Documenting Egyptian Girlhood Through the Art of Fashion Photography: Malak El Sawi

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Photographer: Malak El Sawi

“Fashion photographers are the new painters,” renowned fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh once said. But in other societies, they aren’t just painters; they’re also storytellers, activists, academics, and historians. They look at fashion more as an art form, exploring multiple socio-political issues such as feminism, identity, and resistance.

In Egypt, fashion photography has been rising over the recent years against dramatic social and political shifts that have radically altered the social fabric. From the 2011 revolution to the rise and fall of ex-president Morsi, and now with the current status quo, questions of identity came to very much take hold among the youth, with some starting to define their own independent identity that is quite detached from the social and political context.

We see this most evidently on social media, particularly on visual social platforms such as Instagram or TikTok, as it allows young girls and boys to be more exposed to various identities, as well as express their own. Yet there is also a new generation of fashion photographers that are presenting new ways of documenting contemporary reality, and more importantly the identities of young women. Creating an aesthetic out of the lives of Egyptian youth and the way they dress, and unveil the many different identities that have come to develop over the years.

Malak El Sawi, a young Egyptian fashion photographer, is a great example of how fashion photography can blend with socio-political issues, rather than just glamour and commercialism. Addressing society’s obsession with women’s bodies and dress, she looks in particular as to how fashion can both create and destruct identities.

Photographer: Malak El Sawi

Photographer: Malak El Sawi

After receiving her BA in fashion photography from London College of Fashion as well as art and design from Central Saint Martins, El Sawi came to Egypt and launched her Instagram page, which helped pave the way for her career as a fashion photographer. “Since I was at university, I was always interested in fashion photography, but not just in shooting a girl standing in a location or a studio, but in things that were slightly more political,” El Sawi tells Egyptian Streets.

“It is very easy for fashion photography to be offensive, especially since it portrays a very glamorous and an unattainable lifestyle. But on the other hand, fashion is also responsible for bringing into the mainstream a lot of very radical ideas, or any change or subculture that people are not aware of,” she adds.

Photographer: Malak El Sawi

Photographer: Malak El Sawi

Photographer: Malak El Sawi

Bringing subcultures to the mainstream, El Sawi’s fashion photography documents the lives of young Egyptian women and youth by focusing on the Egyptian identity, pushing for more locally driven fashion photography that is less Westernized. An example would be her shoot “Baby Goes to the Giza Zoo,” which uses local fashion and reconceptualizes Egyptian streets and backgrounds to reflect the reality and lives of these young women.

“I was thinking a lot about my identity as a woman in Egypt, or as a Muslim woman, so a lot of my work at the time explored femininity in different ways,” El Sawi adds, “but then I became more interested in youth in general, because I felt like with the ongoing political and social changes, it didn’t very much change the spirit of young people. In fact, they were becoming more independent and were defining themselves on their own terms, so I wanted to capture this individualism.”

Photographer: Malak El Sawi

In one photograph, El Sawi captures two girls in short dresses next to a wall painting of Sheikh Muhammad Metwalli al-Sha’rawi, exploring the many sides to Egypt that are not always seen by the general public. “For me, this is Egypt. I want everyone to be accepted, because it is important to represent others and not exclude anyone or make them feel that they are alone,” she adds.

Photographer: Malak El Sawi

However, this acceptance of individualism continues to be a battle, which pushes her to create her own resistance through art. “When I take a photograph in the streets, it is more personal – it’s my own kind of resistance by bringing this girl and make her dress like that,” El Sawi says, “it’s a way to rub it in people’s face and push them to accept it,”

Photographer: Malak El Sawi

For fashion photography to blossom further in the region, more fashion and women magazines should be available to create more of an economy, El Sawi adds, as the market is still very small and more commercially focused. For instance, creative fashion magazines such as Dazed, Show Studio and The Face in the West allowed a new image of British and American national identities to emerge, particularly youth identities. Most recently, SYNC School, founded by Mustafa Sharara, has been one of the few spaces for creatives in Egypt, offering workshops and events that revolve around various creative fields.

Yet despite the challenges, fashion photography’s role within art continues to grow, as the current sociopolitical contexts pushes it to explore different themes. Today, fashion photos have come to represent the many complex and contradicting realities happening in people’s day-to-day lives, from glamour and beauty to social justice and politics – fusing the worlds of fantasy and reality together.