In January 2012, a photograph with me in it was uploaded to facebook. I wasn’t tagged, as the photographer didn’t know me. Instead of that first role of facebook pictures – the demarcation and celebration of friendship ties – the picture fell into another facebook genre, the remarkable image uploaded in order to make a statement of some kind. While personal photos remain static, these sorts of pictures move in a less trackable way through reposting and shares. By the time the picture found its way onto my timeline, the postings of the photo that I was able to find on the few profiles I had access to, had been shared over 2,000 times.
The picture is like this: roughly, a mirror-image structure of two women sitting back to back, leaning against the same bollard with our knees up. I am on the right hand side. We are in the forecourt of the Mugamma, which faces onto Tahrir Square, a symbol and active force of impenetrable state bureaucracy. Our reason for being there however was more likely that it provided rare shade and cleaner space than the rest of the square, and has always been adopted as a slightly quieter protest zone, used by families and field hospitals during sit-ins.
We are each viewed from the side. My face is in profile. I am in my early thirties, pale-skinned, unveiled, in short sleeves and clearly having made a terrible choice of bra that day. My hair is in a ponytail and I am looking down with a surly, self-absorbed expression. Being unveiled, I’m most likely to be read as a Christian, a significant minority in Egypt. The other woman, darker-skinned, veiled in black and is older than me, perhaps between 35 and 50, but it’s hard to tell as her face, turned slightly away from the camera, is covered by her hand, looking like the outward expression of some deep fatigue or pain (or maybe she does not want to be pictured). Her headscarf, worn by any dignified woman of the countryside, is wrapped in a way that suggests she’s working class. The contrast between us could potentially illustrate a stark, postcolonial class divide. In short, I look spoilt and petulant (I’m only grateful that the blackberry I know was in my hand is just out of shot), in grotesque ignorance of the discomfort of the Egyptian woman sitting inches away from me. The symmetry of the image is continued by a metal chain passing in loops behind our heads; it helps construct the asymmetry of our apparent lives. The crowds of Tahrir complete the background.
How I ‘really’ was that day? I happen to have one of those faces, first of all, whose normal perfectly contented expression often prompts strangers to say ‘cheer up!’ (and me to want to hit them). I was hot, and having boyfriend troubles. I don’t think I was any more aware of who was sitting behind me than anyone else I was near. I had bought and eaten several packets of salty popcorn with my friends. Soon I would get up and return to my flat to rest for a while, a short walk away.
It was perhaps June 2011 and out of the many Friday protests I attended I am not sure what was the instigation of this pictured one. I was there with Egyptian friends, on invitation, as around this time I was trying to figure out at which protests I would be a body like the others and at which I, as a foreigner, would simply be an interloper, a tourist, an appropriator of Egyptian space, or worst of all, a fueller of rumours about foreign spies. I believed in and identified with the revolution, and would show up when I felt a non-Egyptian body occupying space could help. In the end, I certainly didn’t feel like the illustrator of anything. The picture now is an uncomfortable reminder of the vast gap between the good intentions and actual effects, and of the white person’s assumption that her presence is unmarked, representing nothing more than herself.
Despite my knowledge of the reality of the moment, my first class-based reading of this picture remains the strongest one to me, and I would ordinarily expect this to be the dominant reading overall. However in this position of being one of the subjects, I’m aware how little I really can make an objective discussion of the woman I fleetingly shared photographic space with. Firstly, because even that day I think this woman and I were unaware of each other – it was a long day of shifting crowds. But secondly, the inner knowledge of how I ‘really’ was that day (in contrast to how I look like I was) makes me sharply aware that the potential reading of her may barely reflect how she actually felt at that point. There is also the final irony in that while I’m a holder of some of the most elevated privileges of visual culture – I’m a curator and the director of a photography school and contemporary art space – the other woman may not have such frequent internet access, and it is possible that she has not seen this photo.
On facebook, the picture became a minor fad both in January and July 2012. In contrast to my reading of the image, comments in Arabic and English almost universally hail it not as a stark illustration of cruel indifference and class divide, but as the participatory universality of the revolution. Comments often proudly declare ‘THIS is Egypt’, and go on to proclaim that the revolution belongs to all. During the first circulation of the image, sexual harassment was reaching an endemic peak; new expectations of 25th January were coming around; an the almost universally male and Muslim parliament was quickly losing popularity – this was a moment when a reminder of the more universalist possibilities of Tahrir and the revolution had a strong appeal amongst facebook users. July 2012 reflected similar desires in the run-up to the first round of the Presidential Elections.
This is possibly the only time I have passed for Egyptian, or at least, there seems to be some ambiguity about it to the level that even if people are making the correct assumption that I am not, I am temporarily still able to share a representation of ‘Egypt’ as the viewers want to see it. This is extremely remarkable (and pleasant, for me). At time of writing this, suspicion of foreigners is fuelled by a rumour mill telling Egyptians not to trust foreigners on revolutionary matters. The most famous white person on a blackberry is currently a fictional spy in an anti-foreigner propaganda advert being shown repeatedly on state TV; the comparison is not flattering.
Why, then, in a picture so obviously readable in a discouraging way, has it been taken up with such a jarringly optimistic reading? I feel like this is not some anomaly or naïve misappopriation. In my view, what has happened is that the dual operation of referential ‘real’ and constructed meaning, unpicked by me above, have become irrelevant to the photograph’s operation. Both what I really am, and what the picture can symbolically construct of me, are irrelevant in the function of this image in this space. The structure of facebook is such that images tend only to circulate in spaces where they are wanted; an image not containing your ideology does not live long in your facebook consciousness. Something about facebook, then, brings out another latent possibility of the image, which is as a lightning-rod for a desired and otherwise lacking expression.
For me, the picture’s actuality; dominant connotations; and popular reception float disturbingly far apart. While frankly I consider it a lucky ‘escape’, and there’s an undeniable glamour in temporarily becoming someone else’s symbol of revolution, this story tells me that a picture is anything people want it to be. There is nothing new about how context informs a picture’s meaning; the circulation possibilities of facebook are much discussed. Here I think this circulation gives room to particular spaces of desire (the will to believe in a diverse revolutionary Egypt) that attached themselves to this image; developing a platform in which event, authorship, intention and conventional interpretation are not as important as the circulation of that will.