Crossing Boundaries with Art

Sean Kernan

I returned from a working trip to Egypt in late February, and ever since I have been trying to find a way to talk about the experience. Given what is happening in that country, in the Middle East, and in the human experience here and there, the usual news-y approach seemed a bit trivial, so it has taken me awhile to gather thoughts. I am also aware that not everyone feels that the remarks of a picture-taker carry that much weight. I might have said so myself, but recent experience suggests that the open and unclouded eye sometime trumps the knowledge that government insiders purport to have.

The atmosphere was noticeably more touchy than on my last trip 18 months before. On that trip, just before the war began, there was a kind of waiting to see if the US government would really do what the architects of the war were vigorously threatening to do. There was the notion that world opinion combined with evidence on the ground—or lack of it—could head it off.

By the time of this trip in February, we had all found how fond that notion was.

I sensed a curtain between myself and many of the people I met this time. Egyptians are inherently polite and friendly, and there was still the differentiation between me, this wandering photographer, and, say, Donald Rumsfeld or George Bush. But there was a sense of people restraining themselves.

My guess is that things have gotten a lot angrier since the prison photos. An American correspondent there, a professor at a university, wrote that after the release of the photos from Abu Ghraib he walked through the city past dozens of troops called out to prevent angry riots, and felt tremendous hostility from those very troops as he, an obvious American, walked by.

For my part, I am deeply saddened to see the pretexts of the war revealed as self-delusions or hoaxes. I am saddened too to see the architects continue to deny the truth of what is obvious about their actions. But I am not surprised, for the truth is that neither politicians nor bishops nor any of us humans are any good at all at fessing up, let along apologizing. I include myself.

Still, I am sad to see the honor of my country squandered so. I can’t think that we as a nation can overcome this in my lifetime. What’s worse, there are legions who don’t think there’s anything at all to overcome. Perhaps they should read a little Roman history. Perhaps we all should.

On the brighter side, when I was in Cairo I was asked to give a talk at the Townhouse Gallery, one of Cairo’s most vigorous arts centers. I usually just speak about art and photography, and do it easily. But this time my anticipation was colored by that fact that I was an American in front of an audience of Egyptians—mostly Muslims, I presumed. I had been asked to talk by the people at the cultural section of the US embassy, and I was hesitant, lest it be assumed that I was there as a representative for the America of the daily headlines. But my contact at the embassy, an Egyptian, allowed that presenting the US in a positive light was a tough sell these days and that we all knew why. I suggested that if someone asked me about our foreign policy I would be as angry as my questioners, and with that understanding I went ahead.

I’m happy to say that no one did ask me. As I talked about art and its impulses, and as questions came back, I realized it was like speaking to members of my real community. We shared an artistic impulse to question that let us get past the difficulties and start talking at a place of assumed mutual task. We talked familiarly in a way that I’m sure we could not have talked with the zealots of our respective cultures. There was something good in that—and this is a situation that could use something good, though it will take more than talking artists to turn things around.

I had arrived in Cairo with a specific project in mind, but the project got mired in bureaucracy and I didn’t get as much done on it as I had hoped.

Fortunately I had a second arrow, so I set up a studio in Cairo (again, thanks to the Townhouse Gallery) and did a lot of work on portraits for my ongoing Pure Face project. And I am posting a few of them here.

During the course of the trip I met and photographed a number of Sudanese refugees, black Christians from the south. This is a story that barely breaks the surface in US media, but is reported elsewhere. BBC has had particularly responsive coverage.

There’ll be more to say after that trip. By then we may have had some regime change of our own, and my hope would be that we could begin our 25-year repair job and start to be proud of our place in the world. Maybe.


Images and text © 2004 Sean Kernan

Sean Kernan's "Among Trees" series was featured in the April 2003 issue of TheScreamOnline. For more of his work, please visit

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