Photographed in Cairo from January to June 2013, Matthew Connors’ book Fire in Cairo is a complex and thought-provoking representation of events leading up to Egypt’s so-called Second Revolution, or the June 30 Revolution, that saw the President Mohamed Morsi ousted by a military coups d’état. Since the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011, Egypt was gripped by political turmoil and Connors’ photographs are taken during a time of unprecedented friction between pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi protesters on one hand, as well as the government apparatus such as the police, the secret police and the military on the other hand. In this challenging environment, where internal struggles are violently performed on the streets almost on a daily basis, Connors has produced a surprisingly beautiful, thoughtful and highly evocative series of photographs.
The book begins with a series of black and white portraits of activists and protestors photographed on the streets of Cairo. Presented on a double spread page as diptychs, these portraits allude to sometimes minute differences between an image that appear to be taken within seconds of each other. Reminiscent of Roni Horn’s classic body of work You are the Weather, sometimes these difference appear rather simple such an ever so slight change in vantage point. Though at other times the difference is more accentuated such as in a case where the subject first looks into the camera in the first photograph, but then averts his eyes in the second photograph. The very deliberate presentation of the work as diptychs highlights the ambiguity of the tense situation in which these photographs are taken in. Which side these protestors are on is mostly left unanswered. This ambiguity is further highlighted in a cunning trick applied by Connors: a diptych of two separately photographed policemen smiling for the camera is the only case where the same subject is not depicted twice. Instead, the two policemen in their riot gear uniform are a representation of the state apparatus and their individualities are thus indeterminate and exchangeable.
The visual trickery in the black and white diptychs sets the tone for the book’s photographs, the majority of which are in colour though what connects them all is a keen sense for metaphors, allegories and highly intriguing juxtapositions in the sequencing of the work. There are simply too many examples to mention here though one highlight includes the image of riot police, as well as a gang of what appear to be plainclothes secret policemen, escorting a protestor away. Clearly outnumbered and made to walk with his head bowed down, one intriguing detail in the image is that one of the policemen is trying to lift the protestor’s trousers that are in the process of falling off. Though most crucially, the image is printed as a negative image which obfuscates an already complex scene even further. This photograph and indeed the political turmoil in which this photograph has been taken bears a resemblance to Xu Yong’s recently published photobook Negatives which depicts the Tiananmen Square Protests in Beijing in 1989. The deliberate form in which Connors presents this single photograph does not just question the role of the state, it actually questions the role of photography and its ability to record what was happening on the ground at the time.
The omnipresent toxic fog emitted from tear gas canisters weighs heavily in the book and provides a sense of foreboding and anxiety. Fires, as the title of the book already suggests, add to this sense of tension as they are shown intermittently burning almost randomly on the streets. Some of the photographs also show an impeccable sense of timing: one image for instance shows a pigeon whose flight mirrors that of a tear gas canister. Another image appears to record the exact moment a green laser gun, widely used at night to injure protestors’ eyes, is pointing straight into Connors’ camera. These are the decisive moments that tell a unique story about this troubled period in Egyptian history. Though let me be clear: this is not the work a photojournalist documenting what is happening in the buildup to the June 30 revolution. Instead, the body of work is a form of visual poetry, bringing order and even beauty into an otherwise chaotic world.
Fire in Cairo is, in the true sense of the word, an extraordinary photobook. From its innovative book cover which references the green light of the laser guns to its intelligent sequencing and juxtaposition of images. As such it tells a version of the days and weeks leading up to the revolution from a highly personal yet always intelligent and informed point of view.