Respecting borders: Interview with Heba Khamis

If I hadn’t become a journalist… I would have loved to become a photojournalist. This profession has always fascinated me, but I never felt that I could do it. A friend who is a photographer once told me that he only takes pictures with prime lens, so without using zoom. He cannot take pictures from far away, like paparazzi do. Whatever he photographs has to be right in front of him. He must communicate with it or with the people that he is capturing. Not only does he need their consent, but he also needs to win their trust, so that the pictures seems natural, although it is not spontaneous. To achieve all that, one needs a very special kind of personality, I think, and I admire that. Of course I as a journalist also need to show people that I respect them and that they can trust me. However, talking about something is still much easier for most people than stepping in front of a camera. Okay, enough about dream jobs that didn’t become reality…

This post is about a talented photographer, Heba Khamis. She was the first Egyptian woman to win one of the World Press Photo Awards 2018 for her story “Banned Beauty” about the practice of “breast ironing” in Cameroon. Women massage their daughters breasts with heated instruments in order to stop their growth, thereby making them look younger and protecting them from sexual violence or unwanted pregnancies. I met Heba in Cairo and talked to her about how to find protagonists willing to be photographed in such situations; why do people agree that their picture be taken in general; and how the photographer can respect and protect their protagonists.

For your project “Banned Beauty” you photographed women during breast ironing in Cameroon; the project “Black Birds” is about young refugees who prostitute themselves in Berlin; and your current project is about transgender people in Egypt. Why do you always choose such intimate and difficult topics?

Before I start a project, it has to catch my heart. My mentor recently told me: You cannot measure your work according to its success or failure. Instead, you should search for yourself through your work. That is where empathy comes from and where the work gets interesting.

I realized that my projects are always somehow concerned with culture, religion, body. The breast ironing project ist about how society puts pressure on the female body, so women hurt their daughters to protect them. The Black Birds project is about how we use the body as a tool to make a living and how this is a shameful thing for some, because of their religion. And the transgender project is about people who fight inside themselves first and then outside, to find out who they really are. Those layers connect all my projects and those are also the layers which I am trying to understand about myself, my identity, my religion. I ask myself the hard questions: If I was born a non-Muslim girl, would I convert to Islam or not? So what drives me to such projects is trying to deliver the voices of people who have the same struggle but in a different shape.

How do you convince people to show such intimate parts of their lives?

First, I try to understand why I am doing this project. What is the real reason behind it? When I find my real answer, that helps me connect with the people. When I tell them my reasons, that convinces them. In the Cameroonian project, the mothers saw that I was interested in their love and protection for the daughters. And it is about the attitude as well. People can sense, whether you are honest or just want to use them for a good story.

How difficult was it to find women willing to be photographed for the “Banned Beauty” project on breast ironing in Cameroon?

To find a woman who is doing breast ironing at the moment and agrees to be photographed is not easy. The time span in which they do breast ironing is just five days to two weeks and then they stop. That makes it quite difficult and on top of that I had to convince these mothers to show their daughters during breast ironing.

How did they react?

One woman, the chief of a village, told me: “You come here from Egypt, totally covered, and ask these women to show their daughters naked. There are enough problems in Egypt, why don’t you go and photograph there?” That conversation really was a turning point. These women do breast ironing to protect their daughters from the Cameroonian men, so it doesn’t make sense for me to show their breasts to the whole world. That is why I don’t have any naked images in the project. Talking about breasts without showing breasts, that was a challenge but also key: showing respect for these women.

Can you tell us how the “Banned Beauty” story came to life?

I was in Cameroon for a whole month in 2016. I knew before going that I wanted the project to be black and white. The topic is already very complicated, and I did not want people to be distracted by all these colours. When I started the project, I wanted to take portraits of the mothers and daughters to show the love between them. I didn’t want to show the mothers as criminals, I wanted to show that they were trying to protect their daughters. So, I had one main questions for all of them: how do you sit together with your mom? In which position do you find peace? I know from my own experience: I travel a lot, but when I go back home, and I put my head on my mom’s lap and she starts playing with my hair or puts her hand on my shoulder, then I feel peace. So, I was asking the girls for that same moment. Then we adjusted the position a little to make it photographable. When I witnessed breast ironing for the first time, however, I just had to photograph it. I didn’t think that I would use those photos until later.

You are a photographer who works on projects in different countries. Do people often comment on you being veiled?

Yeah. Even here in Egypt. Doing a project on transgenders while wearing a headscarf is tricky. Even some of the transwomen are veiled, but some of the human rights lawyers and activists have prejudices. That changes once they get to know you. Of course, the headscarf is like a passport: showing my identity without showing my heart. The first thing people see is the scarf and they think: oh, she is Moslem, she is religious, she is Arab. I know that, and I accept it. But once I open my mouth and start to talk, people really start to see beyond the labels that they put. Other people, however, avoid me from the beginning. That’s fine, I cannot convince everybody in this world.

Why do you think that people generally agree to be photographed?

I believe all of us want to have their story to be heard and people to listen to them. We just want to share what we have. The problem is, they the people I photograph are always afraid that their relatives or people they know will hear their story and use it against them. They will talk about everything, but they are afraid that somebody might recognize their faces. One of the people I talked to for the transgender project in Egypt underwent surgery and lives as a woman now. But she told her family that she as a man travelled abroad and doesn’t live in Egypt anymore. She wants the whole world to know about what she is going through, but she does not want her family to know.

How can you deal with that as a photographer?

I always remind myself to respect other people’s borders, not my own. Photographers don’t have any borders but there are always borders for the person you are photographing. That is where respect comes from: Do you prioritize the person you are photographing and their privacy, or do you prioritize the story? A real photographer prioritizes the people in the picture. That is why a lot of my photos are anonymous.

Questions of sexual identity are very difficult to discuss in Egypt. Are you worried that you will get into trouble because of your transgender project?

When I was doing the research, I posted on Facebook looking for contacts. People started telling me that they used to be big fans of my work, but now they are worried about my way of thinking. Even the government and Islam allow changing your gender, so what is the issue? People are aggressive because it is different from what they know. That made me angry and I became even more committed to the project. I was kind of worried that I would be persecuted by the government. Anyone can be arrested in Egypt right now without really doing anything. I am not brave, I don’t want to be arrested. I want to do my job, speak out to people and have a loud voice without hurting myself. We will see what happens.

What is the next project?

I would love to continue working on the breast ironing project, to make a book out of it. And I am interested in the bride-kidnapping issue in Kirgizstan, but that is also another tough project. First, I have to finish the projects that I started.

When did you start taking photos?

I heard about a photography workshop in university when I was 19 and convinced my classmates to go with me. We went on a university trip to Sinai and everyone liked the pictures I took there. My professor even wanted one of the images for her home. I remember how happy that made me, even happier than the World Press Photo Award! Since then I carry my camera with me everywhere. I started photojournalism seven years ago, but I can only call myself a photographer since two and a half years ago. Before that I was not connected to what I was photographing. Then I travelled abroad to study and to volunteer in Uganda. From that point on I started doing what I really care about. Now, I am honoured to do what I am doing.

What can photo journalism do that written journalism cannot?

People don’t read anymore. I actually feel sorry for the writers. Photographs reach people faster than written words. And photography reaches more diverse people, because it doesn’t need a language. Everybody can understand it.