Photo Diary: Egypt Exploit
EGYPT. A symphony of past and present. The kind of destination so steeped in history, it feels like a portal to the ancient world. Well, almost. Photographer Ben McFadyen, no stranger to offbeat adventures, captures the intricacies of culture and place in a downright visceral way.
A sepia haze of sand and sun, Ben’s photo diary feels at once nostalgic and from a dream. The scorching heat. The streets of grit. The cacophony of car horns. The waft of market stall spices. It all feels tangible.
We fired Ben a bunch of questions concerning his Egypt exploit and photography abroad – and he kindly returned served. One hell of a honeymoon destination, McFadyen’s venture will no doubt leave you eager to slap down on airfares for your own desert romp. Read on...
Yo Ben, thanks for connecting. Firstly, what do you love about travelling as a photographer?
Visiting third-world and unexpected destinations is probably my favourite thing. I always find myself in some pretty raw and interesting places. On the last few trips I have been drawn to the Middle East and places that aren’t all blue water and white sandy beaches.
What was the catalyst for your trip to Egypt?
I had a few Egyptian mates who had been recommending I visit Egypt for years, and since COVID, I was super keen to make the trip. My wife and I got married last January and we thought it would be an exciting place to honeymoon. So we started learning a bit about the culture, food, and the must-sees.
How long were you galavanting around Egypt?
We were in Egypt for about 3 and a half weeks. We started in Cairo and then headed far west to Alexandria, where we planned to visit Siwa Oasis. But we ran into a bit of trouble as I was travelling with a Bolex 16mm cine movie camera which weighs a tonne. After getting into a situation with the military over the camera, they confiscated it until we agreed to leave Alexandria. That night we received several calls from private numbers asking for me on my Egyptian sim, so we got out of there the next morning and headed to Sharm El Sheikh & Hurghada for 1.5 weeks, then to Luxor and Aswan.
My favourite spot was Aswan. This is where you’ll find heaps of famous ancient landmarks and temples.
What was your expectation of the place before you arrived?
I had pretty high hopes for the temples and culture in Egypt, but honestly, nothing could prepare me for how amazing it actually was. I shot between 30-40 rolls over those 4 weeks, a mixture of black and white, colour 35mm, and medium format. I also shot 4-5 rolls of 250d Kodak 16mm.
What was the most exotic / weirdest thing you ate?
As a pescatarian, it's always hard to navigate your way around meat in any foreign country. But I'd have to say the food I ate at this one restaurant in Hurghada will probably haunt me for the rest of my life. Without dry-retching, it was an open-air market-style restaurant where you pick your seafood and have it cooked any way you like. The whole experience cost me three days on the toilet.
What cameras did you take on your trip?
As usual, I overpacked on the camera front and under-packed on the clothing, taking my 16mm Bolex, Contax G2 and Mamiya 7. Whilst over there I picked up an Olympus half-frame camera from a local store in Cairo.
How did you approach the locals regarding taking their portrait?
I would generally do a walk past first, check the situation, and then walk back and have a chat to see what their vibe was. If they were a bit hesitant I would stick to a chat, but if they were into it I would ask if they minded getting their photo taken.
Are there any customs or traditions travellers should be aware and respectful of when travelling throughout Egypt?
Egyptians are extremely proud people who want their country to be seen in the best light. They are wary of journalists so when travelling with several cameras expect that you will be asked what the footage is for or who you work for, but if you’re respectful and chat it out, it’s usually fine.
What’s something that stood out to you when taking photos on your trip?
I'd say the temples. There's no way to convey just how enormous and detailed they are. Nothing will prepare you for that.
Any local places you'd recommend for photography or general experiences?
When I was in-between cities, I realised that I was short a few batteries for the Mamiya 7 so I reached out to a local store, Fat Films Stop. They didn’t have the batteries but they went out of their way to source some and then had a courier drop it at the airport before my internal flight. I found that experience amazing. When I came back, I headed into the store and talked all things cameras with the owners. I also picked up an Olympus pen they were selling. They were really nice guys that were all about the film life.
What would be your advice for other photographers traveling to Egypt?
Make sure you guard your bags at every hotel and airport security checkpoint, as the X-ray scanners are super old – I didn’t trust they wouldn’t zap the film. I just pushed airport security for a hand scan and used Google translator as a good way to communicate this.
Lastly, how do you capture the moment but still be present to enjoy it?
I like that with film there’s no reviewing your photos.You are there in the moment, witnessing it, making an effort to capture it in a way that reflects your perception, and then you move on. It helps to slow down and appreciate the experience.