This Saturday’s Cairo Photo Marathon, a one-day photography experiment sponsored by the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute (DEDI) and International Media Support (IMS) and coordinated by Osama Dawod, differs slightly from its predecessor. For one thing, it's not in Copenhagen.
Egypt puts the marathon in a “completely different context,” said Muna Bur, a program officer at DEDI who, along with Dawod, is working to organize the marathon. "Copenhagen is something like the size of Maadi." And on Saturday, photographers will have the entire megacity, and all its sprawling glory, at their disposal.
The day will encompass six hour and 12 hour competitions and extend to include far-flung spots like Maadi and Heliopolis where “anchor spots” will display photos to those taking part in the 12-hr competition). The Marathon’s hub for the day, the Townhouse Gallery, will be separated not only by physical distance but also by the city’s characteristically crippling traffic, an obstacle among many with which the day’s participants will have to contend.
On Saturday, all registered participants–45 of the 100 slots have been filled so far, with additional registration possible over email–will gather at the Townhouse factory space in downtown, where they will be handed a series of themes written on the subject of gender and asked to take photographs based on those themes. Photographers of varying skills who participate in the six hour contest will receive the themes with the expectation that they will file once at the end of the day; those who challenge themselves with the 12-hour category will be expected to check in every four hours with work based on the themes given to them during those periods.
Also, unlike the Copenhagen marathon, the Cairo marathon has a larger focus–gender—which the participants must center their work around. Motaz Attala, a writer and comedian living in Cairo, and a college friend of Bur’s, was chosen to write the gender-related themes.
Attala turned to Egyptian idiomatic language, proverbs, and quotes from movies and songs and, although the specifics are kept confidential until the day of the marathon, he did reveal that some snippets will address gender explicitly; other, more openly defined themes, are meant to inspire “reinterpretation, critique, and redefinition,” and result in work that is “ironic, direct, or subversive.” Among the influences are classic Egyptian movies and 90s Egyptian pop.
Gender is often addressed, particularly regarding Cairo, in a serious manner, and Attala’s intention strays from the reigning “shrill” approach. His themes, perhaps owing to his background in comedy, are meant to be “playful.”
"My inclination is generally toward fun," said Attala. “I think humor, the framework of humor, or a humorous vibe, makes a very legitimate precedent for redefining subjects,” and for thinking about them in a different way.
Attala does not treat gender directly in his standup, although he does use idiomatic language as fodder for humor, but the issue is raised consistently in his education work with youth groups where it naturally arises when discussing identity.
Participants in Copenhagen flooded the city in bright green arm bands meant to create a feeling of apparent solidarity between photographers; Cairenes will foster the same companionship in a more subtle way, with black bands. This is partly owing to the facts of taking photographs in the megacity, where Emergency Law and perpetual security presence makes photo-taking a challenge and conspicuousness to be avoided.
Bur assured Al-Masry Al-Youm that security has been informed of the marathon, and they expect everything to go smoothly. But, just as with anything in Cairo, participants will surely have to adapt to unanticipated obstacles; they might have to put away their glaring DSLRs in favor of a discreet cell phone snapshot, an accepted option in Saturday’s contest (but not in Copenhagen).
Winners of all six categories–three in the six hour and three in the 12 hour, and 65 photographs in total–will obtain the privilege of having their works displayed at the Contemporary Image Collective.