Garden of Souls: A conversation with Egyptian photographer Hana Gamal

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“I remember very well how it was through this quote ‘art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’ that I had come to discover my love for art and specifically photography three years ago,” Hana Gamal, a passionate and rebellious visual artist tells me.

“I was in a very disturbing stage in my life when I found shelter in art and this includes both poetry and visual art. When words failed to express everything I felt at that moment, art immediately stepped in,” she adds.

Hana’s photographic portfolio, which she shares snippets of on her Instagram profile, has deservedly supplied her with a huge fan base.

But Hana’s artistic experience transcends just the photography component and comprises a passion for film making, acting and writing. “Anything that has to do with camera and art, I’m in it!”

It is this interest in acting that had secured her a leading role in “El-Nas Elli Fuq” (The People Upstairs); a play by Egyptian theatre director Mahmoud El-Lozy hosted by the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) theatre last year. “I love acting because it just separates you from everything. You become another person.”

Having recently graduated from AUC with a double major in mass communication and media arts; and psychology, Hana has already embarked on an array of experiments, whether in conceptual photography, poetry writing and film making. Her work tells of her larger than life dreams and reveals her genuine aspiration to prove that art can indeed be moulded into a career.

In search of souls

Under the Instagram handle @HanaPerlas, Hana’s profile is festooned with photographs of Cairo, its wandering souls and revolutionary women. “It all began when I created an Instagram account a couple of years ago. I would publish photos I took with my phone’s camera and would complement them with short captions.”

“Change is the only constant.”

It was not long before Hana found that people enjoyed her photography and found it relatable, which encouraged her to own a professional camera and take photography courses. Soon enough, her attachment to photography halted to be merely a hobby and was sculpted into a calling.

Hana tells me she employs this social media tool to articulate her artistic philosophy; the underpinning of which is a ceaseless quest for ‘souls’ to unearth and portray. “My frame always includes a soul. I do not like to refer to them as people, but rather as souls because this is what I am in search for.”

“As a psychology and media arts graduate, my eyes unintentionally capture souls and human emotions, which I believe constitute the essence of life,” she adds.

“The tears I shed, I forgive. The suffering and disappointments, I forgive. The betrayals and lies, I forgive. The injustice in the name of justice, I forgive. The world with all its evil, I forgive.”

“Once the soul awakens, the search begins and you can never go back.”

It is this philosophy that explains why the biography section of Hana’s Instagram account goes as “Garden of Souls”.

“Count your blessings.”

“Youssef”

“The kind of art I do could be classified as conceptual art, because the notion is the most important aspect of my work. In other words, my work is a combination of souls, emotions and paradoxical situations, along with poetry.”

“From Egypt with love.”

“Egyptian rose.”

This amalgam of artistic undertakings, Hana tells me, is the resultant of her lack of interest in making her art perceptual. “I do not want it to serve the sensation of the eye. It must be speaking about something. I want my photographs to be conceptual; to always convey a certain idea or thought to the perceiver.”

“Metaphors for life.”

It is this integration of different aspects of arts that attests to the importance of captions in Hana’s repertoire. “For me, captions are very important. I express what I feel in my captions; whether in the form of a quote I could have stumbled upon or an articulation of my own. I have to make sure that while the photo stands by itself, the caption actually complements it.”

“Map of a life, memories of a soul.”

Art and women

A close scrutiny of Hana’s repertoire reveals her focus on the subject of women. The fact that women are misunderstood, especially on an emotional level, is one reason why Hana lends special importance to this particular subject in her conceptual photography.

“You broke my heart in Paris.”

“Women are fragile and delicate human beings yet they are very strong. So I like to portray their weaknesses in a beautiful and powerful way. Even if the picture shows a weakness or a weak emotion, her vulnerability is still powerful in the image.”

“I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope never to return.”

Hana is also interested in discoursing about this topic in her film work. She tells me that she is currently working on a film about women and body image. “I have, through my conversations with other girls, come to feel that women do not feel pretty anymore, thanks to social media which now has a strong impact on women and their perceptions of their bodies. In the film, I want to articulate – while trying not to fall in the cliché pitfall – the message that every woman is beautiful in her own way.”

“The heart roars like a lion at what they’ve done to us.”

Street photography

As for the street photography component in Hana’s repertory, she says that this type of photography helped inspire and dictate her own perception of the Cairene city, and enabled her to grow as a person.

“Fall down 100 times, get up 101″ said life.

“I was not interested in focusing on Cairo’s architecture, and rather chose to show Egyptians because they are the heart of Egypt.”

“Time is not your friend, it is your enemy.”

What Hana seeks to reveal is Cairo’s beauteous soul which she believes is exhibited in the genuineness of its people. “I remember this one woman I had met while wandering around the neighborhood of Abdeen of Downtown Cairo. She insisted I had to sit for breakfast with her and her kids. This is how genuine and kindhearted Egyptian people are.”

“Silent prayer.”

A dreamer

For Hana, any manifestation of beauty can be a source of inspiration. “I am most inspired by my country of course, as well as people who are vividly passionate about their vocations in life.” When it comes to inspirational artists, Hana says she seeks refuge in the repertoires of Mexican artist and feminist icon Frido Kahlo, American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, American photographer and writer Diane Arbus and Egyptian conceptual photographer Nourhan Refaat,

A dreamer first and foremost, Hana is currently busy carving the intricacies of her art career. Besides freelancing photo essays and conceptual photography shoots, Hana is also preparing for her first solo photography exhibition.

Also, she has recently embarked on a major writing project in the form of a poetry book in which she plans to combine both poetry and conceptual art. “Each poem will be accompanied by a conceptual photograph – so in that sense I envision it as a new kind of book.”

As for her film work, Hana is working on a short film centered around a poem of hers. “It will be in the form of a short video featuring a girl while a voice-over narrates the poem.”

Hana is outspokenly proud of fellow Egyptian women artists who she believes are major contributors to the booming art scene in Egypt. “We are contributing to this movement in a major way. I believe women are currently more liberal when it comes to their artistic pursuits.”