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A Bygone Bulaq Photo Studio & A Backdrop of Melons

When Mouwafak Chourbagui stumbles upon a studio in Bulaq, he rediscovers the simple joy of sitting for a 'real' picture and uncovers a whimsical photo-story 80 years in the making...

I rarely venture out for photographic adventures anymore unless some form of paperwork requires the company of my constipated face. There is no more spontaneity, no more ingenuity. White background, shave your beard, don’t smile; bureaucrats had taken over my relationship with the camera. Gone are the days of little me rushing to a studio dressed as batman to have my picture taken by a loving stranger. Today, no one really tends to my beauty anymore...until I met Doaa. 

There was a silent grace lingering behind their exuberance, an under appreciated creativity that is often disfigured in contemptuous terms such as “bi2a” or “baladi”  

My love for taking a picture was unexpectedly reignited by someone else’s thirst for discovery.  One night, my friend Salem came back from one of his weekly strolls around the city with a bunch of deliciously kitsch pictures. Naturally, bourgeois eyes gazed at his collection with either laughter or ridicule; they did not meet the upper class standard for taste. However, I found them beautiful. They were full of imagination and freedom, colours and fun.  There was a silent grace lingering behind their exuberance, an under appreciated creativity that is often disfigured in contemptuous terms such as “bi2a” or “baladi”  

Salem 

Glad that he had found someone else who shared his enthusiasm, Salem offered to take me to see the artist behind the camera; I felt like Batman again and I wanted to be her new muse. We walked in a straight line from Zamalek to Bulaq and arrived at the place: Studio San Francisco on 26th of July street, number 77. We climbed the stairs to the 1st floor and knocked at the door of the apartment on the right. Doaa, a woman with an infectious smile and a soft voice, greeted us warmly. She was particularly pleased to see Salem; it looked like the two of them had formed a bond.

The entrance of the building

Different shades of green dominated the décor of the makeshift studio. Plenty of portraits were hanging proudly on the wall, most visual relics of a bygone era. The name Saad Zaghloul was omnipresent throughout the apartment, arousing my curiosity. I asked Doaa if she was a fan of the late Wafd party leader and, to my surprise, she responded with laughter that Saad Zaghloul is the name of her father. Sensing that an interesting story lives within these walls, I asked Doaa If she minded telling us a bit more about Studio San Francisco and the lesser famous Saad Zaghloul.

 The reception area and the studio in the background

We sat like little boys around a campfire as she explained that the studio was established by Armenians in 1943 but fell into the hands of a certain Mohamed Mustafa after the nationalization process. Working as his apprentice, a 14-year-old Saad Zaghloul learned his trade. When Mustafa passed away, Zaghloul was only 20 years old and found himself suddenly catapulted into owning a studio. Bulaq was buzzing at that time and his clients included actresses, models and politicians. His most regular costumers though were governmental neighbours, namely employees from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & the Ministry of Electricity whose buildings lie in the same area.

Bulaq was buzzing at that time and his clients included actresses, models and politicians.

Those were happy times for the studio, business was good. Everyone used to come and snap pictures for the big occasions: Weddings, Eids, Ramadan etc. But then technology gradually started infringing on their bread and butter and the studio’s revenues began declining along with Bulaq’s infrastructure. Today, everybody can use their phones to immortalize their every waking second. 

As Doaa talked about the past, she kept sighing, as if the load of everything that was lost weighed on her tongue. She mourned not only a lost epoch but a bedridden role model. A few years ago, her father suffered a stroke and can no longer go to his beloved studio. She took me into his office and showed me a photograph of a young Saad Zaghloul sporting an afro; he looked swag before the term even existed. I asked her if she minded sitting at his desk so that I can take a picture. The place now belongs to her I said. Perhaps she replied but “this will always be my father’s office.”

A Young Saad Zaghloul

It was now the time for me to surrender to her vision. She guided me towards the end of the apartment where the magic happens. She snapped away for a good 15-20 minutes, taking her time, asking me to strike different poses. I’ve never encountered such a generous photographer. When we were done, we went through the pictures on her computer one by one. I told her I wanted 7 pictures and chose them out of a pool of maybe 80. As a background, I told her to have faith in her own choices but that I wanted one of the pictures to include watermelons.

The King of the Bateekh
Yes I need new shoes

Doaa loves photoshop and is always happy when customers ask her to create a picture rather than just take one.  Like many contemporary photo studios, people just come in for five minutes to take a standard ID pictures and leave. Employees from the neighboring governmental agencies still come for that reason from time to time. But like all passionate people, pleasure lies not in the mechanical execution but in the creative process. 

When I waved goodbye, I could sense that she was eager to begin working. Customers are scarce these days and business rarely pays the bills. When I asked if she’s rather be doing something else, she explained that even though she doesn’t make a lot of money, this is where her father’s soul lives and that there is no other place in the world she’d rather be.

If you'd like to pay Doaa a visit, Studio San Francisco is located on 77, 26 of July street.


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