"If you think of imams, priests, and rabbis as being the conscience of the world, then photographers are the eyes," says Michael McClellan.
McClellan's eyes perhaps see things beyond the vision of ordinary folk, or at least they see them in a different way. He related a story about stopping to photograph an old bicycle on a Cairo street, much to the amusement of passersby who failed to find anything in the scene worthy of 20 shots from a camera.
But McClellan has grown used to such reactions. He has been a serious photographer for over two decades and has practiced his art in more than a dozen countries. Now, as director of the American Cultural Center and instructor of photography at the American University in Cairo (AUC), he is displaying some of that work at the recently opened Sony Gallery at AUC.
"Harmonies: Studies in Nature and the Spirit" -- the title of McClellan's show -- is perhaps very fitting because religion and nature have been running themes in his work from as early as 1978 when, as a student at Syracuse University, he held his first exhibition documenting life in a monastery. The exhibit's dual theme is natural, says McClellan. "To me, the two (religion and nature) are connected because in a higher sense, the two do deal with the idea of eternity, divinity, and God," he said.
All the photographs in the exhibit are black and white, which McClellan feels is a suitable medium for religious subjects, in particular because "it is more appropriate to photograph something that is not of this world using colors that are not of this world."
McClellan believes the goal of every photographer is "to show people something they have not seen before, even if they've been around it all their lives."
His photographs from Egypt have just that in mind when, for example, they show such well-known sites as Al Hussein mosque from an interior angle that passersby and visitors may never have noticed before. To break through people's insularity, a photographer must see and take notice of the "various patterns and harmonies that are out there in the world." By bringing order to visual chaos, a photographer develops and nurtures visual literacy. Contrary to the popular belief that photography is a universal language, dealing as it does in images rather than in words, McClellan maintains that visual literacy is determined by the artistic and visual traditions in every culture.
Photography in the West, for example, belongs to an artistic tradition that has been depicting living forms for thousands of years. The artistic tradition of the Arab and Islamic worlds, however, derives from non-living representations, such as calligraphy and abstract forms.
The exceptions to this rule are the Christian communities of the Arab world, which are a group with "a very old, visual tradition of depicting people on two-dimensional, rectangular surfaces," wrote McClellan in an article on this topic last year. "This iconographic tradition, common to all Christian communities in the Middle East, was a natural precursor to photography." He uses this argument to explain why "most photographers in the Middle East in the late 19th and (early) 20th centuries were Christians."
To enrich his students' visual literacy, McClellan shows them several pictures which he "dissects" to highlight the elements that combine to make a good photograph.
He believes that once photography as an art form has become better accepted and more widespread in this part of the world, there will be an emergence of talented abstract photographers. He believes that, in a sense, they will be transmitting their abstract artistic heritage and "moving into a new art form, which is photography," says McClellan. That such an abstract photography movement has yet to emerge can be attributed, according to McClellan, to the lack of photography courses in schools in the Arab world.
The few that do teach photography concentrate on the applied commercial and industrial aspects of the practice, he says, rather than on its expressive and artistic elements. This can be rectified by such courses as those offered by the newly established photojournalism specialization at AUC, which McClellan believes, is in an ideal locale.
"Egypt, I think, is the perfect country in the Middle East to be teaching photography," he says. "It's an open society . . . and there's a lot more to photograph other than sand and a few buildings."