Interview with… Patrick Tombola reporting from Cairo, Egypt

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Photos by Patrick Tombola

Patrick Tombola is a multimedia photojournalist currently based in Cairo, Egypt.
His aim is to capture compelling stories with a strong sense of journalistic ethic and integrity through a variety of mediums including photography; video; radio and print.
His work has been published widely in Australia, Europe and Indonesia.
Tombola has witnessed and reported events worldwide, from the civil war that shook Libya to problems of drug addiction in the slums of Jakarta, from recent social upheaval in Cairo to issues of homelessness on the polished streets of Sydney.

1) What’s going on today in Cairo?
Over the last week we have witnessed Egyptian Special Forces raiding 17 local and foreign funded pro democracy NGOs. This move is telling of the times to come, especially as the one-year anniversary of the January 25 revolution approaches. Despite the fact that clashes in Tahrir Square have ceased, tensions are still simmering just below the surface and all parties involved are on a constant state of high alert.

2) Why did you decide to move to Cairo for a while?
From a geo-political and cultural point of view Egypt is a country of huge strategic importance. It’s proximity to Israel, ties with foreign Western powers and cultural dominance over the Arab world make it a great place to find challenging stories, learn more about Middle Eastern affairs and learn basic Arabic. At first I came to cover a specific story on a specific ethnic minority in Cairo but then saw no point in catching a flight back. So for now I call Cairo my home.

3) How difficult it is working there?
Well, it really depends on what you’re covering, how you approach your subject, your cultural sensitivity and previous experience. An issue such as women’s rights is not only hard to cover visually but access to women in a vulnerable condition is exceptionally hard, especially for a male photographer. But then again, a good fixer, great connections and lots of patience can get you a long way.

4) I know that you had an injury during one of the demonstrations, can you tell us something about that?
I was covering the first day of the December clashes on one of the street near Tahrir. A demonstrator was shielding me as thugs threw rocks from rooftops when a rock hit me straight on the wrist, causing a deep cut and a minor fracture. When I was taken to the nearby field hospital I quickly realized that others had not been so lucky. I think a young boy next to me who had extensive head injury later died in hospital, though I was not able to confirm it with hospital staff. Whilst I always wear a helmet in this kind of situation, most photographers can only minimize risk not avoided altogether.

5) Witch kind of suggestion can you give to someone who wants to go to Cairo to take photos?
I’d say first try and read as much about Egypt as possible including its history, customs and politics. Understanding gender relations, the complex coexistence of different faiths and ethnic groups will aid incredibly your chances of both being granted access to important visual narratives and not incur into any unpleasant faux pas.
In terms of photographing Tahrir Square, that’s a whole different thing. Before you even take your camera out of your pouch spend as long as it takes to read thoroughly the situation you’re in; no matter how many times you’ve been back to the same place, every time it’s different. What was acceptable just an hour before, it might not be now. Ask other photographers if they encountered problems and what political groups, if any, are present in the square in that moment.

6) How many photographers did you meet in Cairo, were there many Italians?
When I first arrived in Cairo it was hard to grasp how many photographers were working in the city as everyone would be busy covering different stories. Once the clashes kicked off numbers grew exponentially every day. I met countless Italian photographers, some with a wealth of experience, others just starting off. Regardless there was a good group, all looking out for each other as best we could.

7) What do you think about photojournalism today?
Ahh, here comes the tough question. I’m not inclined to make broad statements about photojournalism, as the industry is so diverse and fast changing and ultimately each photographer approaches it differently.
I do believe that we are certainly facing a moment of crisis but I’m not as pessimistic as some of my colleagues. Whenever an economic model crumbles another rises from its ashes. Personally I think compelling stories, good journalism integrity and investigative work both in terms of content and visual narrative will always have a place, albeit a smaller and more competitive one.

8.) What about multimedia, do you think they will be more interesting for the media market then photographs?
Multimedia has been somewhat of a buzzword amongst photojournalists over the past couple of years and to some extent deservedly so. Strong images coupled with high quality sound recording and powerful video footage is the missing link between the agelessness of still images and power of moving images. However, there are copious amounts of cheap multimedia out there, thrown together with little or no scripting and no editing skills whatsoever. Unfortunately most media publish the former as they require little money and time. However, as ipads and androids will become the norm and wireless internet will become more available, I hope editors will start seeing the benefit of investing in high quality multimedia storytelling.

10) After Cairo what’s your next step, do you know it already?
I have different projects lined up in Italy, Indonesia and Australia; a documentary series potentially lined up for the second part of 2012 that would take me to Mexico. However, deep down, I hope to have a coffee in Damascus as soon as possible. It’s appalling what Syrians are enduring and I feel it’s our duty as journalists to expose the full implication of the regime’s repression.

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