Free Shawkan

When a photojournalist becomes the news, nobody owns them

The one individual you know will be present when something is happening is a photojournalist. You take up this profession in search of that single expressive picture that will define a moment and to give a face to injustice. There is an unhealthy appetite for risk taking combined with a desire to make a difference. There are some who want to live in a world where we don’t have these images, that might be nice, but it wouldn’t mean that the reality captured in the images wasn’t still happening. We have a profoundly British response to this – were people become shocked that imprisonment came as a result of exercising our freedom of expression but not that the very British sanctuary of freedom had been violated by those in power in the first place.

On the 14th of August 2013, my friend and colleague Mahmoud Abou Zeid an Egyptian photojournalist also known as Shawkan was violated by those in authority for simply exercising his freedom of expression, photographing. The Egyptian army arrested him and placed unfounded, false and ridiculous charges against his name and now have him detained in Abu Zabaal prison. Photographing in the uncertain times in Egypt as in any place of conflict shows how incredibly brave and fearless he was. To be in the midst of the imminent unrest that was brewing against then president Morsi and his supporters, risking his own life. One of the last pictures I have seen of Mahmoud shows him holding his camera to his eye, wearing a short sleeved t-shirt, jeans, a wrist band/bracelet and his camera equipment being carried in his backpack in Rab’aa al Adawiya sit in (photo taken by a French journalist). At no point was he being a harm to others or promoting any violent activity but was doing what he describes in his photojournalism profile as “ taking a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It’s a way of life”.

During a short interview with Louis Jammes, a French photojournalist who was with Mahmoud at the time, describes to me what had happened:

“Yes they used force on us, they took the cameras. I lost all of my cameras, Shawkan also. We were together in the camp of Rabaa at 5am, working, taking photo and around at 7 am we got the information of the police attack. Shawkan wanted to go out of the camp and I followed him. We joined the police force and we continue to take photos. After 1 hour the police forces started to arrest every body. They beat us a little bit and bring us in the Cairo stadium. In the stadium we have been shared in two groups.. I was with Michael Giglio, an US journalist for News Week and Manu journalist. And after 1 or 2 hours, they let us go because we were foreign. Unfortunately Shawkan was wrongly associated with other detainees and mixed with the Muslim Brotherhood. Shawkan was only doing his job of a photographer. Shawkan wasn’t a protestor”.

Sherif Mansour, the CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa programme co-ordinator, raised the alarm about the apparent crackdown on journalists in the politically-torn country. “The unprecedented number of killings and harassment of journalists in Egypt last week are ominous signs for the Egyptian press,” he said.

“A free press is fundamental to the restoration of democracy and to the inclusion of disparate voices in public discourse. Safeguarding press freedom, as promised by the Egyptian interim government, is a key step in that direction and direly needed right now.”

The agency Demotix that myself and Mahmoud submit our work to have been advised that they need to get the paperwork done to register the agency in Cairo, Ossie Ikeogu the case manager at Demotix responded to this saying “@SabihaMahmoud: Demotix is in the process of trying to register in Egypt but are not getting much response to our efforts. We keep trying”. Perhaps this could have panned out very differently for Mahmoud if it had been.

A writer can be 60 miles away, in a completely different city, and still get something out of what’s happening. But as a photojournalist, if you’re half a mile from the action, you might as well be in a completely different country. Ultimately Mahmoud decided that it was more important to examine the most important story happening around him at that point in time. He had his camera in front of him and he focused on his work that is all.

I always ask myself, “Why do I do this job?’ And the answer is: I want to show the best and worst face of humankind. Every time you go to a conflict, you see the worst. What’s important is that we show what human beings are capable of. I have been in a couple of situations where I risked my own safety to help others. I did this is as my parents always drilled a “Good Samaritan” ethic into me. However you define us – stories will always need to be told. Images will always need to be captured

Policymakers have to see what’s going on the ground, and that’s only going to happen through responsible photojournalism. At the end of the day, we are photographers, and we have to be there, we have to be on the front line. And if we are not, then we can’t tell the story that keeps you all connected sitting hundreds of miles away. Legal and moral protection must be provided for independent photographers and a complete stop must be put on imposing restrictions on their peaceful work. Without free press we can’t do our jobs, bring corruption, injustice and inhumanity before the eyes of the world, just imagine to what depths society can sink to.

We ask for Mahmoud’s immediate release and especially for those Egyptians on the ground to help give him and other’s a voice. If I were in Cairo I know where I would be standing, outside the prison holding a placard sending a loud message saying ‘FREE SHAWKAN’

Notes: Freedom for Shawkan page

His photojournalism work:

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