Selections talks to six talented female photographers from the Arab world and Iran whose work spans the gulf between East and West, transcending language and culture to tell universal stories

Each of the six women interviewed in this issue deals with this in their own way, some choosing to address the gulf between East and West directly in their work, others approaching it more obliquely. Yet ultimately, each achieves a similar alchemy — using photography as a tool, they are able to transform and translate their personal experiences into a universal format, rendering their subject matter accessible to people of any background, challenging harmful stereotypes and championing new perspectives.

Egyptian photographer Nermine Hammam shares her thoughts on how her photographs inspired by the Egyptian revolution explore an imbalance of male and female energies in a timeless style that renders individual experience universal.

Egyptian artist Nermine Hamman creates delicate, timeless photographs that seek the universal in the specificity of history

The job of the photojournalist is to capture the specificity of history as it is unfolding. The ability of the artist is to find the deeper meaning in it. Born in Egypt in 1967 and based between Cairo and London, photographer Nermine Hamman deliberately sets out to create images rooted in reality that rise above the specificity of a particular time and place to embody universal experiences.

Her unique method of working makes her work particularly hard to pin down, almost surreal. “I take the image and I work it digitally and then after it’s printed I hand-tint the print, so it’s a combination of a lot of things,” she explains. This elaborate process results in a striking cross between photography and painting.

In the wake of the 2011 revolution in Egypt, Hammam produced consecutive series exploring the uprising and the violence that followed: Upekkha, Unfolding, Maat and Cosmos. For Hammam, the chaos of the revolution could be attributed to an imbalance of male and female energies, an idea she explores in all four series but particularly in Maat, a series of stylised self-portraits inspired by cave art. Each figure combines symbols of male and female power.

“Apparently cave art was done to conjure the spirit of the animal,” Hamman says, “and this was to conjure the spirit of Maat, who is the goddess of balance and harmony, when all the balance and harmony was completely destroyed and a very violent male energy came into the whole psyche of the country.”

The photos in Upekkha and Unfolding are more obviously linked to the streets of Cairo. The first explores the army as they first appeared during the revolution — young men who were almost childlike, depicted tenderly, surrounded by flowers and stunning landscapes. In Unfolding, Hammam explores army and police brutality through delicate images influenced by Japanese drawings. Both transcend their context.

“It reflects my belief that there is no real grounded reality. Reality is very malleable,” Hammam says. “Rather than saying, ‘Oh, this is about the revolution,’ it’s about the soldier, or the universal death of the soldier, or violence in general. It doesn’t matter where it is. These soldiers could be any men going to war, from the Second World War to the young American soldiers who died in the Iraq War.”

Featured image: Nermine Hammam, from the Upekkha series, 90 × 60 cm, 2011, photograph, courtesy of the artist

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, A Dialogue Between Generations of Arab Women in Art #42, pages 148-149.