When the spirit of revolution swept across Egypt in 2011, an amateur photographer put aside his studies and headed to Tahrir Square, camera in hand. It was the beginning of big changes both for his career and his country.
Mosa’ab Elshamy, now 23, bore witness to ongoing strife punctuated by the rise and fall of Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Through photography (Elshamy currents uses a Canon EOS 60D), he documented this period in his country’s history with stunning consistency and emotional depth.
“I feel it has added a lot more to me as a human; it makes you understand people quite a lot more,” Elshamy told Mashable during a Skype interview. “Significant events which really should never be taken lightly — a person getting killed by another person — become very personal.”
Many have justifiably credited social media for facilitating the Egyptian Revolution and, more generally, the Arab Spring. But it was individuals like Elshamy who risked their lives posting profound updates.
“As a photographer, you’re going to be targeted,” he said. “You might get assaulted by mobs or by a certain group of people who find you suspicious.”
Last week, Elshamy called it quits on a day of shooting after a “very eerie and terrifying moment” when he felt a sniper’s bullet whiz right past his head — something he has experienced two or three times before. On the way home, a group of vigilantes stole his camera.
Before the revolution began, Elshamy enjoyed snapping nature photos and portraits of his friends. He had 200 followers on Twitter. As he began documenting the revolution — first through tweets, then, as his skills developed, through photography — Elshamy’s following quickly grew.
When more violence broke out last week — a clash between the military and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi that left more than 600 dead — Elshamy posted more than 220 photos to Flickr. Most of those photos accrued hundreds of thousands of views; some surpassed half a million.
“The role of social media in Egypt cannot be ignored,” Elshamy said.
Instagram may be the only major social network uses consistently on which he hasn’t yet drawn a sizable following (but not for a lack of quality images).
In what seems like an ironic twist, Elshamy notes that many Egyptian politicians — including Morsi — now have profiles on the various networks. In July, the embattled president sparred with Egypt’s military on social media; Morsi on Twitter and the military on Facebook.
Yet while use of social media has continued to grow throughout the world, the democracy is helped secure in Egypt may be in trouble. Protests and violence are still commonplace. The military removed the county’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi — and former president Hosni Mubarak, deposed by the 2011 revolution, was freed from prison on Thursday.
Elshamy poignantly captured the zeitgeist of the Egyptian revolutionary in his Twitter bio, which for two years read, “I revolted and overthrew a dictator.” He said as ” despair and disenchantment kicked in,” he felt it needed to be changed. Quoting a song lyric by Gregory Alan Isakov, Elshamy’s bio now reads, “Love was a country we couldn’t defend.”
Over the course of two and a half years, the once-amateur photographer has evolved into a professional photojournalist. Elshamy’s photos have appeared in publications such as TIME, Harper’s, The Economist and Foreign Policy Magazine, as well as on Al Jazeera English. He received awards from the Egypt International photography contest and the Arab Union of Photographers competition, and his work has been on exhibit in Egypt, Germany and England.
“All of this has been a very humbling experience,” Elshamy said.
When posting on Flickr, Elshamy usually doesn’t add captions to his photos. We picked 10 of his recently-published photos and asked him to recount what he remembered at the time of shooting. Scroll through the gallery below for a first-hand account of last week’s conflicts between protesters and security forces.
Warning: Some of the photos in this gallery depict scenes of violence and death that some may find disturbing.