An interview with 

Eslam Abd El Salam

I’ve discovered Eslam’s work on Instagram and was drawn to the delicate beauty of his pictures. Taken in Egypt, Latvia and in Ireland, they invite the viewer at the threshold of a poetic world.

Hi Eslam, it’s good to have you here. Could you introduce yourself?

My name is Eslam Abd El Salam, I come from a family of teachers, my father is from Cairo and my mother is from Suez. I spent most of my childhood between the two cities. It has been almost 7 years since I moved permanently to Cairo, a city I find hard to fathom and adapt to...
I started capturing stills since 2012 very spontaneously through my first ever Smartphone and developed an interest in analogue photography in 2015. My father had a passion for stills and motion alike; he had passed this on to me at a very young age. I grew up to reading and loving cinema, especially European films and documentaries. It was all I cared about, and this love for cinema revolved more into character-driven films as I got older.

My family didn’t really travel much outside of my home country, yet I always felt this gravity that compelled me to be on the road. It was important to me; a window in which I can weave in my brain the real and the imagined.
I have always thought that photography could birth life into any notion, whether still or moving. It is the bridge between my eyes and every life installation around me. Photography propelled me to walk and walking is my retreat. I find practicing photography like an everyday effort to be more understanding, empathetic and vulnerable.
I have always been a kid who asks a lot of questions and wonders about a lot of many different narratives and what if’s. I remember those questions and my imagination were not met with proper answers and explanations. Now, I never wait for an answer, I just raise the question and with my 35mm camera we both navigate those worlds together and finally after nursing in my head for quite some time the interest to explore other mediums like moving image and sound, a room has been allowed for me to slowly braid them together.
Those questions were revolving around themes about memory, chosen solitude, identity and feelings such as loss, naivety, intuition and familiarity.

Tell us how you achieved building in your photographs of Egypt: you intertwine portraits of people you know and different kinds of environments: buildings, interiors, gardens.

Are these pictures meant to remain isolated from each other or they end up drawing a bigger picture?

Honestly, I do not believe they are strictly separate.
I believe life happens to us in different ways, I’m always attracted by how lived-in experiences show on people and objects as well. Everything stems from time and the accumulation of memories and age; it’s mesmerizing how our surroundings have this connection in between-the-lines kind of way that is obvious to the eye but it takes a moment to actually feel it. I think it’s a science in itself and I'm very drawn to that.
I was raised by my grandmother and aunt in two houses one street apart, I spent most of my childhood in those two houses who had authentic, simple taste in interiors and their animated walls. When I was young, I used to draw with colored chalks all over the stairs leading to my grandmother's apartment, all the worlds I’m imagining. The memory of places and those who came and gone is something that I’m very intrigued to capture, there is an air to that and a feeling that is beyond describable. A momentary blesses.

I always struggled to express emotions since I was a child, I found out -through cinema- there is a language spoken in this visual form and I can find my place and I can illustrate those emotions by taking photographs. I think every move starts from being still. Writing has been an everyday practice into guiding my thoughts and together they bridge the chasm between me and the world around me. I have never felt like I belong anywhere in particular and it is a general feeling that is hard to describe and has nothing to do with certain geographies or places. I always felt like I’m searching for something, this constant feeling was a companion and in different waves it visited me. I wanted to create a secret haven for me in my home country, in which I would also not be totally detached from reality. I like how certain feelings that one experience do not flee away with time but instead they stay in different shapes and forms as one gets older along with new experiences.

I spent an endless amount of time with the company of myself while growing up but that did change spontaneously through my practice. I started getting close to people whom I connected with on a level that is less materialistic (for the lack of a better word) and from being in the orbit of one another came the feeling of me wanting to unearth the personal characteristics of those people. Weaving that into a memory in disguise about the walks of our life offers a visual form of expression that can be there for me and -hopefully- for them as a natural preference.

I’m always intrigued to express the fascinating relationship between the interior by catapulting the exterior. I think this can explain now why I see those lives all connected and placed tightly to each other.
With my ongoing search for greenery and bodies of water anywhere I could find, metaphorically inside myself, within others, around my home country or any other place I cross paths with. My first three travels came quite spontaneously and especially with Latvia and Ireland, it was all about the bountifulness, fertility of the lands and rivers and those personal ties I came to build. Also, the streams of clues and

hints that came to me along the way without seeking them. Those made me believe that I am heading in a direction that is god-sent.
All of those years, those individual trails ended up drawing indeed a bigger picture that I am only becoming aware of now.
Architecture has been an element that strongly attracts me in photographs, and not only as a backdrop, but also how I see a coupling between bodily movement and spatial features, and how those smaller elements connect in the bigger tapestry of a photograph in an interesting way.

Is the evocative power of picture something you develop in a conscious manner?

Images are as powerful as planting a seed and watching it grow. In time I became more aware of its power.
I believe photography walked me through the road less taken. It placed an urge inside me to search for my true roots and being in the universe, in a way that it made me more transparent with time even if that transparency doesn’t really show sometimes. Losing my father at the crucial age of 17 and then shortly my grandmother made me grief in the most unconventional ways possible. By engaging creative work and walking, I could see, hear and feel them. I felt crushed and in denial for so many years but the more I'm exposed to nature and lands the more I'm creating my own history and keeping them alive and breathing with me, at the same time I felt like it was all I can do, learning the different ways in how to keep someone’s memory dear to the heart.
For the most part, I am either reminiscing about the past or projecting the future in a way. It is as if I started to slowly learn how to be present four years ago, I am only present in those different narratives that I am always creating in my head. I find myself quite impulsive whenever there is a moment that speaks to me, then, I do not give it much thought and run to seize it. Certainly there are times when I try to execute something and navigate my way to manifest that feeling and make it truthful. It all depends on the nature of the situation, whether I am simply walking around or working on a certain idea or project.

How does photography inform your understanding of the notions of roots and lands?

I came back from Ireland with a strange feeling that this line has been blurred, between visiting to work on a project there and my genuine desire to become more

than just a visitor. This feeling inevitably changed by relationships that I had grown with Brian and Jane. I'm still to this day mesmerized by how they came my way, separately. It felt as if I needed them and they needed me in their life without us knowing each other before. How God played all of that leaves me feeling very grateful.
It is funny how you asked this question because my love for stories of family history and archival photographs is one of the ways in which I bonded strongly with both of them. We had this instant mutual recognition when they shared their personal photo albums with me.
They made me feel like I belonged in their houses, in the streets they live in, in their worlds, in the stories of their younger years, even in the intimate photographs they let me take of them. I went on, quoting Robert Louis Stevenson “There’s no such a thing as a foreign land. It is only the visitor who is foreign.”
I witnessed those words by myself.

The amount of time I spent in Belfast, at Brian’s and Jane’s, and the feeling I had longed for with them. This has given me a chance to explore new sides of myself, personally and with the project. I was on a creative flow and that formed a realization that the search for a place of mine might come to an end, it’s like I was telling myself unconsciously “I am here and slowly I’m planting those roots that are very deep in the ground now.”
I would also like to give Polaroid film the credit for creating simple and immediate warmness that allowed me and everyone I encountered or lived with to have a great time, and forging some playfulness along the way.

When you look at a photograph of a landscape, let’s say, you feel these immortal and alternative ways of being, and this timelessness that you might never think of otherwise. I would often question my being, think how I could have found myself come to this life in any form and how it can collide, or in other words manifest, in a single photograph. It roots a sense of placeness that comes once you start feeling familiar in any environment that you find yourself in. There is stillness and a sense of submission to the notion of home, of refuge, in a photograph that has the ability to take us on a journey or carry us into a process of reflection. By knowledge and information coming from our response to still images we can only then envision different milieus of life.

What is your relationship to time and the cycle of life? Do you believe that pictures have the power to keep things alive?

As a slow observer, I am immersed in conversations around time and synchronicities. I always find myself taking time to wrap my head around things long after they ended and that made me feel isolated. It left me thinking about time in a strange way. I find it to be front and center of each of our everyday lives. I used to believe so much in coincidences and always allowed myself to make those beautiful and simple moments of interactions stay with me. Lately, I have come to believe that everything is written and set in stone for us and that is what we know as destiny, and how we can change that sometimes as it stems from our wishful hearts and how God sees and feels that. I feel that serendipity lies in a middle ground between destiny and coincidence.

I believe that time is the anchor of life and the pillar to this earth. I find that there is a right time for everything; time can be so enigmatic and mysterious. In this life, time is like a sword with two edges, one can protect you when you handle it sensitively and the other can turn against you if handled with indifference and recklessness.

I believe in the power of pictures as they keep us moving gently, yet in our hands they might tell us something about ourselves. That something can, in a way, make things fall into their right place and order that is surely provided by the help of time and its essence in places and human souls.

You can follow and discover more about Eslam Abd El Salam’s work on instagram

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