Women Talk is a monthly conversation between a member of Women Photograph and Kerry Manders. This week is Heba Khamis, an Egyptian photographer currently based in Amsterdam.
Bio. Offer us a short, snappy (not-copied-from-your-website or any publication), fun biography. Who are you?
I’m an Egyptian storyteller who looks at issues in the world that are often ignored—documenting what is happening under the radar, under the façade. My approach to photography has shifted: I went from a “hard news” (I’ve been both a staff and freelance photojournalist) to a more artistic, documentary style. In terms of snappy: I am just an ordinary girl who has a lot of doubts about herself, like most. I’m visually talented, and visuals are also the best way to teach me things, the best way for me to learn. I’m the only artist in my family.
Beginning. Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera? The first picture you took? Tell us a story about your beginning.
I wanted a camera at the age of 8 or 10. I remember the first time I touched my friend's family analog camera: she warned me not to open the door so that I wouldn’t burn the film inside. But my family was not motivated to buy me a camera. I bought my first one myself, with my allowance money, when I was in high school. The first roll of film that I took was of my last school trip in my last year of high school. I was excited about keeping the memories of a time that couldn’t get back—that I’d never have again. I was excited to record those experiences. The entire school was waiting for me to develop my film, too. Of course my images weren’t very good because it was my first try.
A classmate made fun of the images, and I didn’t touch my camera again for a couple of years. But I was lucky not to earn grades high enough to get me into medical school. The best option for me was fine arts. In my third year of college, I heard about a free photography workshop. I convinced some classmates to attend it with me, so I wouldn’t be alone. After about a year, my family bought me my first DSLR camera.
Later, I took more photography workshops. And I started travelling on weekends. I spent most of my allowance on photography trips. I started with street photograph and moved to the more conceptual. My family felt that photography was distracting me from my college education, so they took away my camera for a few months.
After graduation, I worked as a photojournalist. I was just the second female photojournalist in my city, Alexandria. My heart was beating so fast for much of this period with a combination of excitement and nervousness. We didn’t have a photojournalism school in Egypt. Much of what I know is self-taught. I covered the two revolutions in Egypt. After a couple of months, I had proven myself and was freelancing with international news agencies. And four years later I went to Denmark for proper study.
Becoming. Can you identify when you first started calling yourself a photographer—when you felt comfortable naming yourself as such? How did you morph from someone who takes pictures to “photographer”?
The more I do photography, the more I call myself things other than “photographer.” It was “visual storyteller” until two days ago. Now I feel more like a “visual researcher.”
The more I care about my subject, about the story, the less I care about the perfect shot. I read images differently now. I used to look for that perfect moment, that perfect shot; now, I look for the shot that will evoke feeling and emotion. I’m less concerned about the technical perfection or the so-called rules. I’ve added children’s drawings (created during my research interviews) to my project about breast ironing in Cameroon to examine and interrogate beauty standards and self-perception. If I followed photography “rules,” I couldn’t include those.
I’m not really attached to the label “photographer” anymore, and find it funny to think back and remember the utter joy I had as teenager, proudly identifying as a photographer or photojournalist.
Being. What are you working on now? Where? How? Why?
Breast ironing in Cameroon. Refugees and gay prostitution in Germany. Transgender identities in Egypt. I fund the projects myself, creating them and then trying to publish them. But it’s not very easy to get editors to open their emails. It takes so much time.
Burden. What are some of the difficulties or challenges of being a woman who photographs?
When I began in the industry in 2012, the industry in Egypt was not used to the idea of a female photojournalist—let alone the reality. My boss and colleagues always told me to go home whenever there was a demonstration or clash. I proved to them that I could work in those situations, but that only happened when I left one newspaper to work for another. And that paper hired me only because I accepted a shitty salary that no one else would take. For me, it was a huge change. I was the only photographer in Alexandria for that newspaper: other newspapers had a least three photographers. I was made to work every day, from 10-16 hours, covering everything from boring conferences to violent conflict.
As women, it takes us more time and effort to prove that we are able to cover the tough, front-line action without breaking down. And it takes time and effort for us to explain to our friends and family what we’re doing and why, especially in a conservative country such as Egypt.
Beauty. What are some of the joys of being a woman who photographs?
Learning and growing each day; being able to listen more deeply and respectfully to another’s perspective. I managed to come to a point where there are some conservative communities that will open up to female photographers only. That’s a privilege and I want to use it.
Business. Can you talk a bit about the business versus the art of photography?
It’s a crazy business. I have to be photographer, salesman, manager, writer, researcher, etc. It takes a lot more than just photography skills to succeed. Trying to improve my technical skills, my personality in the field, my research acumen—I ended up proudly broke for a long time. I am turning 30 next year and starting to ask the bigger financial questions. Right now, I’m fine eating cheese and bread while I worry about my rent: but will I still want to do that when I’m 60? What if I have a family and am responsible for others? I might not be so proud of being broke then.
Balance. When you are not photographing, what are you doing that keeps you grounded? What (else) do you do for fun?
I volunteer: in Uganda, I do construction, visit orphanages, and teach; in Egypt, I offer my photography services to charitable organizations. I like to hike. I also love to hitchhike between countries. I like to sit at home and try to disconnect from the whole world, ignoring messages and sinking in to the lazy feeling of being on the couch and relaxing—trying to empty my mind of all the noise and pressure.
Best. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard? (It doesn’t need to have been given to you personally or be about photography specifically).
Two pieces of advice were turning points in my life.
Follow your curiosity, not your passion. Your curiosity will lead you to your passion. This is from author Elizabeth Gilbert. I heard that, and had many questions about my own passion: I doubted that I was a good photographer, but I was passionate about photography. I was so young—20: pushing myself to know that passion so young made me feel like a loser. But curiosity made me try. And trying helped me to discover my passion and its limits.
One time, I was crying to my teacher, Thomas Nielsen. I was lost and I quit photojournalism and I couldn’t see where I was going. Mr. Nielsen told me: “Heba, photograph from your stomach. Be in the moment. That will guide you.” He told me that the mind has thoughts and judgements, the heart has feeling, and the eyes have vision. When you shut all of them up, you start to see clearly.
Best 2. What is the best advice you have to offer someone reading this?
Before listening to and sharing the stories of others, listen to your own. Understand your own story—your motivations, your challenges. Understanding yourself helps you to understand others.
Being a visual storyteller is a long and trying journey. I’d go so far as to say it’s painful. But it’s worth listening to that pain. I haven’t found anything else as rewarding.
And, to echo my great teacher, listen to your gut. Follow it. Let its voice be louder than the fear that’s inevitable.