Al Qomrah merges the technical skills of a photography school with the business savvy of a creative agency.
By Farah Al-Akkad
We love photographs. We take them, we share them, we fill our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts with them. We agonize over choosing the right wedding photographer to create fun, funky memories. We can’t stop talking about the visuals of a clever ad campaign. We love photography — but according to pro photographer Rehab El-Dalil, we don’t appreciate it.
“For someone to be an artist, let’s say a photographer, it is very hard for him or her to be taken seriously and to actually work in the field they like,” says El-Dalil, a professor of practice in photography at the American University in Cairo. “In Egypt, the most popular fields of photography are commercial ones and wedding photography. I am a social photographer, someone most Egyptians believe will not make a decent living.”
Hoping to create a change in the mindset of photography as a hobby or commercial endeavor, El-Dalil and her Italian business partner Giacomo Crescenzi in September founded Al Qomrah, a social business — “my baby,” as El-Dalil describes it — that combines “a photography school, a creative agency and a fine art gallery.”
El-Dalil feels there is discrimination against photography as an art, with many people thinking that anyone with a camera can be a photographer. These people look down on the photographer and may not want to pay what he deserves for his work. In reality, El-Dalil notes, it takes a lot of hard work, learning and practice to be a real photographer.
Passionate about teaching her art, she says it has long been her dream to create “a photography academy for people to understand the essence of photography and to actually respect the industry.”
Apart from building respect for the art, Al Qomrah’s goal is to socially and financially empower artists and create a sustainable market for creativity. “Crescenzi loves art management; he knows how to help artists no matter what the field is,” El-Dalil explains. “We have decided to merge ideas into this one entity that would help an artist in Egypt,”
Al Qomrah takes its name from the Arabic word for dark room, honoring of the Arab contribution to photography. The 11th-century Arab scientist El-Hassan Ibn El-Haitham, whose research into optics helped prove how the human eye uses light to see, appears on the school’s logo. From El-Haitham’s work came the idea of how to imitate this process with a camera.
“He proved this idea by sitting in a darkroom which is ‘Qomrah,’ says El-Dalil, and of course the Latin word itself contributed in the development of the word camera.”
The photography professor notes that Al Qomrah as a photography school is currently in an experimental phase because people are not interested in enrolling for an entire curriculum. “We are just introducing a number of different workshops and different levels.” The school’s main fields include photography, videography, painting, illustration and design.
Al Qomrah is focused on improving the professionalism of Egypt’s photography market, “so an amateur knows his place, a serious amateur knows his place, and of course a professional artist — so all of them can internationally compete,” she adds.
According to El-Dalil, the concept of a professional photographer is currently limited to those who do wedding or commercial shoots. “This underdeveloped market has prevented many professional photographers from blossoming and gave a chance to underqualified photographers to set the standards. This should be corrected by expanding the market, giving the chance for professional photographers to work and beginning photographers to learn.”
This means educating the clients as well. El-Dalil notes that most clients here look for quantity rather than quality and usually select the cheapest person when hiring artists. “Sometimes they would deal with an amateur and think that all the people in the market are the same,” El-Dalil says, before adding, “To be frank, this concept is slowly starting to change over the last couple of years.”
To help foster respect within the industry, Al Qomrah works as a creative agency that connects clients with professional photographers.
Like anyone else, artists have the right to have financial stability, “but they cannot achieve it in this market with their art.” Instead, El-Dalil continues, artists find they have to take a more stable job to meet their financial responsibilities and may even have to abandon their artistic talent.
“This is what we want to do: We want artists to first discover that they are actual artists, that they are talented and to learn with their talent so that their skills would improve.” she says. “[Then we] also provide them with jobs they deserve in the field they are specialized in, so they would have their financial stability, nourish their talent and above all help the community through art.”
Al Qomrah’s instructors scout for new talent in the workshops, not just in Cairo but also Alexandria, Assuit and Mansoura. “What we do is that we see what the artists are interested in and we look for businesses and NGOs which need the artist’s talent to do a certain campaign and we link them together,” El-Dalil explains. “Our core task afterwards is protecting the artist’s financial and intellectual rights.”
Al Qomrah wants to connect artists not only with jobs, but with the community at large. “We try to merge social responsibility and art,” she says, “[Advising artists on] how to direct their projects to help the community through art, hence [earning] respect from the community as well.”
One of the workshops teaches artists how to use their work to raise public awareness about social causes. El-Dalil says they hope to “select a number of artists to work together on social and cultural projects benefiting their community, from documenting the Egyptian culture and heritage to teaching art to underprivileged communities for free.”
El-Dalil also emphasizes responsible photography. “The school as a whole focuses on teaching participants the ethics of photography from how they should work with clients to how they should respect their models even if it is a random stranger in the street.”
As a technical manager, El-Dalil explains that part of Al Qomrah is mentoring the artists and giving them feedback on their work. “We invest in them so that they can become something in the future.”
Through its program One Artist, the school chooses an artist to sponsor, either financially or technically, for six-month period, based on the person’s talent and commitment to his or her art.
“Our first artist is a digital painter named Dina Hafez. We entered her in an international competition, paying for all the expenses, to give her chance of winning and exhibiting her work.” Hafez’s works blends art and culture as El-Dalil explains, “She looks for very old drawings or photographs from the 1800s, and she gives them a facelift, adding a modern theme to make people more interested in our old heritage.”
To fund the sponsorships, the school partners with organizations also focused on community development projects. Al Qomrah team is currently in the scouting phase for a new artist to sponsor.
El-Dalil and Crescenzi have big plans for Al Qomrah, which include getting the school accredited, expanding the number of artistic fields supported by the creative agency, and reaching more artists outside of Cairo through both the school and agency. They are also working on their first large scale project “Wonder of Egypt,” targeted to launch at the end of 2014, but El-Dalil says it’s too early to share details.
In the meantime, Al Qomrah is involved with a project called Inspiration Hour, where artists share their vision and experiences with the general public.
“We present an artist to the community each month, in collaboration with Beit El-Raseef in Maadi, which hosts the event,” El-Dalil says. “It gives a boost to the artists themselves,” “and the community understands what an artist has to do be respected by the community.” et