Photography, Social Media and the Uprising in Egypt

This is a screenshot from a Facebook user based in Cairo where, at the moment the screenshot was taken, a popular uprising is taking place. In order to protect the identity of the user, I blacked out their names and personal details. Consistent with various different Egyptian Facebook users, the profile photograph has been changed in recent days to reflect the countries mood. A number of users uploaded the Egyptian flag, others show images of Karl Marx or Che Guevera, yet the vast majority of politically motived profile changes on Egyptian Facebook accounts include a photograph taken by an anonymous person depicting the initial protest march on the 25th of January 2011 at El Tahrir Square in Cairo. As reported in an article on Fastcompany.com, the photograph was posted by a Facebook campaign called Mama Qarat.

The use of this specific photograph for a profile change is an important aspect in the current protest and the visual culture of ideological change. Taken from a high vantage point, the photograph depicts masses of people gathering in Cairo’s biggest public square protesting against the government and the president Hosni Mubarak. The location depicted in the photograph has a political significance since El Tahrir Square, or Freedom Square, has been the central focus for a number of protests in Cairo: from Anti-Iraq War to Pro-Palestinian marches, the square is a strategic point for political expression. Apart from that however, little detail is visible in the image. The masses remain absolutely anonymous. This is an important aspect because the image itself doesn’t compromise the identity of an individual protester (nor did I wish to compromise their identity by showing their profile information). By choosing this photograph as profile shot, the Egyptian Facebook user is equally willing to suspend his or her photographic identity in place of a greater cause.

The photograph is also highly self-referential with regard to the context it is disseminated in. While it depicts masses of people, the photograph itself is uploaded by masses of people signifying their allegiance with the anti-government protests. In other words, the photograph signifies the popular uprising in two important ways: in what it depicts, but also, in the way that it is circulated via the social network. Here, it is also important to point out that the existence of social media in itself is a critical agent in uprisings in Iran, Tunisia and most recently Egypt. This is the power of the so-called flashmob: an almost instantaneous gathering of a large mass of people effectuated through social media such as Facebook or Twitter.

The recent changes by Egyptian Facebook users underlines the significance of the social network in the creation of a critical mass which has proven to take down autocratic regimes in the past. The changing of the profile photograph is significant because, apart from the Facebook users name, the profile photograph is the first visual encounter with the user, and, importantly, Facebook informs other users when the a number of ‘friends’ change their profile photograph. As the anonymous photograph is uploaded at a rapid rate in Egypt, the photograph in itself becomes the agent of political change.

For more on cultural production in the Arab world, please read Arab Cultural Studies: Mapping the Field edited by Tarik Sabry. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.

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