Photographers of the increasingly violent upheaval in Egypt are being forced — in the interest of personal safety — to adopt practices that limit their range of coverage at exactly the moment the world is hungriest for as many images from as many perspectives as possible.
According to interviews on Thursday with nine photojournalists in Cairo, it is often hard to photograph demonstrators for President Hosni Mubarak, because they are so openly hostile to journalists. On the defensive, photojournalists also find themselves traveling in packs (which they do not typically like to do), staying away from whole sections of Cairo (which is anathema) and donning helmets (which raises the likelihood they will be mistaken for government spies).
And still there are no guarantees of safe conduct, given the turbulence and the passion all around.
In Egypt, it has never been easy to photograph what the government does not want photographed. In the 1970s, for example, tourists who dared take pictures of the Aswan Dam could find themselves without cameras or film in a matter of minutes, as authorities were quick to confiscate.
But the treatment seems to have grown much rougher.
Alfred Yaghobzadeh, shooting for Sipa Press, was injured Wednesday, which happened to have been his 52nd birthday. (“It’s part of the job,” he said. “It’s no big deal.”) Just two weeks ago, he was arrested and detained by the police for 20 hours when he was in Egypt to cover the terrorist bombing of a Christian church.
“Yesterday, in Tahrir Square, stones hit me in my head, shoulders and chest,” Mr. Yaghobzadeh said Thursday. “The stone that hit me was from the Mubarak side, but it was not aimed at me. I was just in the middle. I got up, to make sure I wasn’t paralyzed, and people carried me to the medical care area set up by the protesters. They put a bandage on my head. I asked them for a painkiller and they injected me with painkiller and then I went back to work.”
Andrew Burton told a harrowing tale on his blog of becoming the epicenter of a mob struggle in which five or six anti-Mubarak protesters tried to intervene on his behalf “and took many more blows than I did.” At last, he was pinned against a tank as the crowd surged. “I only escaped when the soldiers on top of the tank literally ripped me out of the crowd, lifting me by the armpits,” he wrote. “I was dumped head first inside the tank.”
Chris Hondros, who is in Cairo for Getty Images, was assaulted on Wednesday and Thursday. In the first instance, he said:
I was covering the rock throwing and a guy came out of the woodwork, a pro-Mubarak guy, wearing civilian clothes.
He came straight at me, lunged for my camera, grabbed the lens and started yanking it down. There were some armed soldiers nearby and I was able to squirm out just enough to get over there under their protection. They were able to shield me. But then they took me into the Egyptian Museum compound, which is now a de facto Egyptian military compound. They detained me briefly and wanted to get my media cards. But I was with some other journalists. We delayed and stalled and then were able to just squirm out of there.
There is general — though not universal — agreement among the photographers we interviewed that the harassment of journalists is orchestrated by forces favoring Mr. Mubarak. The implacable hostility of the pro-government side has discouraged photographers even from approaching the lines. That, in turn, fans the suspicion among the demonstrators for the president that journalists are doing the bidding of the protesters, which only furthers the animosity.
“I tried to go on the other side,” said Goran Tomasevic of Reuters. “There are good pictures on the other side, but I don’t believe it’s possible to shoot it, so I just stay with the opposition. I know if I go on the other side, they’re going to beat me.”
In many ways, it seems, Wednesday was a turning point.
“Everybody was taken aback with surprise,” said Marco Longari of Agence France-Presse. “Everybody was in the middle when they started to throw rocks. We didn’t know which way to go. We were absolutely in the wrong position. Today, everybody was better prepared.”
Ron Haviv of the VII agency said: “An amazing, epic battle — we’re calling it kind of medieval — was taking place between the two sides. Hundreds of stones, the sky filled with stones, back and forth, with makeshift shields, and people taking some ground, losing some ground.”
He continued: It was the first time there was a real presence of support for Mubarak. One of the demonstrations was quite large and seemed to have a variety of different Egyptians: women, children, old men, young men, etc., etc. I know it’s been reported that a number of those people have been paid, which I think could be possible. But I also think the number was so large and the people I encountered there — their rhetoric and desire and their support for Mubarak seemed very genuine to me. It didn’t seem like people were being scripted, at least the people I talked to.
Among the more visible steps taken by some photojournalists, after being showered with rocks on Wednesday, was to wear helmets. “That was a new thing today,” said Scott Nelson, a freelancer who lives in Cairo and is shooting for The Times. “I have one. I haven’t worn it in the past because in Egypt, it’s not something that people are accustomed to seeing on a civilian.”
Because there may be safety in numbers, photographers who were traveling around the city on their own a few days ago are now reluctant to move unless they’re in a group. Some said there were whole areas of Cairo into which it would be dangerous for photographers to venture. It is difficult moving around in any case.
“You have to hide the fact that you’re a photographer when you go into the checkpoints and that’s really hard because you have all your gear with you,” said Ed Ou, another freelancer who is working for The Times. And eventually, the cameras do have to come out.”
I was following this pro-Mubarak rally that had been making their way from one of the hotels,” Mr. Ou said. The crowd reached a narrow side street.
Then they started to clash with the anti-government supporters. The moment I started photographing the crowd, they just absolutely turned, to the point that one person grabbed my camera and started yelling at me, saying I can’t take photos. Before you know, we had this entire mob surrounding us.
Anti-Mubarak protesters are not immune from anti-media anger, either, as Mr. Ou can testify firsthand, having witnessed the beating of an undercover police officer. “I was photographing this man, who must have been scared out his mind,” he said. “People got very upset at me for the obvious reason that it shows a less benign view of the anti-government protesters.”
Among the more seasoned veterans in the Cairo corps is Jim Hollander, who is shooting for the European Pressphoto Agency. He said the formula for keeping out of harm’s way was pretty straightforward in theory: “You assess the situation continuously. You stay on your toes. You remain sharp. You use your experience, and you pick a safe place to be. And you take your pictures.”
In practice, however, it requires making split-second decisions that may dictate whether a photographer emerges with an evocative image or with a bandaged head, shattered lens and missing memory card. “I think this is what conflict photographers actually like,” Mr. Hollander said, “making those decisions and having the adrenaline rush. But you have to stay safe. It’s not worth getting hurt for.”
Having been whisked out of danger by an army tank — deus ex machina — Mr. Burton sounded on Thursday as if he was in no mood to press his luck any further:
I went out of my hotel at around 3:30 in the afternoon with another photographer. I didn’t make it 100 yards before I was told to go back by the local militia. They had guns, swords and clubs. We decided to obey them. It was a hard decision. There are a lot of people I look up to here. But I also heard reports that some of them have been injured. I put in a call to an Egyptian fixer and asked if he or anyone he knew would go out with me. And he said: ‘It’s too dangerous. We won’t go out and you should stay in your hotel and be safe.’
Mr. Hollander has his own barometer. “Right now, the two sides are throwing rocks at each other in a limited area,” he said. “If they start shooting live ammunition, that’s a total game changer.”