Hana Gamal <em>Please scream inside your heart</em> 2023, from the Megacities project, Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. This project is supported by the Orloff Family Charitable Trust, and Barry Janes and Paul Cross, 2022<br/>
© Hana Gamal

Please scream inside your heart

Hana Gamal

One of a series of essays featuring the answers to questions posed to artists participating in the Megacities project of NGV Triennial 2023

In this third decade of the twenty-first century, the megacity – a city with a population of more than 10 million people – may become the dominant human habitat. The NGV Triennial project Megacities is an ambitious, immersive multimedia installation bringing the creative vision of ten leading street photographers into dialogue with the urban environment. These images offer a counterpoint to the myth of the megacity, an urban agglomeration often used as the antithesis of wealthy European and North American metropolis. Here, the megacity is shown through the lens and explained in the words of those that live there.

Can you describe your daily experience living and working in one of the largest cities on the planet?

My relationship with Cairo is a very emotional and complex one. I love Cairo very much; with all its madness and absurdity, I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else. I can travel for weeks or even months, but I always have to come back. Living in Cairo is intensely inspiring for artists. Even though it can get exhausting at times, the city fascinates me in so many ways, always leaving me with a desire to understand it all over again – uncovering it layer by layer and redefining my relationship with it.

Cairo to me is like a poem that makes you feel a thousand emotions at the same time. A poem that rips your heart out, but also soothes you. Breaks you and mends you. Bewilders you and inspires you. Kills you and makes you feel alive. The kind of poem that makes no sense at all and all the sense in the world. There is a constant longing engraved inside of me – and maybe projected into my work – for a Cairo I always dream of but could never have. Her streets are like fragments of memories of a lost love, and serve as a reminder of everything beautiful and everything that isn’t, once was, never was and one day will be.

How has this contemporary urban environment shaped your practice as a photographer and artist?

I would say it has shaped my whole human experience in this life, not just my practice as an artist. My visual approach in much of my early work was related to the streets and my whole urban environment. It taught me a lot about myself and the world around me, and helped me heal and grow as a person. For me, street photography is poetry and depicts life in its most honest form. Nothing is staged, everything is real and raw – and this was one of the most important aspects that drew me to street photography. Over the years my visual style and practice has changed and evolved – it got more intimate and more personal in relation to Cairo – and I think this is the beauty of the journey. Everything is connected and every phase is crucial to arrive gracefully at the next one. However, the aim or core of my work is not to portray a ‘beautiful’ Egypt – I would say maybe a ‘real’ Egypt – but people may find it beautiful because it is raw and real. Amid the world of social media, I feel like people long to see something real, something they can feel and relate to.

Our understanding of cities has benefited from the development of GPS and mobile technology – does this impact your work? Has it changed the way that you work ‘on the street’, with the ubiquitous presence of mobile technologies?

The development of technology and specifically GPS has definitely helped people discover more about their countries and the world. However, it might sound surprising, but I am truly not a fan of all this new technology that we are bombarded with every day. Yes, it has its pros, but for me the cons outweigh the pros. The irony is that technology has disconnected people rather than connecting them. Everyone is living in a virtual world inside a screen. Yes, it has made photography more accessible, easier or simpler, but it also feels like the world is drowning in images, to the extent that photographs are losing their meaning and significance. Technology has changed the way I work, in the sense that it has made me appreciate the classical approach to photography more – to slow down and think about what I want to capture and why. Fast-growing technology just serves as constant reminder of a time when the world moved much slower, which is something I truly miss.

Environmental and social problems are often cited as negative outcomes of urbanisation on the megacity scale, but counterpoints include the development of innovative ways of living and employment opportunities. Negative or positive? Can you discuss your experiences and responses to the high-density urban environment?

Urbanisation surely has its negatives and positives. The rapid urban growth is a result of many factors – demographic, economic and political. The switch to capitalism worldwide has attracted more investments and [resulted in the] emergence of new projects. Yet the deterioration of rural areas and the loss of cultural identity is something to keep in mind, question and try to counter. I think all this is a new form of gentrification, accompanied by various changes – cultural and physical – which could be positive or negative. The disadvantages have become more challenging, but I feel like our generation has developed some sort of social resilience to adapt to all the current changes and external disturbances – to try to overcome the fear of losing our identity and maybe bounce back stronger than before.

Are you witnessing environmental transformation in the city you are working in?

Yes, definitely both positive and negative. On the positive side, I feel like more people are now more mindful of their impact on the environment. I think this is a result of the past three of years of the pandemic. People worldwide had a reality check regarding how much they are a threat to the environment. Many companies and start-ups are supporting sustainability and environmentally-friendly products. Zero-waste and reusable products are trending. On the negative side, the destruction of historic spaces and rural green areas for more developments, buildings and bridges, and the slowly fading face of the city that we all know and grew up in, is too heartbreaking to ignore.

Beyond capturing the built environment, we asked you to consider a narrative arc within your images that explores the quality of life in a megacity, the experience of moving around the city, where and how people work, and the impacts for community. With this in mind, what did your project reveal?

The project is an attempt to understand life in its wholeness, which is aligning with life as it is. [My work] focuses on people and the environment they inhabit – I am one of them – and the contrasts and contradictions of the ever-changing city of Cairo, while also exploring two essential notions, time and change. Time changes people’s lives, and change is the only constant thing in life. Through an introspective and psychological visual exploration of street life, the project aims to give insight into: how megacities and [high] population densities can affect human experience and existence; our experience within the chaotic environment of the world and perception of it – interconnected with the emotional worlds inside of us; and how people are still strong and brave enough to adapt to and cope with new worlds and constant changes.

Rather than revealing answers, this project asks questions. How do we cope with time and change? What feelings do they trigger? Do we accept [the passage of time] or would we rather live in denial? Does [change] make us stronger or more anxious and vulnerable? Is this the quietness of the storm or the noise of silence? Are we hiding from reality or revealing its truth? What remains and what is left behind? What will be forgotten and what will be remembered? Is this the beginning of something new? Or the end of everything that once was? The project brings a lot of reflections and questions to the surface – at times sad, at times frustrating and at times full of hope and possibility – using a visual approach that enables us to see our world and environment from infinite different perspectives and perceptions.

If we accept the premise that the megacity is an engine for cultural and social change, how do you see that reflected on the street?

The streets are the mirror of any city. The impact of change on a megacity such as Cairo is obvious. Globalisation, modernisation and the rapid rise of technology play a vital role. My honest reply to this question would be as Ahdaf Soueif once said in her book The Map of Love:

And Egypt? What is Egypt’s strength? Her resilience? Her ability to absorb people and events into the pores of her being? Is that true or is it just a consolation? A shifting of responsibility? And if it is true, how much can she absorb and still remain Egypt?

HANA GAMAL | Cairo, Egypt.