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Young Photojournalist Amanda Mustard On Life in Cairo

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Each image in Amanda Mustard‘s collection of photographs in Egypt is a vibrant journey into a single moment. At 21, Mustard packed up her life and moved to Cairo, a far cry from the Christmas tree farm in rural Pennsylvania where she was raised. Mustard has lived in Cairo for 3 years, facing possible danger and harassment daily, not only as a photojournalist but as a female. Drawn to Cairo by the inexpensive living (her rent was just $70 per month), she ended up staying because of the unending subject matter that existed alongside the time she needed to develop her skills as a photojournalist.

Though she is now relocating to Bangkok, Mustard has much to show for the last 3 years: she is one of PhotoBoite’s 30 Under 30 Women Photographers for 2014, she won PDN’s The Shot competition in 2011, and her work has appeared in the likes of The Wall Street Journal, TIME, VICE, Newsweek, Monocle, Mother Jones and many others. She wrote to us about life as an American female photojournalist in Egypt and the stories she seeks to tell.

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How did you get from Pennsylvania to Cairo? What drew you to Cairo and what kept you coming back?
“I was one of the few graduates who really didn’t jive with the college debt. At 17, I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. I was a pianist and marimbist, but didn’t want to taint my love of playing with the mandatory level of competitiveness you need to be a ‘professional’, so I moved to New York and worked two weird jobs that gave me money to travel. One of these trips was to Cairo in 2010, which later became the first leg of my ‘I want to be a photographer’ world trip.”

How did you teach yourself to be a photojournalist?
“I just started using the resources I had. A photographer friend sat me down and explained the basics of shooting on manual, and then I used Google to read and watch everything I could soak up. I saved up some cash, quit my jobs in 2011, and booked a round-the-world trip to give myself the space and time for full immersion. I found bizarre festivals and cultural stories that interested me, and just shot constantly. I also reached out to established photographers wherever I was, who so kindly would look at my work and offer advice in moving forward. I think I grew the most from hearing their honesty. I’m always extremely grateful to anyone who gives my work their time and thoughts.”

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Instead of focusing all of your attention on unrest in Egypt, you’ve also found other stories to tell (from pigeon coops to parkour).  Can you talk a little bit about why these were important stories for you to tell?
“I thought it was important to break the stereotypes of how the media was covering Egypt. Cairo itself is about 175 square miles holding 18 million people. When friends or family at home would see Egypt in the news, their imaginations would run wild, there was a huge disconnect between the Egypt I knew and the one in the news. I felt like I was contributing to that by investing most of my time covering the conflict, so I started pulling away from unrest to focus on stories that brought a new perspective. I thought that the parkour story was an interesting way that some young men stayed grounded despite what was happening around them, creating a healthy community to support themselves with. There’s innovation and creativity happening in Egypt just like anywhere else, people doing interesting and beautiful things, we just need to look.”

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What do you hope your photographs of Egypt impart to an audience?
“I started shooting in Egypt at the height of political uprisings, but found myself over time getting frustrated at the stereotypical shots that you know were the ones that would sell. I think I can sum up that thought by pointing to Newsweek’s infamous ‘Muslim Rage’ cover. Many days the story I would see on the ground would be portrayed very differently in the news. Some days a huge story would be developing that wouldn’t get past Twitter, and other days where I’d have a wave of messages from friends and family at home expressing concern about my safety, when what was really happening on the ground was nothing.

That’s why I started my GoPro POV videos, because I wanted people to see what I was seeing, injected with the shots I was taking at that very moment. I wanted to show how some of very dramatic shots could come from really mundane moments. It was really an interesting experiment for me to really question the presentation of events in the media at large, and my role in the matter. But to answer the original question, I hope my photographs from Egypt push past the stereotypes, and allow a fresh perspective of what is happening in Egypt, whether it be coverage of a protest or a story on Egyptian girls empowering themselves through roller derby.”

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Is it difficult to get people to allow you to take their pictures? What do you to do to persuade them?
“Unfortunately since the catastrophic events that rolled out over the summer of 2013, shooting on the streets has become much more difficult. Xenophobia and paranoia is something you’re constantly faced with when you have a camera in your hand. Shooting in Egypt takes a special type of finesse, a sharp sense of being able to read people and the situation around you, and a fast reaction if things turn bad. The emotion of any atmosphere can be volatile, and it has helped me greatly to always not only be positive, but to be overly friendly, almost comically. When I’m shooting on the streets, I smile and laugh a lot and my body language is very goofy, so that the people watching read me as someone they shouldn’t feel threatened by. It sounds stupid, but it really goes a long way here and has helped me keep fickle situations from escalating.

“If someone doesn’t want me taking a photo, I drop it right then and there, apologize, and move on. These situations can escalate extremely fast here, and I do everything I possibly can to avoid confrontation. Gaining people’s trust is also helped by the fact that I’m a woman, although that trust can and has turned predatory in many cases. It’s a very exhausting dance, and I’ve had to stop working on a few stories because a subject or fixer has ‘turned’ on me.”

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What are the greatest challenges and the greatest benefits to being a photojournalist in Cairo?
“I’ve recently made the decision to leave Cairo and relocate to Bangkok. Cairo is an incredible city with the endless places and stories to discover and incredibly interesting people to meet, and at a price perfect for the emerging freelancer’s wallet. This biggest challenge of Egypt, for me, is being a woman. 99.3% of women here experience harassment, many on a daily basis. Sexual violence towards women is much more acute in protests and crowds, but going to get my groceries is also something I have to mentally prepare myself for.

“The atmosphere for women changed greatly on the streets after the Revolution. There’s a sense of lawlessness on the streets in the absence of a state, and perpetrators know that there will be no punishment for what they do or say. The way that I’ve heard Cairo explained many, many times, is that it’s a ‘bad relationship’. Periods of extreme darkness, and then unexpected moments that remind you of why first fell in love with it. The longer you stay, the harder it is to pull yourself out, for me at least. It’s certainly a tradeoff, but after 3 years, one that I’m honestly too tired to make.

“Speaking personally, the sacrifices I have to make here as a woman either distract me from my work, or make it impossible, and I’m ready to move on.”

What do you do when you’re photographing a dangerous event and someone needs help? How do you protect yourself?
“I’m extremely grateful to have been trained through Sebastian Junger’s program RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues), to be able to have the confidence and basic knowledge of how to sustain someone who is injured until proper medical care is available. It was an incredibly empowering course, and I’ve had a few low-key experiences where I’ve been able to put the knowledge to use, but not directly in conflict (yet). I’ve previously put together an in-depth piece on how I protect myself in dangerous events (specific to Cairo) in a post on The Photo Brigade.”

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Can you expand a little on the precautions that you have to take when you are in situations where there are a lot of crowds and when you are just walking to the store.  Do you carry weapons or anything to protect yourself (in either scenario)? Or self defense of any kind?
“The political atmosphere and risks for media workers has changed a lot since I was making my GoPro videos, the number of protests has decreased and the aggression towards journalists is much higher. But throughout 2012, I definitely had a pattern of behavior to protect myself when working. The top priority for women was to not get caught in a tight crowd. Since the revolution began, large-scale protests are almost guaranteed to produce barbaric sexual violence once the sun sets. Countless women have stripped, limbs stretched and broken, dragged around by their hair, their orifices torn by the many hands of monsters. It’s savage. I refused to cover any event after sunset, even if I could have a team of Marines with me. During the daylight, I always worked with either a male colleague or had a trusted friend come and keep an eye on me while I worked.

“For me, I wear baggy, earth-tone clothing, preferably of the men’s variety. Draw as little attention as possible, and the more boyish, the better. I keep a mean expression on my face, and move very quickly. Obviously the onus shouldn’t be on me or any woman to mitigate these factors, but it’s an unfortunate reality. I used to carry a small stun gun or mace around, but realized how easily that could be taken and used against me. I did whack a kid once with my monopod when he lunged to touch my nether region. Self defense is a great skill to have anywhere in the world, but here, confronting a harasser can escalate into an ugly situation very quickly.

“Once, a colleague of mine tried to explain to three young men who cat called me why it was disrespectful, and it took only a few sentences before one punched him in the face, and it turned into a massive brawl that involved half of the street.

“While the feminist in me chokes to say this, it’s safer to bite your tongue here, especially if your Arabic is poor. If people are watching me while I work, I smile and laugh a lot to avoid coming across as intimidating or suspicious.”

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Are there certain things that you look out for, certain behaviors that you watch out for?  Or is it just an overall uncomfortable feeling that you start to sense when something is “not right”?
“You can pick up on the atmosphere of an event pretty quickly, and then judge how stringent you need to be. In crowds, your awareness of the space and people around you needs to be absolutely sharp. It’s fairly simple, but you have to be diligent about it and keep your guard up constantly. Be wary if anyone is following you, constantly read people’s expressions and attitudes towards you, and react accordingly.”

Is there a crew of photojournalists in Cairo who know each other? Have they influenced your work in any way? Why or why not?
“I’ve found the community of journalists in Cairo to be incredibly tight-knit, and an absolutely necessary support system when working here. We’d all go out in little packs of 2 or 3 to shoot whatever was happening on the streets, and had a great system in place to give each other the individual space to work while watching each other’s backs. I’ve rarely seen ‘competition’ get in the way.

“Most of my male colleagues know how vital it is to stick together with the female journalists and to protect them in crowds, which has been lifesaving in some cases. Whether you’re assaulted, stalked, arrested, or whatever else, there is an outpour of help and support from the community here.

“A very large chunk of the foreign journalists that were based here before the 2013 summer have since left, as the press freedom here has deteriorated quickly. It’s a weird transition, but when three Al Jazeera journalists are currently serving 7+ year sentences for simply doing their job, it’s no surprise there are so few who have chosen to stay.”

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Is it frustrating to see some of your male counterparts getting a better shot simply because they can afford to take more risks?  Do you look at it that way?
“It does suck to lose great shots or have to skip a big event because it’s too risky. But both genders definitely have their advantages with access. There are plenty of vantage points and relationships that can only be developed uniquely by women. But do I think it’s unfair that when a male and female colleague go to file, the latter might have to count the bruises on her breasts? Absolutely.

“The problem lies in our lack of resources and institutional support. Who do we tell if we’re assaulted? What can be done by employers to ensure our safety? Can we get compensated to seek therapy, if necessary, after the fact? What if the assault is by a colleague? Many stay quiet out of fear of being replaced by ‘less liable’ male shooters, or that we’ll be seen as weak or whiny. There’s this underlying pressure to not let it bother you, to suck it up and keep up with the boys. Because after all, we’re supposed to be equals, right?

“Young women in the industry work just as hard to earn respect and are just as capable and trustworthy as men, but we have this patriarchal minefield to navigate. We grumble to other female colleagues over beers and cry on each other’s shoulders, we hope that the scars don’t last and that it doesn’t happen next time. Sexual violence is about intimidation, and without the support from those we work for, that intimidation is much more likely to work. Stuffing it down and biting our tongues can take a serious mental and emotional toll that in the end greatly affects the work that we do, and we need put pressure on publications to address these things.”

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Why Bangkok?  Are you moving to work on a specific project or simply for the lifestyle change?
“I am very interested in the under-covered refugee and trafficking issues in the region, however my relocation to Bangkok is mostly for a lifestyle change. You have to make a lot of sacrifices to work in Cairo as a woman, and if I’m being honest with myself, my work has suffered. If I’m followed home one day or someone touches me, I lose a lot of time coping with that. I’ve had to stop working on some stories I felt very passionately about because I start to have problems with a subject or fixer. It can be exhausting, and I just want to work. I spent some time in Thailand before I moved to Cairo, and while no place is perfect, it’s an environment much more conducive to me being a healthy person and getting work done.”

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Portrait of Amanda Mustard

All images © Amanda Mustard

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