Photography is one of his great passions. Since Amr Khadr picked up a camera twenty years ago, his work has been exhibited in Cairo, Rennes, and Paris. Over the past decades his photographs have also appeared on almost a dozen covers of AUC Press Arabic in Translation books. In this interview, the Egyptian photographer explains the work behind his cover images.
AUC Press: What do you think the photograph on a book cover should reflect?
Khadr: Very much like the title, the book cover is an exercise of eloquence that strives to capture an essential element of the book; a key idea, an intriguing character, or a dramatic event.
AUC Press: How do you decide where / what to photograph for a book cover?
Khadr: This is largely a question of pertinence and feasibility. For the cover of Papa Sartre for example, the AUC Press asked if I had photographs of Baghdad. I answered no, but explained that many places in Cairo make me think of Baghdad during the war period. The book cover idea then shifted to Sartre and Paris, where part of the events in the book take place. I did do some photography work in Paris although not as extensively as in Cairo, so I proposed a series of images that I shot in the Jolie Môme, a Parisian café with a 60’s look that was frequented by Arab intellectuals. This choice successfully concluded the search for the desired photo.
AUC Press: Do you have the composition already in your head when you start the photo shoot for a book cover?
Khadr: Usually it starts with an initial set of possible ideas or alternatives. I then take a walk in neighborhoods most likely to contain the ‘right’ combinations of the where and what. Typically, this is followed by a somewhat delicate exercise of coming up with interesting compositions that also eliminate or exclude any problematic details.
For the new edition of the forthcoming Midaq Alley book cover, I knew I had to go to Al-Azhar and that it would be quite difficult to find these days a place that resembled what was depicted in Naguib Mahfouz’s novel. So I concentrated on finding narrow streets (as if leading to and from the alley), then looked for the composition that contained the best details (invoking older days), and then waited patiently for the appropriate people to step into the frame.
AUC Press: How do you create the atmosphere that often emanates from your book cover photographs?
Khadr: A photograph, in my mind, always has to be charged with poetic emotion and have a strong sense of drama. Also, I think that the combination of the image and the title further accentuates both of these aspects.
AUC Press: Do you like the image of a book cover to be very colorful or do you try to get one predominant tone?
Khadr: It is generally believed that a balanced colorful book cover photograph is more likely to attract a reader’s attention. However, personally I have always admired the monotone version that the AUC Press usually uses only on the hard binding under the jacket.
AUC Press: Do you ever discuss book cover ideas with the author?
Khadr: Unfortunately this rarely happens but the AUC Press does seek the opinion of the authors and translators.
AUC Press: Is it more difficult to shoot an image when it is for a book cover?
Khadr: A photograph for a book cover clearly presents certain challenges. Rather than being a regular photograph that one may or may not know how to interpret, the image for the book cover must fit in the realm of the novel. Another challenge is that the image needs to be devoid of any elements that could lead to a legal contention, related either to persons or places.
AUC Press: Which of your AUC Press book covers do you like best?
Khadr: The photograph of downtown Cairo used for Samia Mehrez’s The Literary Atlas of Cairo is a favorite image. I wanted to come up with an image of Cairo that was the counterpart of the images that capture the vitality, energy and specificity of the great cities around the world in general, and New York City in particular.
AUC Press: Is there one book cover that you found particularly challenging?
Khadr: The covers for the 2 volumes of Literary Cairo were particularly challenging. There are broad and extensive views of a complex city via a multitude of themes and authors, in addition to key elements of space and time! The approach was to come up with images of the city that reflect either the world or the atmosphere that inspired or was provoked by these literary works.
AUC Press: Which café is it on the cover for Naguib Mahfouz’s The Coffeehouse?
Khadr: The photograph used for The Coffeehouse is el-Shams Café (also referred to as the “Angels Café”) that is next to the Tawfikeya market. One evening during winter I stopped by there and noticed various groups of people totally absorbed by their discussions and the board games they were playing. When I read The Coffeehouse, I realized that it was precisely about a group of friends who regularly meet in the same café throughout different phases of their lives. When the occasion presented itself to propose an image for this book, I knew exactly what to look for. The AUC Press agreed with the choice of el-Shams Café but did not like the fact that the photographs were in black and white so I returned to the café to redo them, this time in color. However as it was summer, there was absolutely no one inside the café. In the end, it was decided that the black and white photographs were more appropriate.
AUC Press: Can you talk about the café that appears on the cover of Khairy Shalaby’s The Hashish Waiter?
Khadr: This is truly a lovely story. This café, with its curious shape and peculiar blue colors, is situated in the Zein el-Abedin neighborhood. I was in awe when I came across it purely by chance. I would have been devastated if the persons running the place would have not accepted that I photograph the café, for some reason or another. It took about two days before daring to try my luck. Fortunately the request went well and I was allowed to take photographs at my own pace. The son of the owner was a truly enigmatic and devilish character. I would always refer to him as the ‘blue devil’. Later, when asked by the AUC Press for a cover photo for The Hashish Waiter and I read the novel for the first time, I immediately thought that ‘blue devil’ was indeed Saleh Heisa (the hashish waiter). As is the case with many of the places one photographs in Cairo, this remarkable place no longer exists!
AUC Press: What is the first thing that catches your eye when you look at a book cover?
Khadr: Personally, it is definitely the image on the cover, particularly if it is an interesting one. However, in reality, it is probably a combination of title, image, as well as design!
AUC Press: How many years have you been working as a photographer?
Khadr: I have always loved photography but it was only about 10 years ago that I decided to do photography in addition to drawing and painting. Through painting I developed a particular eye for composition and for the harmony and nuances of shades and colors. My passion for cinema is another source of influence. I always try to make a photograph resemble a still of a scene from an imaginary film.
AUC Press: What type of photography do you prefer?
Khadr: Cityscape is clearly my main theme. The city is an immense theatre of space and time, filled with visually strong and colorful scenes, intriguing characters and dramatic events.