Crossing Boundaries with Art
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
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 groundor lack of itcould
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
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 cant think that we
as a nation can overcome this in my lifetime. Whats worse, there are legions who dont
think theres 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 Cairos 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 Egyptiansmostly 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.
Im 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 Im sure
we could not have talked with the zealots of our respective cultures. There was something
good in thatand 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 didnt 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.
Therell 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
Kernan's "Among Trees" series was featured in the April
2003 issue of TheScreamOnline. For more of his work, please visit