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Monday, 29 June 2015

The People: A Day of Chaos, Bloodshed and Death

In the Shadow of the Pyramids by Laura El-Tantawy was a quick sell. The 500 copies went in about a month and if you missed it, well you missed it. It sold well because it was a superb combination of a personal story (El Tantawy's return to Egypt and discovery of herself and her country) mixed with the story of the protests of Tahrir Square. This is from the review I wrote for Photo Eye.

“There are 90 million people in this country. Ninety million stories to be told. This is the beginning of only one.”

The country is Egypt, the year is 2011 and the Arab Spring is in full flight. Cairo’s Tahrir Square is packed with protestors against the president’s rule and El-Tantawy is in their midst. “In the square of Liberation I found dreamers. Just like in the films. Thousands of them. In Tahrir Square I found myself again.”

It's a great book and there's the idea that she could have sold 2,000 copies so why didn't she print 2,000 copies. Why was she so selfish as to make such a small edition when she KNEW they would sell out.

Except she didn't know. The idea here is being wise after the event. I'm sure El Tantawy was confident in her heart that her book would do well, but I also know there was a lack of confidence there, an uncertainty that the book might not sell.

We know now that In the Shadow of the Pyramids sold well but how can we be wise before the event. There are many people who think their book will do brilliantly and sell in the thousands and they don't. What happens when you print too many books? You end up with a massive stock pile of books which you can't store. You've cut down half a rainforest for something that is ultimately going to be pulped. And you end up looking a bit of complacent for doing so. And there's nothing quite so annoying as complacency (either in myself or in others).

I don't mind small editions, big editions, cheap books, expensive books, books that sell out, stupid ebay prices, book-fetishisation, whatever. It's all good to me. There are lots of books out there, so if you can't buy one, then buy another. And if you really love something, get it whilst you can. Or pay a bit more for it if it's sold out and you want it so bad. Save up if you're skint.

And if you still can't afford it, look at it online somewhere, or  watch the movie. It's not ideal but so it goes. It's nice that people are doing this (and they're doing it for love not money) and hopefully one day soon, somebody will create a digital library of photobooks.

So perhaps that's why El Tantawy didn't print 2,000 copies. It's the sign of a smart photographer not being complacent. Because complacency really is the enemy of everything.

What El-Tantawy did print 1,500 copies of is a newspaper called The People. This was meant to be distributed free to the people of Cairo - but that proved difficult so it went on sale in a variety of currencies. £25, $25, Euros 25, 25 Egyptian pounds and so on. The more expensive versions subsidised the cheaper version.

The People is not the same as In the Shadow of the Pyramids. It doesn't have that sense of personal discovery, it is more focussed on the chaos of the events in Tahrir Square and beyond. Changing that story was a challenge for Sybren Kuiper the designer.

'It was really interesting to design that story in a totally different way. but when Laura asked me to do a newspaper edition it posed a few challenges.

 A real newspaper has more text to combine with the photos and it has bigger pages so you can't work with one image a spread if you want to use a significant amount of the pictures from the book. Still you want to get the growing chaos across to the readers. So you end up with a totally different graphic design. I applaud here for her courage to do so. Most people would have wanted an In the Shadow of the Pyramids 2.'

So the People is about the chaos of events. It's a newspaper where one picture folds into another. But it's not really a newspaper because there's a sense of the image breaking up into each other - the photographs are destroyed to form part of a greater whole.

The People shows the escalation of the demonstrations, the violence inflicted on the people, the bloodshed, the death and the aftermath of the clampdown. It's beautifully designed with  a bell-jar sequence (quiet-loud-quiet) that is laid out over a dawn-dusk-dawn framework and it works splendidly. There are colour inserts that focus on the grieving, the missing, the dead, and there is a text in Arabic that gives it a specific context (as does the Arabic reverse-flow of the pages).

And even though it's not an In the Shadow of the Pyramids 2, at the same time it is. It's the same but different, and if you missed out on the out-of-print book edition, the newspaper version is not a disappointment. And if you have the book, the newspaper creates a different perspective on how both the book and the events of Tahrir Square unfolded.

See more spreads on Josef Chladek's Virtual Bookshelf.

Buy the People here.

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