Working abroad in a conflict zone is a treacherous task for anyone, let alone a young, relatively inexperienced female journalist. Photographer Amanda Mustard entered Egypt during the height of unrest and learned to roll with the punches on the streets of Cairo. But in the meantime, she also looked for other projects to help satisfy her creative urges and find a safer space to work in. I corresponded with Mustard over email and asked about her side project on pigeon fanciers in Egypt.
JANNA DOTSCHKAL: What were you doing in Egypt when these photos were taken?
AMANDA MUSTARD: I moved to Egypt in 2012, when I was 21, with a DIY approach to learning to be a photojournalist. I started covering all the breaking news that was happening and slowly shifted gears toward more personal work as I started to find my visual “voice.” Also, the environment for journalists in Egypt was steadily deteriorating at that point.
JANNA: How did you find this story?
AMANDA: When I was driving around Cairo, I was always curious about the vividly painted little shacks speckling the skyline over the otherwise neutral, dusty cityscape. In some areas, there were swarms of them teetering above the roofs. I asked around and discovered that they were pigeon coops and also saw David Degner’s charming portrait series on fancy show pigeons in Egypt. From there, I had to find out more for myself.
JANNA: What inspired you to work on this story while you were covering the conflict in Egypt?
AMANDA: I worked on this over the course of about two years, and it was extremely therapeutic for me. After focusing mostly on day-to-day conflict, I had begun to struggle mentally and emotionally working as a female freelancer in Cairo. My relationship with Egypt started to change, and I started seeking quieter work to shoot. I was also caught up in the breaking news cycle, finding many times that the images that would sell weren’t honest or reflective of what was actually happening; they weren’t telling the full story of what was happening in Egypt. So I began the pigeon project as a way to rediscover the country outside of the turmoil, not only to show my audience but also myself the beautiful moments and corners of life that carried on in Egypt day in and day out. Pigeons may sound a little silly, but I found a rare, restorative peace up there in those coops that allowed both me and my work to breathe.
JANNA: Who are these people? Why are pigeons important to Egyptian culture?
AMANDA: References to pigeon husbandry can be found in hieroglyphics and Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets from more than 5,000 years ago. It’s the people’s bird, both a delicacy for the rich and food for the poor. They’re bred for consumption, sport, show, and sometimes just as pets. Many fanciers inherit their flocks from previous generations; others fall in love with the hobby and start their own at a young age.
JANNA: What was it like to insert yourself into this community?
AMANDA: There are pigeon coops all over Egypt, but most of the coops I visited were in Manshiyet Nasr, or “garbage city,” a crowded community of Coptic Christians that are zabaleen, or garbage collectors. It’s an overwhelming place for all of the senses, as they process most of Cairo’s rubbish by hand (at an incredible 80 percent recycling rate, if I might add). There are an immense number of pigeon coops there, and it was easy to visit a few a day within a short walk. This community was one of the few areas of Cairo where, in my experience, I wasn’t faced with sexual harassment; everyone I met was incredibly genuine and welcoming. At the start, I would show up at the foot of a building where there was a coop and explain why I was interested, and [then I] was warmly invited up. I visited the same coops many times and always brought prints back for the families, which helped build up trust over time.
JANNA: Were there any moments that stuck out to you while you were shooting?
AMANDA: Some of the fanciers’ children were quite keen to get me to be hands-on with the birds. Once, after releasing a few, I picked one up and gave it a toss into the air to join its buddies above. One of the young sons squealed and caught it, and the whole family burst out laughing. I had apparently picked up a “teen” that wasn’t able to fly yet. Thankfully it ended the way it did. They thought it was hilarious, but I was a bit horrified that I almost chucked a baby off the edge.