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Capturing the Soul of the City Victorious

Inspired by Humans of New York, Amina Mansour launched Cairo Captions, shedding the spotlight on the daily struggles and stories of average Egyptians living in the capital.

Cairo Captions is an anthropological and photographic project by AUC graduate Amina Mansour, 31, that delves into the stories behind the faces that populate this crowded city. Inspired by the amazing success of Humans of New York, which romanticises the Big Apple through a series of shots of random citizens accompanied by a caption about their lives, Cairo Captions exposes the real humans of Cairo in front of Mansour's soul piercing lens. Already amassing nearly 10,000 likes since the fanpage's inception last year, the photos, along with their captions, reveal a visceral truth about the majority of people who make up this chaotic city. We speak to Mansour about how it all began and how she chooses her subjects...

Tell us a bit about yourself first? What do you do aside from photography?

I graduated from the American University in Cairo (2005) where I majored in Marketing and minored in Political Science (International Relations)... I wasn’t very sure what I wanted to do in my life, but I always knew I wanted to do something where creativity was involved and so, I chose advertising as a career. I slowly started to realise that having a full time job was denying me the opportunity to be fully engaged in interesting aspects of life....namely traveling and meeting people. I have had many interests over the years, and for most of them, I was passionate for some time. But then, something else always came along that pulled me away. I can't say no! I couldn’t take the routine and predictability of my days... and so, I decided to quit and work as a freelancer (copy writer and a bit of commercial photography) to give myself room to travel and explore before I grow old.

When did you first get into photography?

The camera has always been my travel companion but in 2008, I decided that I needed to learn more about photography to be able to document personal memories and freeze the beauty of the places I visit. And so, I started to take courses and read more about photography.

What equipment do you use?

I’m currently using a Canon 5D, but it depends on where I’m venturing in Cairo. Sometimes, I take my old Canon 500D just incase something unexpected happens. I’ve just added to my collection a new analogue camera, but I’m still figuring it out!

What made you decide to start Cairo Captions?

I’d say my childhood fascination with people and stories that never faded....My passion to explore the historic gems of Cairo started by enrolling in an Islamic Architecture course during my early university years. The course was an eye opener that not only got me in touch with the real Cairo and its people, but also encouraged me to break free from the sheltered bubble most people my age/class live in. What actually caught my attention was the abundance of richness this city has to offer versus the very poor living conditions of its people. Being a people person who is curious by nature, faces caught my attention and I had a dire need to uncover their stories and struggles. Years later, I picked up photography as a hobby and never stopped visiting alleys and underprivileged neighborhoods to talk to the people and listen to their stories. I kept a diary of the stories that have personally affected me, along with a picture to eternalise the memory of each encounter. I wanted to give those people a voice by sharing their daily frustrations and aspirations, while hoping that these stories would in any way alter how people perceive their own life. A good friend then introduced me to Humans of New York and I loved the idea. I was skeptical at first about whether people would like the content I had to offer or not, but then I decided to just pursue what I always wanted to do...‘tell stories’ and so, Cairo Captions!

Do you just randomly run into people on the street you find interesting or is it a case of going out to look for subjects?

I actually go out to look for subjects....the whole point is finding life-changing stories in unknown places .It takes time and effort. Things were easier in the past though and people were more open. Now, people are skeptical about your intentions and why you’re photographing them.

How do you usually start the conversation with them? 

The trick is to never approach them with a camera... I wander around, select a target and then introduce myself. We chat for a bit about very random stuff. ‘How’s the weather?’ kind of conversation. I then start asking personal questions and jot the answers down on my mobile. The last step is to openly tell them about Cairo Captions and request to take a picture, ensuring they know I’ll publish it on my page along with the conversation we had. 

What's the typical reaction?

The majority do not mind and open up... some actually think I work in the media/TV - even though I explain - and keep going on and on about their problems, holding on to me like a life-jacket that can save them from their own realities. Some people cut it short and so I never push and just leave.

What makes an interesting subject to photograph?

This city is full of inescapable contrasts and parallel worlds. I like to the expose raw realities of those parallel worlds that most people do not even know exist around them. I’d say sadness and contentment are very powerful human emotions that are difficult to be shot... My personal challenge is to reflect those two aspects, bringing the society to a higher level of understanding.

Your photographs mainly capture the majority of Egyptians, working class and occasionally poverty stricken. Do you have altruistic intentions with Cairo Captions?

I want to inspire change and I want to do it in my very own special way; sharing of a passion. I see my work as an easy invitation for people to enter forgotten worlds around them, to learn a lesson and maybe find contentment in their own lives, but most importantly to inspire change within them by motivating them to change the world around them. On the other hand, my camera gives a voice to those who are suffering and need to be heard. Cairo Captions is all about bridging the widening gaps in this society,one picture at a time.

Where do you see Cairo Captions going in the future?

I have big plans for this project. I’m currently working on a Cairo Captions book! The next step is turning Cairo Captions into an on-ground development-through-art project, aimed at educating the people of Cairo about the history and cultural background of their city.

What's the funniest or most interesting story you've heard so far?

The kids of Cairo have a brilliant sense of humor and imagination. One day, I was walking in an alley and this kid kept calling on me to take a picture of him, claiming he was a magician.... here is how the conversation went:

"Come take a picture of me, I'm a magician!"

"Oh, can you show me some tricks?"

"Yes, ask me anything and someone else will reply on my behalf."

"OK… How are you?"

-Another voice replies: "Im good el hamdulillah"

"Wow, how did you do that?"

-Giggles- "My younger brother sits on the chair and replies but you can't see him, he is very short. We do this all the time and the other kids in the neighborhood love it!"

"Can you tell him to come out so i can take a picture of both of you?"

"Sure, clap first and he'll appear!"

What's the saddest story you've heard from someone so far?

I’ve heard so many sad stories from people that have haunted me for a very long time. One face that really got to me was that of a little girl with a facial expression of a grown-up, overflowing with sadness. I asked her:

"What are you thinking of?"

"I'm not thinking, I just like standing here to watch the kids down there."

"What are they doing that is so consuming to you?"

"They go to school everyday..."

It broke my heart that some kids who are supposed to be the future of this country are denied from simple, basic rights like education!

Which shot are you most proud of?

All my shots are like my own babies. It’s not really about the shot, but the story behind it that leaves the memory of the encounter imprinted in my head. My personal favourite is that of an old man selling antique clocks on a cart in El-Darb El-Ahmar. He had a timeless expression, and each line engraved on his face had a story to tell. I captured a close-up of his face with a broken antique clock behind it and that was more than enough for me to tell a story on its own, without any conversation.

What's the secret to a good portrait shot?

Capturing the true essence of the soul. Reflecting intangible emotions rather than facial or contextual details…

If you were to ask yourself one question, what would it be and how would you answer it?

Question: If you can give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?

Answer: Abandon the key-hole perspective on life by simply opening the door and going out there to see what this world is truly about. Believe in the beauty of your dreams and know that you can change your own world by simply changing your thoughts.

Check out Cairo Captions on Facebook here.