Photographer Laura El-Tantawy: “The phone brings things a little closer than a camera does”

For some time now, mobile technology has been providing solutions to the problems faced by traditional media in an ever-changing landscape, where journalists need the tools to deliver professional content in real-time from anywhere, at any time. The reason? News waits for no one in this digital world.

But it’s not just traditional journalists who have embraced this mobile revolution – visual authors around the world are also harnessing the potential of smartphones to tell better, more authentic visual stories.

Award-winning British/Egyptian documentary photographer Laura el-Tantawy is one such storyteller, having embraced mobile technology in a world where smartphones are changing the way stories are being captured and told.

MojoReporter caught up with the author, whose visual work has been featured in respected publications such as The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, PhMuseum, Time, New York Times and Huck, to unpack her evolution towards mobile visual storytelling and her understanding of the mobile landscape.

“Mobile devices have enabled and empowered people,” El-Tantawy begins. “Knowing you have this small device in the palm of your hand is incredibly liberating.

“The Syrian Conflict or the Egyptian Revolution, for example, are the kinds of stories that began because people on the streets were taking videos on their phones and posting to YouTube, and so the story was everywhere. Storytelling of this kind makes the world seem smaller; it brings what’s far away close to you.”

“Storytelling of this kind makes the world seem smaller; it brings what’s far away close to you”

El-Tantawy should know. In 2017 she self-published a photo-book entitled “Beyond Here is Nothing”, comprising photography exclusively captured on her mobile device.

El-Tantawy explains that while the essence of photography remains the same, things have changed rapidly in the world of technology.

“It’s about how you adapt to the technology that enables you to tell the stories you want to tell, while still being able to communicate with your audience,” she says.

“In the past few years, we’ve seen platforms like Instagram completely change the way photographers can communicate through their pictures. We now have direct contact with an audience – we don’t need an editor, a newsroom or a newspaper publication. Take the lockdown in New York for example. We’re immediately posting to an audience around the world and there’s this direct connection. So I see all these tools as coming together to enable us as visual authors to be more independent and to have the freedom of expression.”

To demonstrate her point, El-Tantawy points to “Beyond Here is Nothing’, in which she indeed used Instagram as a medium to begin telling that story.

It’s a very innovative way for a photographer to compile a story, and that story has become a book that has now inspired many.

“‘Beyond Here is Nothing’ is a really important book for me – it was quite an organic process and pictures were all exclusively taken on my phone, including the videos that are found on my website.

“I feel the phone brings things a little closer in a very different way to a camera. Everything is now done on my phone. When I look at the time, the calendar, a calculator – it’s all through my phone. My phone has become a very important tool. In that sense, it was that tool that I used to reflect an important time in my life where I was navigating that space of ‘home’, a sense of belonging, and constantly travelling. It’s very liberating and it gave me a sense of possibility.

“Mobile devices also make it easier to capture and tell stories as it makes a person a little more invisible since everyone has and uses their phones. This makes a mobile device the best device to capture a story.”

“Everywhere you go, people are attached to their mobile devices. Whether it’s America, the Middle East or the Far East. The only difference in the way stories are told, is through culture.”

El-Tantawy is currently working on a project aimed at providing a different perspective on farming communities around the world and how they’re impacted by climate change.

You can follow El-Tantawy by visiting her website and social media channels.

Instagram: @laura_el_tantawy
Twitter: @lauraeltantawy

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