, in a protest with only a few hundred people in all.

“Or, there was this this past July:

“As this protest died down, protesters funneled out between plain-clothed police and were individually filmed and questioned at the end. The special branch of Central Security that monitors the protests is well informed of where each protest will be and who will be attending. When new opposition members arrive, they are noted. Protesters accuse this branch of harassment that ranges from threatening text messages to beating and jailing.

“So, what is so significant about the photo from Wednesday is that it possibly represents the last vestige of the old paradigm, of the exploitative tactics with policemen in a circle letting a show of protest go on. As of now, that system is gone. You do have to walk around the tanks to get into Tahrir Square right now, but once you’re in, it’s a free game. You can say anything you want. You can lead chants. It’s completely different.”

— David Degner


You can see David’s photo-story on the outbreak of the current crisis at the Wall Street Journal, as well as photo-documentation of life in Cairo, including crisi posts at his website, Incendiary Image.

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David Degner
See other posts by David here.

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