Photography has often been called the "universal language." Because it relies on images and not words, it is assumed that everyone – regardless of his or her cultural background – will be able to receive a common message through the universal language of the visual image. Yet, is this true? If it is, does that mean that photography education will be the same for everyone in every culture? This is a question now being confronted here in Egypt.
In the United States and most other Western countries, the teaching of photography builds on a common visual and artistic tradition which assumes a certain level of visual "literacy" in the students. For example, in all Western countries, children grow up on a steady diet of pictures, videos, etc., which depict people of all types and ages in many activities, candid and posed. Whether the images come to the student through newspapers, magazines or television, he grows accustomed to seeing people depicted in frozen moments, in a rectangular frame, with a conscious relationship between the subject and its surroundings.
This activity of depicting the human form in a deliberate manner has a tradition in the West that goes back thousands of years. Whether the medium was a cave painting, a Greek statue, a Renaissance painting, or a photograph on the cover of Time magazine, the culture developed with an acceptance and even glorification of the human image. For the youth of today, the basics of visual literacy are already laid well before the child enters school. To teach Western students photography, then, requires simply to continue building on the traditions that are already in place, to develop the language that has already begun to grow.
In Egypt as well as the Arab and Islamic Worlds, the situation is very different. Most students do not grow up in the same visual milieu as do Western students. Their cultures do not have a steady tradition of depicting people in everyday life as is found in the West. The one notable exception to this rule is found in the Christian communities of the Arab World, a group with a very old, visual tradition of depicting people on two-dimensional, rectangular surfaces. This iconographic tradition, common to all Christian communities in the Middle East was a natural precursor to photography. This may explain, in large part, why most photographers in the Middle East in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were Christians.
However, Egypt does have a very strong visual tradition from the pre-Christian era. Pharaonical art is superb in depicting the human form in two or three dimensions and those artists were very careful to record the scenes of daily life in their work. In fact, one can argue that many of those unknown artists whose works now fill the Egyptian Museum might well have been photographers had the technology been available to them.
The approach of those artists was to record "candid" moments of ordinary people doing ordinary things emphasizing the beauty of their movements, expressions, and body language. The implication was clear – the "language of photography" existed in Egypt long before the technology of photography was developed.
In the Muslim tradition, however, the human face and form are not depicted in art (with the exception of Persian Shiism). Instead, Koranic texts and geometric designs are used to form unified, harmonious statements that rely on balance and repetition to depict unity and oneness in a graphic manner. This tradition lends itself very well to abstraction, an art form that flourishes in the Middle East. In photography, too, it lends itself to the static image (e.g., architecture, landscape, form, abstraction, etc.), but not so much to the human one. Thus, to teach photography in this cultural milieu requires that students first be fed a very heavy diet of photographs of people – thousands of them – to develop their understanding and appreciation of the human image. Then, the teacher can begin to build true photographic awareness and understanding.
Likewise, the diet of images that is available in the Arab media is of a different style from that found in Western photojournalism. In today’s Arab press, photos of individuals and small groups of people are usually in formal portrait settings or at controlled media events. For example, "firing squad" photos of several people lined up at a party or a photo of a government official greeting another dignitary, are very common. Very few indigenous examples of spontaneous action or of subjects in uncontrolled situations are to be found in the pages of Arabic-language magazines and newspapers. While this trend is based on the prevailing philosophy of the press, it does not help young people to develop a high level of visual literacy. Variety is lacking and there is not enough opportunity for the working photographer to stretch the bounds of visual expression. A photographer does not have enough opportunity to explore the full capabilities of the medium for transmitting and explaining information in a visual manner.
Overcoming this deficiency is the first and biggest challenge for the photography teacher in the Arab World. Every day, in every class, students must see numerous examples of quality images – in addition to bad ones – just so they can begin to distinguish between the two and learn how to conceptualize and express their feelings and reactions toward the photographic image. They must also be introduced to a wide ranges of photographers and photographic styles so they can begin to develop "taste" in photography, that is, the ability to distinguish between styles, periods, and nuances of photographic expression. They need to learn who the major figures in world photography are and to understand how photography developed in different cultures. It is only through such a heavy, initial dose of images that they can come to understand that photography is much more than a technical issue, that there is far more to photography than just the technical process of exposure and development.
Communication is the essence of serious photography, and in any photojournalism course considerable attention must be devoted to this issue. The good photographer, whether he works for a publication, records the landscape, or makes portraits, must have a message of some kind to communicate to the viewer of the image. The message may be simple or complex, but it must be conceptualized if the result is to be successful.
For this reason there is an analogy between photography and journalism that is often used to introduce students to the communicative function of the visual image. A good journalist, much like a good photographer, learns how to formulate a message, express it clearly and concisely, simplify it further, and then communicate it to a wider audience. The process of communication, after all, is the same whether the medium is the printed work, the photograph, the broadcast program, or even the spoken word in a speech. When a message is transmitted from the sender to a mass audience the process is essentially similar, only the tools change.
Journalism in Egypt and the Arab World faces a very exciting and challenging future. The advent of CNN news, Arab News, and the continual introduction of new magazines and newspapers in the region, has led to new challenges and responsibilities for the press as well as for journalists of all specialties. For the visual journalist, these new areas are especially vibrant and exciting whether he works in television, photography, or graphic design.
Yet, for the photographer those challenges and responsibilities are particularly relevant in the 1990s. Photojournalism and advertising photography are developing daily in new and exciting ways. The technology of photography is also changing rapidly with computer imaging, video discs, the transmission of still images from the camera to the receiver, and so on.
The Arab photographer must prepare for these challenges and be ready to respond to them. But for those responses to fit the unique cultural milieu of the Arab World, these men and women must first adapt their professional goals and standards to the prevailing norms of the rest of the world. By becoming more "professional," Arab photojournalists and commercial photographers have many unique opportunities ahead. They must develop a style and an approach to photographic communications that will best serve the needs of their communities in new and exciting culturally appropriate ways. Before this can happen, though, the long process of training a new generation of Arab photographers must begin. These men and women should be well-grounded in their own cultural and artistic traditions, but unafraid to borrow and learn from the long experience and achievements of photographers in other countries. Steps have already been taken in this direction and progress is being made.
Without question, an exciting period of development lies ahead.