Farouk Ibrahim: A Life hacker

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian , Saturday 18 Feb 2023

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian loved the retrospective of the late, legendary photojournalist Farouk Ibrahim

Farouk Ibrahim
Farouk Ibrahim


Having been born and raised in a traditional Egyptian atmosphere where the three the state newspapers are the indispensable source of daily news, I  knew by heart the kinds of photos that appeared on front pages and who made them. Farouk Ibrahim was among the most familiar names, known from the pages of Akhbar Al-Youm.

Ibrahim, who passed away right after the January Revolution in March 2011, would have been 84 next week — so soon after his retrospective.

It takes a lot of trust, love and respect, maybe also a little modesty, for a country’s president to allow a photographer to capture his daily rituals — in the bathroom, in his underwear shaving. And it takes perseverance, boldness, curiosity and enthusiasm to earn the privilege. That is what happened with Ibrahim, whose work comes through to us as an almost miraculous record of all that we value in our past.

Last week, though few of the influencers behind the phenomenon will have known who Ibrahim was, his work was trending on social media thanks to the exhibition and talks taking place as part of the Cairo Photo Week’s third round organised by Photopia, in Downtown Cairo.

Going into the exhibition space, you realise it’s the perfect choice for Ibrahim’s work to be displayed. The moment you step into that vintage downtown apartment you start experiencing the timeline curated by photographer Nadia Mounir, between 1952 and 2011. “From one revolution to the other,”  his elder son Hisham perfectly put it, showing me a capture from each of the two revolutions to the left and the right of the entrance. Ibrahim is the one Egyptian photographer who documented the lives and journeys of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak as presidents of Egypt.

There was one corner displaying some of the front covers of Akher Saa Magazine were displayed with Ibrahim’s images, including Sadat’s controversial cover photo.

That famous journalistic scoop which struck Egyptians and the Arab world one morning would remain unforgettable for generations. How could president  Al-Sadat who was known for his extreme elegance, approve such photo session? At that time the president’s wife Jihan Al-Sadat was not in town. “She did not see the published photos but heard about that ‘shameful’ scoop as she used to call it, like everyone did. She called my father and insisted he would be punished, not believing that he got the approval from the president,” Hisham recalls. “According to my father’s story, Sadat responded to his angry wife and advisers saying that they do not understand what real journalism was about.”

The size of the two photos hanging side by side on the opposite wall bespeak the greatness of Naguib Mahfouz and Um Kolthoum, who represent the Egyptian life, while that huge image of Cairo’s Ramses Square from above shows a different side of that greatness. “This is not just Cairo, this is Egypt in all its breadth” is the caption that came into my mind.

Indeed Ibrahim can be seen as a historian who captured Egyptian social, political and cultural life, a fact borne out by what’s on display: this is the work not so much of a potograper but a hacker of the upper echelons and a magician of representation.

“The main reason for my enthusiasm to improve my photography skills in the past was my keenness to meet cinema celebrities,” Ibrahim told a talk show host a few years before he passed away.