We had been in Cairo for three days. We had been bouncing around, exploring, working on a political story, photographing and shooting video. We were making trips to Tahrir Square a couple of times a day to see what the vibe was and just to talk to people, partially hoping something interesting might happen. On this specific day, Aymann was interviewing someone on the street and it turned into a heated discussion with forty people yelling at each other.
It’s hard when you don’t speak any Arabic. I’m a white guy and you kind of stick out like a sore thumb. People are shouting and it’s very loud, a lot of passionate language. I wasn’t sure if people were angry. A mob would form and then kind of disperse.
We showed up right around the first round of voting in the presidential elections. We were in Alexandria for a week for the voting and then Cairo for a week for the aftermath. There were a lot of people who were crying that there was foul play. Someone from the former regime of Hosni Mubarak really did well in the primaries and people thought that the elections were rigged as nobody could understand how anybody could really vote for him in the first place, let alone he get enough votes to be up against Mohamed Morsi, who was the Muslim Brotherhood candidate. The country was in total anarchy. There was no police anywhere. There were civilians with tasers. The military was running the show but wasn’t enforcing any laws. Piles of trash in the streets. No traffic lights, people driving on the sidewalk. Chaotic, overwhelming.
There wasn’t one incident where I was, “Oh my God, we’re going to die.” There was some machine gun fire, but it was a couple of blocks away. Not a big deal.
Aymann’s sister and I wandered off while people were yelling at him. I was just taking pictures, trying my best to communicate. Then, out of nowhere, out of the crowd, this guy springs by with a giant stick and maybe 3-4 seconds pass and a huge crowd of 40-50 people takes off after him, yelling, screaming, with other sticks in the air.
Wow. What the hell is going on? You don’t see angry mobs very often. I didn’t know what the circumstances were. I didn’t know if that guy was going to get chased down and beat to death. I had no idea.
The Square is really a circle. They went around. We tried to cut across the center square area to the other side. They sprinted so fast and took off into an alley way. It happened in 10-15 seconds. I was shooting with a 17-35mm, which is a very wide lens. I had an 85mm on my other camera which is tighter, but not super tight. It wasn’t meant to be a photo, I guess.
On one side there was a big burned down government building from the Revolution and a half-built classy Marriot hotel that was abandoned. Off to the other side was the River. Everything was trampled. There was no foliage. It looked like it was the heart of the Revolution and the heart of the Revolution was dilapidated.
The people in Tahrir Square were similar demographic to what you might see at Occupy Wall Street. It was mainly young 20-year-olds with a really narrow sense of a future and a lot of older people that were frustrated in general at the system. A lot of people my age. Plaid shirts and jeans. A third were girls.
The guy with the stick was sort of scrawny. Everybody was really thin. Here we think poverty is people who eat McDonald’s every day because that’s all they can afford and are overweight. There it’s people who just can’t eat.
I don’t like to assume, because I don’t know the language, but I think that guy was some sort of a nut job that was hitting people with a big stick and because there’s a sense of camaraderie and nationalism with the young people in Egypt, everybody was probably like, “Fuck this guy. Let’s get him! Let’s kick his ass and show him he can’t do this.”
Do I want to go back? Definitely. I have to follow up on the story I had to do. I hope now they have a greater sense of promise. Despite this chaos and anarchy, people, as a whole, took care of themselves. I have a tremendous respect for the people of Egypt because of what they had to go through. They still treat even foreigners as family. It says something about the culture.
If I was at the right place, I would have taken that shot. I feel like when I shoot, my reaction is generally… Well there, there was a little bit of caution… But my immediate reaction is safety second, photo first. Usually. I’ve never shot a war or anything really hardcore. Not yet, at least.
It would have been an awesome shot. He seemed like he was running for his life… and still carrying the giant stick.
New York photographer Dan Bracaglia travelled to Egypt to take “the next great Pulitzer photo” with ANIMAL’s own Aymann Ismail. Aymann was shooting a documentary film about the Revolution — its people, not its politics — focusing on the perspective of his family and Dan, the “foreigner” with the Western expectation of violence. The documentary, currently in the edit phase, tries show that people were celebrating more than protesting and with consensus came peace. I Should Have Shot That! is illustrated by the amazing James Noel Smith.