Eslam Abd El Salam interviewed for Evergreen Review by Joy Garnett
Art by Eslam Abd El Salam
Joy Garnett: How did you begin making art? What sources do you draw from? Is Cairo the city that feeds you? How does it feed you?
Eslam Abd El Salam: When I was a little kid, I didn’t have tools to express myself. I was a weird misfit. Films and books gave me perspective. I was drawn to independent films outside of mainstream cinema, and watched as many as I could. I read about the process of translating stories into moving images. My father, who was an English teacher and calligrapher, planted that particular seed; he was a font of information about pretty much everything, and a self-made man who believed in education. Most of his siblings didn’t have the chance to go to school. He was also very spiritual and his connection to God was profound. He taught me to listen more than talk, and that it is okay to take time to process my feelings. When you are young you are like a sponge that absorbs everything. My father was my first guide in getting to know myself.
When I got my first smartphone, I took photographs on my walks around Suez, where I was born and raised, and began to explore its neighborhoods for the first time. I began to feel an affinity for abandoned places. I somehow got into the habit of “archiving” my memories and trained myself to register visual things, which later proved to be essential to my work. It is as if my brain has a visual library. While walking, I soliloquize my thoughts. I began to photograph the unforeseen encounter, and became immersed in other people and spaces. To walk is to forget one’s self.
I find solace in interiors as well. You can relate to someone through the spaces they pass through. I’ve never believed in ghosts, but I do believe we leave traces of ourselves in the spaces we inhabit. I find the domestic space fascinating for that reason. When we form a close tie with a place, it never fades away. My grandmother’s house was like that for me. She and my aunt raised me when my mother and father were working in Sudan.
I was lucky to be around such people growing up—in a way, members of my family were the first influential artists in my life! Later I discovered Mark Strand, Kelly Reichardt, Mike Mills, Christian Petzold, Jane Campion, Willie Doherty, Teju Cole, Charlie Cunningham, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But my family still feeds my work.
Photography is a way for me to engage and dismantle reality—it is the language through which I unravel its layers. And yet I never introduce myself to people as a photographer, and it makes me uncomfortable to be labeled as one. The label distances me from the act of self-expression; it makes the process feel so mechanistic. Photography has been a lot more than a tool or a medium for me. It is an intimate friend, a lasting voice inside me.
Poetry has also been important to my work. The first poem I ever read was “i carry your heart with me” by e.e. cummings, and I still remember how it made me feel. Image and poetry walk hand-in-hand together. And as for Cairo... for me, Cairo is the candy shop your parents forbid you from entering! It opened doors for me and feeds me even though everything is becoming more remote and...wrapped up. Forbidden. A shadow lurks over my shoulder and makes demands: “Sir, why are you taking this photograph?” “Who do you work for?” “What are you going to do with it?” These are mild examples. People have to contend with this every day while walking with their phones or cameras. There are consequences. Perhaps it has damaged me. Because you want to walk and look at your city, to take your time before you decide to shoot (or not to shoot) a photograph. In some situations, I’ve had to steal a photograph. I feel like a thief!
But Cairo doesn’t rest. It bubbles with life, a mind-blowing cycle of rebirth and constant change. I know for sure that Cairo is not the easiest of cities, but as often as I look for ways to leave Egypt, to go live and work somewhere else, I know I would not be the person I am if it wasn’t for this place. I have had to go to extremes to demand the most basic of my human rights, but as much as this is exhausting and depressing, the city grounds me. It makes me appreciate the smallest things.
JG: Whether you are shooting people or buildings or windows or the sea, a palpable mood runs through all your work. How would you describe what goes on inside you as you approach a subject?
EA: It is hard for me to put into words what my photographic approach is. If anything, I would say it’s conversational, a discussion where certainty and uncertainty are bedfellows. I write and read a lot, and I see the affinity between the two mediums. I let words weave ideas inside my head to be born at the right moment. I’m always trying to extract material. I’m searching for light within myself, in people, and the places I pass by; light finds its way to us in different ways. I rely on intuition, which comes from my connection with God. I stay as truthful as possible to the knowledge that this life is temporary and I try to look at life with an open heart beyond conventional materialism.
Walking is an essential part of it. I think of walking as a pedagogical practice. But walking is also catharsis. I shed the past as I walk, and this opens space for new narratives. When I was young, adults warned me to be careful while walking down the street, not to trust anyone right away, and to be socially discerning. But I’m never any of that! Perhaps my naivete is my greatest asset.
JG: Like many artists, you post your work on Instagram. Every so often you deactivate your account. The first time I noticed you were “gone” I became worried, and later, after you reactivated your account, I was so relieved! Do you have rules about taking a “time-out” now and then? Is it about privacy, or about waiting for ideas to gel? Or maybe you have other reasons?
EA: I used to love the idea of sharing and Instagram was the first platform that allowed me to share my process. Here was this blank space for you to place photographs and write what you feel in a context that was playful and less guarded than real life. It was all so soothing and freeing. People came for the connection, and you felt an affinity even if no words were uttered, even if the connection was invisible. But then I began to think that people had stopped caring. I’d worry about writing too much since people no longer read, for the most part. Also, as much as I wanted to share, I began to feel I should keep things to myself because what I do is very personal and I didn’t want it to be scattered around online. I have doubts that what I’m doing is “important” and sometimes I can’t stand to see that I exist publicly anywhere. So a combination of these factors causes me to deactivate.
Instagram has changed a lot too. It is not as welcoming a window for sharing as it used to be. Ironically, it is the space that gave me my closest friends and many opportunities. But I never liked the ostentatious aspect of social media platforms, nor do I wish to be in close proximity to that element. I dislike the fact that Instagram serves as my only online portfolio and I hate how it takes control over me. I deactivate it to gather up some space for myself, even though I find myself coming back to it in a hurry because I’m applying for things, and people won’t be able to see what I do unless it’s there.
JG: How has life in Cairo changed over the past few years? Is the political situation stuck or changing? Has there been a different kind of stasis due to quarantine where you’ve had to work under isolating conditions?
EA: I was just thinking about how hard 2021 was for me, and for a lot of people. It’s funny how 2020 was not as bad as 2021. During the first lockdown in March 2020, I went to stay with my mother for five months. It was the longest period I’ve spent with my mother since I moved to Cairo seven years ago, and it gave me a chance to collect myself. It was a magical five months, which is perhaps a strange thing to say given what was happening. The lack of pressure I experienced during quarantine allowed for some peace of mind. I still joke with a friend about how we wish the lockdown would return. The whole world just basically stopped, no anxiety about meeting deadlines or paranoia about having to prove yourself in the loop of the everyday.
Egypt, particularly Cairo, has been going through massive urban and cultural transformations. The government has been rapidly building bridges, demolishing historic buildings, and erasing much of the nuanced history of the city. It is as if they are peeling away the identity of the city. When the second pandemic wave occurred, there was no lockdown since we couldn’t afford any more damage to the economy; souls, on the other hand, are replaceable. How could they think of protecting the nation from a virus and its variants when they were busy with their plan of demolition and renovation? The neighborhood where I’m living in Heliopolis has become like an amusement park.
JG: Are you working on new projects? Are you now subjecting yourself to pre-covid-era pressures and deadlines? What awaits you?
EA: The year before the pandemic, I was an artist-in-residence at the Curfew Tower Residency in Cushendall, Northern Ireland. This was in 2019. Our exhibitions were postponed, but I’m hoping they can take place this year. My project, “Little Did I Know,” is my most intimate work, a milestone for me. I’ve also been working on another project called “Until Further Notice,” a photographic exploration of the bedroom that was part of the eighth annual Roznama exhibition in Cairo (March 2021). After Roznama, I wanted to take more time to decide what to do with a subject so common and yet so intimate. This is what I’m figuring out now.
I’m grateful for the way the lockdown has changed me. For a long time, I wasn’t focused on my work, and I was stuck in a horrendous loop of personal events that clouded everything since I moved back to Cairo. Being back in the arms of my mother brought an awakening of sorts. I feel more at ease now. I’m grateful to be able to explore for a living, in a medium that draws directly from life—physically, emotionally, and spiritually, day by day and moment by moment.
Eslam Abd El Salam
Eslam Abd El Salam is a visual artist in Cairo, Egypt. His photographs explore synchronicity, imaginary narratives, loss, and domesticity, and weave together the personal and the collective. Eslam’s long-term project, started at the Curfew Tower Residency in Northern Ireland, will be exhibited in Heart of the Glens Festival (Cushendall, Northern Ireland) and the Mesnographies photography festival (Les Mesnuls, France) in August and September 2022, respectively.
Joy Garnett is an artist and writer from New York. She lives in Los Angeles where she’s writing a family memoir of Egypt. She is the art editor of Evergreen.