Egyptian photojournalist Laura Al Tantawi  is well known for her photo essays on farmer suicides in India and public life in London, and for her ongoing project on Egyptian identity. In her first exhibition in the Middle East, the artist, who is part of VII Photo Agency’s mentor programme, has on display a series of photographs under the title “The Veil”. The series reflects upon the symbolism that surrounds the veil and was inspired by the women from both her family and other cultural backgrounds.
Al Tantawi was born in England, grew up between Saudi Arabia and Egypt  and is now based in London and Cairo. “I come from a family where the majority of the women wear the veil. And seeing these strong, independent women, I always found it difficult to understand the Western portrayal of the veil as a symbol of oppression that suppresses the ambition, independence and individuality of women,” she says.
The photographs in the series have been shot in various countries such as Iran , India, Egypt and Turkey. The hazy, mysterious photographs of women, with their heads and faces covered, capture the feel of the veil. And they also show that the practice of covering a woman’s hair and face is not restricted to Islam. “In countries such as India, women have traditionally covered their head and, sometimes, face as a public display of modesty; and even in the West, Catholic nuns cover their hair. I firmly believe the veil can be something that unites women across religious and cultural boundaries; it does not have to divide them,” she says.
Weekend Review caught up with Al Tantawi at the opening of her show and spoke to her about the concept behind “The Veil” and her other projects. Excerpts:
Why did you choose this subject?
The subject developed over a course of time. At the beginning I was not conscious I was actually shooting this series, but when I started to look at my work from Iran, Egypt, Turkey and India, I realised I was shooting the same theme across all these countries. It was a personal exploration of something I feel strongly about, but the process was quite organic, which made it more beautiful. I was attracted to the veil as something beautiful, colourful and extremely feminine. And this is what I want to convey with these pictures.
Why did you give the pictures this hazy, mysterious, dreamlike quality?
This is purely stylistic and can be seen in a lot of my work. I love photography because it is a tool to transport me between the realistic world in which I am culturally and traditionally grounded into a more mysterious, dreamlike world where everything is possible and there are no boundaries or limitations. In this project I wanted to convey the feeling of the veil itself by evoking the characteristics of the fabric and how it flows beautifully and gracefully. And I used a slow shutter speed and looking through materials or surfaces to achieve this feel.
What drew you to India, especially to do the project on farmer suicides?
I first went to India in 2008 as a traveller, exploring a country I had long seen images of, and wanted to see if the real experience would be true to the images I had in my head. India is one of the most amazing countries I have ever been to. I love the diversity, chaos, people, colours and the strong sense of life at each and every corner. After my first trip there, I wanted to go again and started reading about it. I came across an article on farmer suicides and was really a surprise because the India I had experienced was one where people work really hard to survive. I immediately felt that I wanted to meet the families and understand why this was happening. Eventually I did a series of photos and a film on the farmers who died, the women they left behind and their close relationship with the land.
What are the projects you are now working on?
At the moment, I am focused on my long-term project in Egypt. I started this work in 2005 and have continued it through the revolution and now will continue to explore the situation in the country after the revolution and see how the new government in power will change Egypt and our identity as Egyptians. The project will eventually be a book.
What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?
This is always a hard question because in many ways I think of myself as an aspiring photographer. I think it is important to stay true to one’s instincts, identity and passion and not try to be something else or someone else. Intention shows in the pictures. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was that no one can tell me whether I can take pictures or not — it is my decision. This marked one of the most liberating turning points in my career and in my work because I didn’t have to worry about making money out of photography — I have a second job to support myself. This meant that when I took a picture, I did it because I meant it and it meant something to me.