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Behind the Camera: Egyptian Photojournalist Asmaa Waguih Talks War Photography


Behind the Camera: Egyptian Photojournalist Asmaa Waguih Talks War Photography

Afghanistan | Photo credit: Asmaa Waguih

Photojournalists are storytellers like no other. They are our eyes on the world, speaking the truth about overlooked stories and often forgotten people.

In Asmaa Waguih’s photographs, there are hearts yearning for freedom and war-torn lands still reeling from occupation. An intrepid photojournalist, she supports assignments in Gaza, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.

For more than two decades, Waguih’s photography has been a window into the raw humanity, pain and futility of war in these places and around the world.

Pictured: Asmaa Waguih

Egyptian Streets spoke to Waguih about her journey in photojournalism, the stories that influence her, and the world she dreams of capturing through her photography.

Tell us about your journey with photojournalism – how did you get started? And what prompted you to pursue it professionally?

I first studied English Literature at Ain Shams University, but worked as a journalist long before I got into photojournalism. Throughout my career, I have mainly worked as a freelancer, but have also worked in local newspapers and magazines. I’ve always wanted to shine a light on stories that matter to people – to write about minorities, women’s rights and the issues that happened on the streets of Egypt.

I’ve always been interested in photography, but in Egypt there wasn’t enough talk about being a female photojournalist. We always hear about musawar (photographer), which mainly refers to male photographers, but never about al muswaera (female photographer). And I wanted to be.

Iraq | Photo credit: Asmaa Waguih

When I worked as a journalist, I always had a camera with me. Even before the introduction of digital cameras, I used to carry my film camera on my missions. I would hear about a story, bring it back, take pictures, then develop them.

My first introduction to digital cameras was at the start of the Iraq war in 2003. It was my first time using a digital camera, so everything was different for me. Iraq was a turning point in my life, because even though I went there as a journalist to report on it, I was incredibly inspired by the women who were there as photojournalists.

In Egypt, photographers sometimes treat their work as if they have fixed working hours, a shift that they have to complete. They work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., or 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and as long as you take a picture of someone in the hospital or the bus accident, you’re doing your job. There is little or no challenge.

Afghanistan | Photo credit: Asmaa Waguih

I wanted to do more with photography.

What are the stories that appeal to you the most?

Difficult and challenging stories are the ones that grab my attention the most. In 1997 I went to Libya because I wanted to know more about former President Muammar Gaddafi. A lot of people told me that I wouldn’t find anything worth covering. I was particularly young at the time, but decided to go, even though I didn’t come back with pictures or a story. In 2007, I started going to Gaza, and most of the time, I was not limited to a mission, I gave myself a mission.

Iraq | Photo credit: Asmaa Waguih
Iraq | Photo credit: Asmaa Waguih

The story doesn’t need to cover a war zone. I had enough curiosity and fervor to draw inspiration from different stories. I worked at Reuters for a while, and someone who worked there told me that I had a “wanderer” that really pushed me to broaden my horizons in my job.

When my colleagues did not want to go on a mission, I was sent. I lived in Iraq for three years, so I was always on alert. I was in Libya until they captured Gaddafi, and my work in Libya sent me to Syria, and my career took off from there.

There are hundreds of hungry photojournalists around. How do you bring something different?

I’m a curious person by nature, so I dig deep. I do my best to talk to the people around me, because their stories can tell me more than my eyes can see. There will always be a story, and every day opens a new door to discover something new. While capturing something new can be difficult when working alone or as a freelancer, there’s something special about being alone and discovering stories for yourself.

Yemen | Photo credit: Asmaa Waguih

When I got hurt, I realized that covering war doesn’t necessarily mean capturing someone with a gun. People miss the same old pictures of soldiers and trenches. Often there is power in the simplicity of a photograph. New eyes see new things, so I always need to be curious and open to new challenges.

Does covering war, poor places and destruction sometimes affect you negatively? How do you stay calm and focused when covering a story that could be emotionally charged?

I was shot and wounded when I worked for Reuters. The next time I heard explosives, I was very anxious and stressed because it was as if I had returned to the point of the trauma, but I never stopped. In 2017 I went to Iraq during clashes with ISIS.

It takes time and everyone is different. Few people can handle this type of work. That doesn’t mean they’re “bad” journalists, it just means they’re made for something different.

Ukraine | Photo credit: Asmaa Waguih

As a photojournalist, I’m always hungry because I love what I do. It’s in my nature to never stop, that’s why I don’t take a lot of breaks, because there will always be a story. I was never going to become a photojournalist by just watching the news, so I went after what I wanted, Gaza in 2007, Afghanistan and even Ukraine recently.

If you had to advise inspiring photojournalists, what would you tell them?

Yemen | Photo credit: Asmaa Waguih

Whether you are a man or a woman, you must be brave and curious. A good photojournalist is a strategic photojournalist, one who knows where to find the right shots and angles, so it’s important to study and know your exits and entrances well, and always be ready to aim and shoot. And above all, always have the fervor to know more.

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