Laura El-Tantawy

Women shout and wave flags during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

Canon Ambassador and photojournalist Laura El-Tantawy focused on social and political issues in wider Egyptian society, including the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, for her project, In the Shadow of the Pyramids. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 105mm, 0.4 sec, f/4 and ISO1600. © Laura El-Tantawy

Canon Ambassador and photojournalist Laura El-Tantawy was born in the United Kingdom to Egyptian parents and her life has been divided between Middle Eastern and Western cultures. This experience has inspired much of her documentary work in which she explores ideas around belonging and identity, often in impressionistic and abstract ways.

Laura's work has been displayed in both group and solo exhibitions worldwide. It's also been published in a range of newspapers and magazines including The New Yorker, Le Monde, Marie Claire and National Geographic, as well as five self-published monographs.

Laura got her first taste of photography while studying Journalism and Political Science at the University of Georgia, USA. "I initially decided to do a photography class because I thought it would be fun," she says. "But, for me, it opened up the idea that you could tell stories and create narratives with pictures. It was a way of seeing photography I hadn't experienced before."

After university, she went on to spend two years as a news photographer for regional newspapers in America. "In that job you have to become a visual problem-solver where, from any situation, you have to emerge with a picture," she says. "It really helped cement my foundations in photography."

Canon Ambassador and documentary photographer Laura El-Tantawy.

Locations: Cairo and London
Specialist areas: Reportage, art
Favourite kit:
Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV)
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM

In 2005, Laura relocated to Cairo, Egypt, to be with her family and work as a freelance documentary photographer. Around this time, she began using Canon kit and has continued using it ever since. The experience of living in Egypt inspired her first major series, In the Shadow of the Pyramids (2005-14). In this work she experimented with a more lyrical personal style, using techniques such as the creative use of long exposures.

She began the series by exploring issues relating to her own identity and family history, but the work later expanded to incorporate social and political issues in wider Egyptian society, including the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The work was widely acclaimed and shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize in 2016.

The sun sets over Cairo, Egypt, with the city shown in silhouette.

This image was captured from the window of Laura's childhood home in Cairo, Egypt, and forms part of her series In the Shadow of the Pyramids. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 28mm, 1/30 sec, f/22 and ISO200. © Laura El-Tantawy

Laura has also completed several more projects over long periods, including An Immortal River (2013-present), which she describes as "an ode to the River Nile", and The Veil (2008-2012), which looks at the fabric hair cover as an expression of femininity and showing modesty in public, an act shared by Muslim, Hindu and Catholic women alike.

Another of Laura's ongoing works is I'll Die For You, described as "a meditation on the bond between man and land", and in which she considers the social, economic and environmental aspects of life as a farmer today in countries including India, Egypt, Peru and the United States. This work has won her two awards in 2020: The W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund Grant and the PHmuseum Women Photographers Grant.

A double exposure of a farmer surveying his land in Palestine.

A double exposure of farmer Mustafa Foqha surveying his land in Palestine, from the series I'll Die For You. "Palestinian farmers who lost their land to the Israeli Occupation feel an overwhelming loss of identity," says Laura. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. © Laura El-Tantawy

All of these works are linked by Laura's desire to creatively explore not only locations and cultures, but also her own personal reactions to them, filtered through her family history and background. "At the beginning, when I arrived in Egypt, I knew I wanted to use the camera as a way to understand the streets and, through that process, to understand where I fit in that landscape," she says. "With every other project that also rings true."

Her ultimate aim is to produce work that is individual, socially engaged and thought-provoking. "I like to do things differently," she says, "but also to do them in a way that resonates with people, has authenticity and a sense of responsibility."

What makes you want to take a photograph?
"It could be a personal feeling, something I'm emotionally going through, or it could be a shared feeling. A very good example of that is my work in Tahrir Square and Egypt in general. I arrived with a lot of mixed emotions about my own identity, how I fitted in. I felt like there was a sense of identity I had to reclaim somehow and went out onto the streets kind of looking for emotions that expressed that feeling."

Do you know what a project is going to be about before you start working on it, or does it gradually evolve?
"It definitely gradually evolves. I always have a sort of idea of why I'm doing a project, but the larger picture isn't really painted, except gradually as I go through it. However, titles always come at the beginning of the work, which always point me back to what I'm saying and why I began it."

Which of your projects means the most to you?
"They all speak to me in different ways because they all relate to my background, but I think In the Shadow of the Pyramids is the one I'm always going to have to put out there. That's partly because I'm Egyptian, partly because of the historical moment and because I witnessed it. It also really established me as a photographer and when people think about me, this is the work they relate to."

Is it difficult for young artists to stand out in a competitive world?
"It's definitely very competitive and very difficult. It takes a lot of commitment and it's also not financially rewarding, so it's about how do you create a life for yourself where you're doing something you're passionate about. However, today there's a lot more opportunity than there was when I first started, in terms of grants and funding, as well as platforms on which you can engage with people and build an audience."

One thing I know

Laura El-Tantawy

"If you want to explore documentary photography in a creative way, I think it's important to allow yourself to go on a journey. You have to create images that speak to you personally and are made for yourself first, and not worry too much about the audience or other people's perception. Make them for yourself first, keep working on that and fostering it, and allow that journey to take time and for yourself to grow with it."

Instagram: @laura_el_tantawy

Twitter: @lauraeltantawy


Laura El-Tantawy's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Laura El-Tantawy's kitbag containing Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.


Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

The successor to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III that Laura uses couples uncompromising image quality with a professional performance. "I like this camera because I can do whatever I want with it, from multiple exposures to video, and I know it's not going to let me down," says Laura. "What's really important to me is that it enables me to work in low light in a way that I can get the kind of imagery I want. I almost never use flash so it's important to me to have a camera that can produce really good quality images in very low-light situations."


Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM

The EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM offers stunning picture quality with advanced image stabilisation. Laura says: "I like it because it allows me to get close or move a bit further away without having to switch lenses in a rapidly changing situation."

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM

A professional fast-aperture telephoto zoom lens popular with wildlife and sports photographers, as well as those shooting weddings and portraiture. "This lens is good when I want to get extremely close to filter through a busy situation and hone in on a person or an emotion I want to express," says Laura.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

With a true macro magnification ratio of 1:1, this lens creates excellent portraits as it ensures the object you are photographing in real life is the same size as on your camera sensor. "I bought this lens mainly to use on my series I'll Die For You," says Laura. "I chose it because its focal range allows me to get extremely close and capture minute details that wouldn't otherwise be as visible. It brings details to life, which is important for me in this series."


Portable recorder

"I use the recorder to capture natural sounds in the settings I'm working in," says Laura. "I have used it to interview people as well. It's about thinking about the future of the work – whether it's going to be a projection or a multimedia presentation – and deciding what's the best way to create an immersive atmosphere for an audience and build more layers around the narrative."

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