00 Much of my time in Cairo was spent traversing its militarized streets, squares, and alleys. These improvised explorations were an experimental technique I used to become more intimate with what the city was as well as what it could be in the tempests of a coup that sought to extinguish any future or past but its own. During these long walks, I clandestinely took thousands of photographs that gradually accumulated into an archive of my life within and movement through the city’s many milieus and ambiances. Midan Tahrir was both destination and departure point for my drifts as I promiscuously circulated through the square again and again, navigating through its intensities, fields, congestions, attractions, frictions, densities, emptinesses, disjunctures and conjunctures, flows and blockages.
01 In the locus of downtown, Tahrir is lined with barbed wire and metal barricades, layered with graffiti, crowded by booksellers, crossed by speeding taxis, loitered by traffic police, surveilled by plainclothes security agents, lit by neon signs, and connected by sandy paved spokes that extend outward in the form of roads and bridges. The square is a dynamic space whose contours are composed of forces that differentially encourage and discourage flows and movements through it, together creating diverse conditions for assembly and disassembly, proximity and distance, intimacy and estrangement, orientation and disorientation, speed and congestion. During my long walks I roamed into dense markets, down empty passageways, past military checkpoints and securitized government buildings, across bridges and freeways, and through the varied interstitial spaces of Wust El-Balad. Encountering manifold bodies, crowds, buildings, streets, blockades, police and military conscripts, the heat and the shade, I moved within and was moved by the uneven and shifting distributions of the city.
02 When I began to take photographs along my walks through the military occupied streets, I did so in a necessarily clandestine manner. My height, piercings, and light skin rendered me as a hypervisible body in all of Cairo, causing me to be subject to varying degrees of curiosity, suspicion and scrutiny. After Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s consolidation of power in the weeks and months following the coup in the summer of 2013, it became increasingly hazardous to photograph in Cairo at all. An intensifying paranoia promulgated through the city, finding life within security forces and a dispersed vigilantism that made the lens of a camera appear suspicious and at times even threatening. The military spread rumors that foreign spies were attempting to undermine the Egyptian people, and every gesture, every encounter, every body, was brought under the heavy gaze of differing intensities of surveillance and inspection across the spaces of the city. Outside of heavily policed tourist zones, the practice of photography in particular was purposefully made to be escalatingly precarious as a means of regulating and curtailing the production of images that were not preauthorized by the military regime.
03 In order to take photographs along my walks while avoiding unwanted and potentially dangerous attention in the streets, I attached a cellphone camera to the front shoulder strap of my backpack instead of using a larger and more conspicuous hand-held SLR camera. In hopes of preemptively evading state surveillance and repression, I installed a customized operating system and software onto my phone so all of my photographs would be encrypted and inaccessible as soon as they were captured. My cellphone shot photos on a repeating timer as I walked through the city, activating its shutter every 15 seconds, producing images in the poietic space between the count of the phone’s microprocessor and the embodied nuances of my walks.
04 Over time, I developed a repertoire of quotidian tactics and techniques that allowed me to clandestinely and imperceptibly capture photographs, even when in the presence of watchful security forces: repeatedly passing through a security barrier at different times of the day when shifts had changed in order to capture the look on different soldiers' faces; deliberately slowing down my walk in the midst of Cairo's perilous and chaotic traffic to get multiple shots of the entrance to the ministry of the interior; pretending to talk about grocery shopping in Spanish on my cheap Egyptian cell phone in order to photograph an armored military vehicle stationed in front of a bank. Becoming imperceptible in this way often didn’t depend on withdrawing or hiding as much as it did on performing as something else, a form of gestural and embodied encryption and obfuscation of the self, a practice of differentially dis/appearing in diverse fashions and degrees.
05 Experimenting with ways to photograph while evading notice soon became part of my everyday life in the city. This entailed becoming intimate with the uneven movements and sporadic congregations of security forces, becoming familiar with the military architectures of the city that were continuously shuffled around and reassembled, and exploring situations to see what possibilities could be felt resting on the precipice of the scattered yet imbricated makeshift milieus of Cairo. My pedestrian practice of image-making was a practice of risk-taking, a way of probing the boundaries of passable and possible behavior under a military regime, a measured yet experimental practice of exploring and documenting the proliferating spaces and times of the coup.
06 During my tactical explorations of Cairo that took me through checkpoints and over scattered cobblestones, I became drawn to the felt presence of plural pasts that subtly bled together in the discordant present of the city. The scorched side of a building, a knowing glance, a bomb going off and reverberating across the surface of the Nile, a faded portrait of one of the revolution’s many martyrs peeling on the wall, missing pavement stones from the sidewalk, having been thrown through the air at security forces on some previous occasion, revealing sand and stone beneath: in walking through the streets you unavoidably arrive in the melee, in the middle, in the midst, in the milieu of pasts constellating together in the present. The January 25th Revolution, even if it no longer filled Tahrir with bodies, tents, and fireworks, still manifested as a force on Cairo's streets because of the radical difference of its past that persisted in the present, and in this way the future of the city remained interminably bound up with the revolution's past surplus, its past indecision, its past remainder. This concurrence and convergence of pasts in the present constitutes the conditions of possibility for the city, and Cairo's futures continue to be unwritten only because its pasts are unwritten too.
07 Over time, I became less and less interested in simply documenting the coup and slowly began attempting to explore these diverse temporalities that endured and emerged on the streets of the city. As I walked through Cairo and photographed seemingly exhausted security forces haphazardly patrolling an alley, or a group of taxis dangerously speeding around a corner, or a baker leaning against their cart in the cool shade of the late afternoon, my camera captured scenes that were composed of the meeting of different times; these were photographs not of discrete moments but rather of the concurrence and convergence of multiple durations. The city that I explored was a complex coalescence of the past of the revolution (an unresolved past still in the process of becoming), the present of the coup (a present always-already slipping into the past), and the future (a future produced by the arrival and return of unresolved and indeterminate pasts in the present). These explorations took shape in my photographing of what I call Possible Images, images that emerge from the transversal and nonlinear dis/conjunctures of pasts, presents, and their futures.
08 Possible Images are collapses and crumplings of spaces and times, contingent compressions and folded contortions that plunge the present into the infinite sea of the past and the past into the shifting constellations of the present. The possibility of the Possible Image is the possibility of the past that emerges when it's taken up as memory, or in other words, when the past is taken up in its future tense. For Possible Images, the arrival of past memory in the present is the arrival of future possibility, and so when we remember the past we remember the future too. Depending on how the past is memorialized, different pasts can come to matter differently, and so the present itself is ineradicably a site for the differential emergence and mattering of past difference.
09 My photographs were produced in a present that was haunted by the past memories of the revolution. In addition, the photographs were also always-already memories for futures that were yet to come. In this sense, the present not only incessantly slides into the past, but is also inextricably part of a future past, a future anterior, a future memory, intensively and complexly constellating together into durations. Just as a sand dune is the historical material coalescence of winds in the desert, or a river like the Nile is the historical material coalescence of rain and water that carve out the ground over millennia, a photograph is the historical material coalescence of the conditions that it emerges from. In a city like Cairo, a photograph's production is shaped by the forces exerted on it by the city's streets and buildings, by the security forces and architectures that block various forms of movement and thus various perspectives, by the sun that floods the lens with light, and by the crowds that fill the city, each of which assemble together into the form of the image. In sum, a photograph is simply a visual condensation, constellation, crumpling, and collapse of these historical yet nonchronological forces within the formal and material space of its frame.
10 Possible Images contain forms of determinacy and indeterminacy, decision and indecision, that are expressed in the ways that they're differentially taken up as memory. What is remembered and what is forgotten, for whom and by whom, in what relational fashions and material forms, simultaneously fix and unsettle the world, conjunctively and disjunctively composing complex and incongruent conditions of possibility. In my experience of walking through Cairo with my camera, the conditions of possibility of the city were themselves entangled with the conditions of possibility of the photograph, formally, and with myself as a photographer, methodologically. In other words, the material conditions of the city, continuously shaped as they were by the past of the revolution and present of the coup, are not simply what I documented but also immanently shaped the process of documenting itself.
11 A photograph is one way that a past can have life even though the precise historical forces that produced it are no longer present, a way for past contingency to become entangled with the unfolding contingencies of the present, a memory of a past unlike the present that insists on having presence. To approach an image as a Possible Image, then, is to explore the relation between the past and the present, and in so doing to explore the immanent futurity of the past itself as expressed in the indeterminacies and contingencies of present situations. Importantly, you cannot approach a situation without also becoming entangled with it: to photograph, to sense, to study, to perceive, to survey, to have a perspective at all, is to become involved. Ultimately, Possible Images are less correspondent reflections of what is on the other side of the lens than they are persistent manifestations of the remainder, the undecided, the excess, that which troubles the possibility of the present with the unbounded possibility of the past.
12 On my walks, I explored a Cairo that was located in the imminent slippages between multiple pasts, a city constituted by plural and contested temporalities and spatialities that flowed over one another like rivers that sweep into oceans; even when walking alone, I remained awash in the conditions of possibility of the city and desired to investigate the ways in which the pasts of the revolution continued to endure in the present. Cairo, Al Qahira, is a complex and contradictory aggregate of architectures, traffic, peoples, birds, fields, unstable electricity grids, dust, sunlight, bridges, squares, alleys, and markets that together compose sets of possibilities, never entirely present but always potentially realizable given specific arrangements of circumstances, configurations, and relations. In spaces and times crisscrossed by riot police, wild assemblies, emptinesses, profound chaos and devoted calm, my cellphone camera collected images and the conditions that shaped their production in each activation of its electronic shutter.
13 Cairo’s spatio-temporal organizations and distributions and the embodied relations that find life within them constitute the plural and contingent conditions of possibility for the city, an improvised and polysynchronous orchestra of diverse activities, histories, and materialities. Cities can only be understood, even if only ever partially, in an active sensation and exploration that literally brings you into contact with them. Cities are nothing more than wild assemblies of many entangled perspectives, aggregating together and dispersing, pushing against one another in untamed conflict and fleeting affinity. Even when doing something as simple as walking on the street, that walk to some degree shapes the street it's taking place on. You can only come to know a city and its possibility by also taking part in differentially (re)producing it, both supporting and being supported by it, and ultimately, becoming together with it.
14 My practice of photographing Possible Images was persistently met by the militant controls of the regime that were expressed in various security architectures and forms of policing. Following the coup in the summer of 2013, Sisi’s military erected towering steel gates at the main entrances to Tahrir and deployed military vehicles and barricades whenever demonstrations were anticipated. In the streets around the midan, large concrete blocks were piled on top of one another sealing off the major thoroughfares and cutting neighborhoods off from one another in the process. What had long been a popular meeting place was kept sparse by unpredictable military maneuvers and the permanent security closure of the Sadat metro station. Despite this, an everydayness of the streets remained: people busily rushed to work, men with graying beards sipped tea in smoke-filled cafés, school children patiently waited for crowded buses, a family of Syrian refugees asked for spare pounds, static-laden pop music from a passing motorcycle and the call to prayer from a dangling speaker on the side of a mosque echoed over one another on a Friday afternoon. All of this was assiduously overshadowed by young military conscripts that were stationed at most intersections, large automatic rifles draped over their small frames.
15 These incongruencies constellate together and push and pull upon all who inhabit and pass through Cairo, a charged historical field within which all gestures and movements take place, unresolved and undecided pasts that persist intensively as forces on life in the city. During the coup, I found I could photograph from the windows of taxis and buses on the raised freeways which cut above Cairo's neighborhoods. Many months after the coup, when emergency measures were marginally lessened, I found that I could begin to move through the streets of downtown with greater degrees of mobility, either passing as a tourist or appearing in an official capacity as a professor at the American University in Cairo, presumably visiting the walled-off university campus on the east side of Midan Tahrir. My walking and clandestine image-making were tactical modes I adopted of relating to as well as evading the dispersed hostility of the regime.
16 While I was living in Egypt, the precarity implicit in the production of images was made clear in repetition:
17 Under Sisi's regime, artists, journalists, and documentarians are required to obtain permits and permissions from the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Information in order to work in Egypt, and even those who have obtained them for their projects often face institutional harassment and censorship regardless. Several prominent journalists from Al Jazeera English were arrested in their hotel room and charged with ‘aiding a terrorist organization’ for their reporting on the coup, accused of being sympathetic with the Muslim Brotherhood. Doctor Tarek Loubani and artist John Greyson were arrested following the coup and jailed for weeks before being deported to Canada because they had filmed part of the deadly dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Rabaa sit-in. The Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zaid, also known as "Shakwan,"" was also arrested while photographing at the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in in remains in jail more than three years after. More recently, the regime made it illegal to circulate accounts of terrorist and/or military activities that differed from official state narratives and as a result several foreign journalists were later detained for showing up to report on a car bombing in the city. To produce media in Cairo in a legitimized and official capacity requires subjecting your work to state approval and censorship while also potentially exposing yourself to violent repression. In this context, I chose to refuse the permission and oversight of the regime in order to be able to explore the presents and pasts of the city that diverged from the ones that the military desired to impose.
18 My walks through Cairo were heavily affected by the infinite nuances and contradictions of its composition that had arisen following both the revolution and the coup. The months after the first days of the January 25th Revolution were defined by the disappearance of the police and military from the streets, creating opportunities for social and political experimentation that was unprecedented in Egyptian history. The coup on the other hand was most clearly expressed in the reappearance and mass redeployment of these forces and security architectures across Cairo, hoping to eradicate forms of unstructured and informal relations that couldn't be assimilated within the control of the regime, leaving emptinesses and absences behind.
19 While in some parts of the world security forces produce power and control through overwhelming displays of force, in Egypt the relative incompetence and disorganization of the state means that the deployment and behavior of security forces are sporadic and difficult to predict. The regime leverages this to its advantage, using the unpredictable and seemingly random emergence of their widespread violence as part of a more general repressive strategy: while walking and photographing in the city, I not only had to respond to the presence or actions of the security forces but also to their ever possible manifestation. As I became more familiar with Cairo, I also became more sensitive to the affective waves of the security forces, feeling their presence in the movements of people in the streets while I was taking pictures. Although I mostly was able to avoid contact with them, I also inevitably found myself enveloped within the chaotic articulation of their movement.
20 One afternoon following Friday prayers, while wandering near one of Cairo’s busiest street markets in Midan Ataba, I became caught in the midst of a group of plainclothes police and baltagiya carrying automatic weapons on their way to disperse a crowd gathering outside of a nearby mosque. Another time I was stuck for several hours on one of Cairo’s islands when the military unexpectedly blocked off the surrounding bridges with armored personnel carriers. One evening I was pursued by an officer after I had been loitering next to a military staging area in order to photograph them with my phone. In the most familiar of senses, the street my partner and I lived on was regularly used as a deployment zone for various security forces, meaning that simply going out for a tea or coffee often required navigating around concrete road blocks and trucks filled with riot police.
21 While life under the coup is suffused with repressive violence, it’s also necessary to pause and stress that there is an ineradicable love that persists on the streets of Cairo despite the militarized atmosphere that seeks to extinguish it. My walks never took place autonomously or independently, but rather were always supported by, reliant on, and indebted to forms of conviviality and hospitality that were found in both expected and unexpected places and times. Over strong coffees and in crumbling buildings, before and after demonstrations where too many were crushed or disappeared, alongside friends and companions: during my time in Cairo, and especially so in the more vulnerable and precarious moments, tiny gestures enacted in repetition made life livable and worth living, and perhaps more importantly, preserved the conditions that make other kinds of living possible. These undermine the military’s totalizing logic by maintaining spaces for affinity and intimacy, and in the end were what rendered my walks through the streets of the city walkable at all.
22 To walk and capture images in this experimental fashion was to take back, however subtly, a small part of the possibility of the city from the military that attempted to entirely determine the activity and relations of the city itself. The success of a walk depended on passing as well as trespassing, both inhabiting and resisting the present while also encountering the past. To move, congregate, assemble and circulate with others is to enter into situations that have unpredictable outcomes by virtue of the differences involved. While the military controls the streets and squares of Wust El-Balad, to deviate away from those controls and produce images was to trespass onto and repurpose the regime’s territory.
23 After having departed Egypt with thousands of photographs, I began the process of speculatively drawing constellations within the collection of images itself, between resonances and dissonances that emerged as I sorted through them. In the process of constellating, of aggregating and assembling past moments together into the present, I meant to engage in a productive and creative process in relation to the irreducible multiplicity of the past itself. This process and practice of drawing connections between past events in a nonlinear fashion wasn't meant to represent or capture an objective past in a narrative or archival fashion or to even suggest that any kind of resolution is even possible, but rather to explicitly and purposefully partake in the political and ethical project of making particular pasts matter, literally, in the present. If memory, and history, are always to some degree indeterminate, then the way that we frame (exclude) and constellate (bring into relation) different pasts in practices of remembering helps to produce our nonlinear, nonchronological, and durational present. The indeterminacy of the past is what ensures the possibility of indecision arising within the present, the small and fragile spaces of freedom that we occasionally find ourselves inhabiting.
24 We’re caught in the momentum and gravity of histories that radically precede and exceed us, yet in walking we find in the world and in others tiny deviations that irresistibly manifest otherwise. My practice of photography was meant to explore these other times and spaces animated by the wild potentials that were born during the January 25th Revolution. If the revolution continues to persist under the military regime, it does so in minute detours that generate possibilities for new proximities and paths to take shape that point elsewhere, towards worlds that are yet to be traversed; the arrival of unexpected pasts in the present creates the conditions for the exploration of these novel futurities. Possible Images, in their preservation and propagation of past indeterminacy, can possibly be one way for us to begin encountering, experiencing, and cultivating the difference of the past that irrepressibly offers radically other ways of navigating the ongoing histories we find ourselves walking within.