A photography exhibition by Maia Gusberti
8 June 2008 – 8 July 2008
CIC, Contemporary Image Collective, Cairo

Interview between Aleya Hamza and Maia Gusberti

How did you become interested in working on the travel agencies series?
I have a special interest in maps and geography and one of my older projects was based on mappings (⚠ This photography project began spontaneously when world maps in small travel offices catering locals in downtown Cairo caught my attention. At the beginning I was fascinated by one or two examples of world maps until I realized that the world map is a central object in many travel agencies, and that they all have totally different forms from reliefs to old fashioned maps to light-boxes. Meanwhile I wondered about the quasi absence of photographic depictions of travel destinations when these representations of the 'dream-destination' are a key tool to promote holidays in Europe. There we often encounter the image of the palm island, the sand beach, the exotic street life...commercialized, globalized and standardized products selling personal leisure, glamorous tourist adventures or cheap flight tickets for a jet-set weekend elsewhere. Here in downtown Cairo if at all you'll find one photographic image of the Kaaba in Mecca. So instead of photographic representations we are confronted with world maps as ‘projection surfaces’ for imaginations. Maps allow us to produce our own private images, to travel in our fantasies. This replacement of the image by the map made me want to take images about the absence of the image to produce imaginations. The map is therefore a wonderful example of a standardized symbol stimulating individual interpretations. My photographs are about places void of pictures but rich in dreams, images, imaginations and promises.

Your images have a deliberate snapshot appearance, informal and un-composed. Why?
I did not want to have well-composed and perfectly styled pictures since it was practically impossible to pull through a strong composition concept. When I began asking for permission to take pictures of the maps in travel agencies telling them I'm an artist interested in maps I was often grilled about the project with curious questions, amused nods and a general lack of understanding of how anyone could possibly be interested in such an issue, but I was more or less allowed to shoot every time. Usually I took more than one picture - but lots of the employees were uncomfortable and just left while others continued with their work - but of course I felt like I was disturbing them after a while especially since clients sometimes had to wait while I finished. Most of the offices are very small and narrow which made it difficult to find a good spot to compose my image and I had to get what I wanted by finding (more than choosing) a possible angle and the light conditions were very different between offices that had daylight or neon-light. Initially I was more or less 'documenting' these places with my old analog Nikon, judging the images after developing the film, until I realized this could become a series. I also didn't want to change the rough-and-ready style of these offices. I deliberately wanted the atmosphere of a temporary and provisional space - lost somewhere between imagination and realization. I see myself as a passenger, passing by these places in transition or about to transition. The project has never been about a shiny composed study or a record of 60'ies and 70'ies interior design. It is about an atmosphere and a location existing somewhere in the 'in betweenness' of fantasia and on a first step towards a destination.

Why does the representation of travel interest you?
It makes me think about possibilities, conditions or reasons for traveling and their relationship to desires, promises and illusions. Here in Cairo traveling means something totally different than it does on the high streets of Western European cities and on some level they both refer to socio-political realities. Many agencies here are specialized in Hajj and sell tickets to Saudi Arabia for work purposes. It's not really about the ideal of the palm island. Who can afford a dream of palm islands here? The reality is more about survival strategies, working abroad, pilgrimage, fighting for a visa etc.
These travel-specific desires and illusions can be somehow summarized in maps.
As a designer and artist I try to look out for visual signs and I wonder about the layers of meanings which can be imagined and explored by digging a bit deeper.

What does this project mean to you and how does it fit within your art practice?
My various stays in Egypt have had a significant impact on my work and conversely my projects have helped me gain a better understanding of Egypt. My current projects are connected to several interests that have continuously concerned me: geography, visual culture, and design, socio-economic and political issues. This particular project contains all of these aspects and is partly why I consider it as a more complex and ongoing project. It fits within my present position between Europe and Egypt, questioning conditions here and there. It was also a recovery of the medium of photography which I hadn’t used for a while. My work has shifted from being rather abstract and formal to being more content-driven within the last few years and this project is kind of refreshing because the idea developed during the process itself, an approach I would like to continue making use of.

Why do you see this series as a research project?
The project began as a very simple spontaneous idea and the more I worked on it, the more questions it raised concerning traveling and visual culture in general. What are the differences in possibilities and representations of traveling in Cairo and Vienna? How is travel commercialized and how are maps used both as an instrument of power and as a surface for personal and collective projections? To what extent is this absence of photographic images defined by culture? Who travels where? What are the travelers like? All these questions made me see this project as a long-term research-based one I hope to follow here and in other cities both in region and in different cultural contexts. I see the project as an examination of the visual culture of travel imaginations and representations of desire, but it is also about an aesthetic preference or even affection for these places which look like they are lost in time.

With the support of Pro Helvetia: Swiss Arts Council and Austrian Federal Ministry for ‎Education, the Arts and Culture and the Austrian Cultural Forum in Cairo

© Maia Gusberti, 2012