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Confluences: On Mohamed Mahdy's Archival Storytelling

Welcome to Confluences, a weekly column on art, kinship and life. Each week we approach one of the themes of the magazine’s current print issue by looking at a creative event, endeavour, or body of work that links to that theme and taps into a larger conversation with the world around us.

“As photographers, we always have this ego somehow that we know better or we know everything, and when we go to a place, there will always be a kind of power dynamic when you are holding a camera. So this power dynamic, I feel it has to change,” Egyptian photographer Mohamed Mahdy tells me when we connect over WhatsApp. “So I'm always trying to find ways of making people [have] agency or to empower my community because they are also human beings, and it's their stories. I want to just make them have the power and control over the narrative more than just presenting my perspective.”

I’m always interested in storytelling that inventively incorporates archival materials. Their inclusion takes a narrative to a different register and builds into it a different and more three-dimensional dynamism. It’s a classic example of “show, don’t tell,” married with an awareness of the importance of treating subjects as active participants with the power and dignity to shape their own portrayals - particularly in the case of a story that deals with those subjects’ disenfranchisement or dispossession.

‘I'm always trying to find ways of making people [have] agency or to empower my community because they are also human beings, and it's their stories.’

— Mohamed Mahdy

This is what draws me to Mahdy’s award-winning body of work, Here, The Doors Don’t Know Me, a multimedia project that uses documentary photography, archives, handwritten letters, drawings, video and sound to amplify the experiences of inhabitants in Al Max, a fishing community in Alexandria, Egypt - just west of central Alexandria where he lives. Situated alongside the Mahmoudiyah Canal, which was built in 1820 by order of Viceroy Mohamed Ali to bring water from the Nile to Alexandria, Al Max is often referred to as Little Venice. “I passed by it every day on my way home when I first started photography,” the artist tells Magnum Foundation. “It was one of the most attractive locations for amateur photographers to practice because of the beautiful landscape, ancient culture, and friendly people.”

In 2016, Al Max’s residents awoke to the news that the neighbourhood was set for demolition and that they were to be relocated to new apartment buildings in other parts of the city. “The government cites rising sea levels due to global climate change and a need for urban renewal and development as reasons for relocation,” says World Press Photo, “but many residents remain skeptical of its necessity. What is certain is that relocation means not only demolishing homes, but endangering the collective memories and local culture embedded in the neighborhood of Al Max. The stories captured by this project speak to the precarity of people everywhere striving for recognition amid global economic and environmental upheaval.” As Mahdy explains: “They would have [to] leave behind their homes on the canal, generations of history, and possibly their livelihoods as fishers, as it was uncertain what would happen to their boats.” Many inhabitants have tried to resist this ongoing forced removal, but this has proven difficult in the face of state-sponsored media campaigns designed to curb solidarity amongst residents. As of late 2023, Mahdy says, 1500 families have been displaced, and the development of Al Max’s port has been approved to begin.

Since 2016, Mahdy has been working in collaboration with Al Max residents to document their stories and experiences - largely in their own words. This includes “last letters”, inspired by messages in bottles that would wash onto the shores of Al Max, Mahdy asked residents to write letters about the community, “building an archive of private memories for future generations.” Visitors to the project’s interactive website are also encouraged to submit letters to the residents of Al Max - creating a two-way street of communication and shared storytelling. “A photograph is something very subjective,” the artist tells me; it shows or tells only part of a truth, not a complete truth. How then, he wonders, to get closer to the truth? By providing more materials, to investigate the history, to investigate archival material, to give people the chance to narrate their own stories by writing… Sometimes it’s about asking people: how do you want to be represented? How do you see yourself? How do you want others to see you?”

‘Sometimes it’s about asking people: how do you want to be represented? How do you see yourself? How do you want others to see you?’

— Mohamed Mahdy

Entering the interactive site, I scroll through black-and-white photos from the 20th century: children gathered around a fisherman in 1917; a couple standing hand-in-hand in 1965; participant Fawzy, as a child, at a family picnic in 1969. Then come Mahdy’s photographs: a family in their home, pre-demolition; a fisherman casting a line amid glimmering sea; fisherfolk protesting the demolition during the visit of a member of Parliament in 2016. Archival images, participants’ letters (both scanned text, in Arabic, and audio recordings), and newspaper clippings are interspersed.

Fawzy appears again, now an adult, swimming in 1996 - accompanied by his letter, in which he recalls getting distracted by the call of the sea on his way to work every day. Um Karam, pictured on her wedding day in 1991, recalls her pre-demolition home in her letter: “I remember the tree we planted in front of our house and how each day when I would wake, I would sit under its shade and recite the Quran. The birds and the pigeons would gather around me. It was another world. It was my heaven. After the demolition we would look through the destroyed bricks and find things we had forgotten about.”

Further down the page is an aerial map of the neighbourhood, marked with areas that have already been demolished and those slated for demolition in the coming years. “My practice is to combine different elements, but also, as a human being, if you think how you perceive the surrounding or the environment around us: we feel, we touch, we smell, and we taste,” says Mahdy, “so we use our senses to get what's surrounding. And I feel I can also do the same with my projects, to find elements that could be close to how we sense the environment. When I do exhibitions, I'm trying to make people get a closer feel into how it feels being there.”

The overall effect of the project is sobering, nuanced and wholly human. It’s the story of a community trying their best to live, remember, and honour the environment - both natural and built - that they call home. “I do believe that the role of the artist or the documentarian today is to kind of connect people together, connect cultures together,” Mahdy says, summing things up eloquently. “I'm always thinking about what to leave behind. And what to leave behind is not only the images - which are important to the history - but also if you can do something with your photograph; for example, creating a kind of community gathering or exhibition to support the communities you are working with.”

‘My practice is to combine different elements, but also, as a human being, if you think how you perceive the surrounding or the environment around us: we feel, we touch, we smell, and we taste, so we use our senses to get what's surrounding. And I feel I can also do the same with my projects, to find elements that could be close to how we sense the environment. When I do exhibitions, I'm trying to make people get a closer feel into how it feels being there.’

— Mohamed Mahdy

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