Updated: Mar 20
A daring photoshoot landed us in hot water with the authorities, but it sure was it worth it.
In the summer of 2016 I went to Egypt for a few weeks. Naturally, I wanted to see the sites, explore the culture and delve into the colossal history that is Egypt. If I got really lucky, I'd be able to land at least 1 photoshoot while I was there as well. Usually I try to line up at least a couple model options prior to arriving in a place if possible. Instagram is a huge tool for me, but all jokes aside - Grindr has proven just as useful and reliable for finding photo subjects (as well as paying clients)! Some countries ban certain gay apps and it changes, so sometimes I have to rely on Hornet, rather than Grindr and so on. Sometimes they're all banned and you have to use a VPN to access them. You really have to want it, apparently.
The day after I arrived in Cairo I had a meeting with a volunteer - Ibrahim, a guy from Grindr who was all in and excited to shoot. We met at the rooftop bar of the building my hotel was located in. Conveniently, the bar had a reputation as a sort of very unofficial meeting place of men who like men. As the loud, busy streets bustled below, we drank beers, got to know one another and talked about the concept for our photoshoot. Wasting no time, we agreed to shoot the next day. Time to call it a night!
The next morning we were up early and in an Uber on our way to the famous Pyramids of Giza for our photoshoot. It was a bit of a haul to get out there and the nerves were right at the surface the whole time. I was eager, but also anxious. I wasn't sure what sort of challenges the day was going to present, whether it be with security or even just shooting in the desert in the summer with an abundance of hot, bright sunlight. Regardless, it was set to become one of my most memorable days as a photographer.
After buying tickets and going through security, we were in the park and ready to get started! First and foremost, we had to find some inconspicuous location - out of sight of anyone and everyone, but still with a view of the pyramids. Granted, I wasn't planning on doing nude here, but I still didn't want any attention. The first spot I settled on was some sort of old structure made from big blocks of stone, though without a roof and some of the blocks were scattered. It served as a good changing place for Ibrahim and could offer a little shade. Rising in the background was the Great Pyramid (Pyramid of Khufu), which made for an iconic backdrop for our first shots. Before long an overly inquisitive guy came by on horseback. He sat there on his beautiful horse watching us and asking what we were doing. At this point we were really just sort of hanging out, so nothing attention-grabbing. Eventually he went on his way since Ibrahim kept ignoring him and his questions. A few minutes later a guy came by on a camel. This one didn't care what we were doing, he just wanted to sell us a camel ride. Persistent as he was (and he really was), we repeatedly declined. Before he left he asked me to take a photo of him - arm raised in the air.
Keeping in mind that at the time, tourism was slow in Egypt and they were desperate to bring in some money, Cairo and Giza were hotspots where as a tourist you could expect to be overwhelmed by pushy vendors. After leaving Egypt I remarked that the pushy vendors and people trying to sell you anything and everything really tainted my image of the pyramids and that I wasn't sure which was more annoying - them or the black flies you're constantly swatting away.
After the horse rider and the camel rider went on their ways, we were left alone finally. We got some different shots in the area, both open shirt and shirtless. The sun was getting higher, as was the temperature, so we decided to move things along and try out the other side of the pyramids. It was quite a walk from where we were so we went back to the main area to rent some camels. The camel guy then led us all the way around the backside with the famous view of all 3 pyramids. We took some touristy shots and then de-cameled and found a new location for the next series of shots, sending the camel guy back with our rides.
After taking a break in some welcome shade, we had just started taking some simple shirtless shots in our new location when we were interrupted. Suddenly out of nowhere a man comes over and starts interrogating us (well, Ibrahim). It's as if he came right out of the sand, because I actually pride myself on being very much aware of my surroundings when shooting and remaining alert, but this guy surprised the hell out of me. It turns out he was part of the park security and he let us know that what we were doing was not allowed. I thought maybe he'd just warn us, tell us to stop and then be on his way. Instead, he radioed someone and then insisted we come with him to the security office back at the entrance to the park to be dealt with by his boss.
The adrenaline and nerves were fully active now and I was pretty scared of what was to come. My usual go-to in such situations is to just play dumb - as dumb as possible. Embarrassingly apologize for being a dumb American, hoping that self-deprecation will hold some stock and they'll feel pity (future post: "Australia"). It works more often than not, but not this day. The walk back to the park entrance took about 30 minutes or so, trudging through the sand with the blistering sun beating down on us. For most of the walk Ibrahim was trying to negotiate with the guy and smooth things over - even offering a bribe. He wasn't interested in any bribe, to our dismay. I continued with my act of cluelessness and being baffled, but also showing a bit of anger. After all, Ibrahim was only shirtless and wearing long shorts - not underwear and certainly not what most would consider nude.
As the entrance came into view and Ibrahim was distracting this guy with his failed negotiations, I removed one of my memory cards from my camera. The camera holds 2 and I usually have 1 that has older photos still on it, in this case some prior full nude shoot I had done outside Egypt. I stopped to tie my shoe and slipped it into my sock, just to be safe. I assumed they were going to go through my camera, so the less smut the better.
Finally we arrived at the entrance gate and security office. There were a couple other security officers and also some police, to my dismay. The guy who nabbed us explained the situation to a man who appeared to be his boss. The man asked for my camera, I declined. Again he asked that I hand over my camera to him for him to take into the office while we stood outside. I stood firm that I would not handover my camera, but that he could look at the images while I held the camera. He agreed and we started to scroll through them. Then it began, the 'tsk, tsk, tsk' - this sound of disapproval he made when he saw the shirtless images. Again, "tsk, tsk, tsk" followed by, "nude". I explained it wasn't nude, but only shirtless and I didn't understand what the big problem was, though I also was apologetic enough to not come off as arrogant or rude. He sternly stated that, "Nude is forbidden!" as he decided he'd seen enough of the images from my camera. At this point he asked for my passport and Ibrahim's identification and mobile phone. As this seemed like a pretty serious situation and official with the police present, I handed over my passport (which I rarely ever do). They took it along with Ibrahim's things and went inside the office as we stood outside in the heat having near panic attacks. I could see in the office as the group of them are going through Ibrahim's phone and looking at his personal photos. I'm pretty sure there were some incriminating images of him on there which would clue them into the fact that he's gay, which in Egypt can be a very serious and dangerous thing.
Eventually they came back out and handed me my passport and instructed me to delete all of the images from my camera, before telling me that I am free to go and that Ibrahim had to stay. I certainly wasn't going to leave him there - left to god only knows what sort of scenario. I told them I will stay and we will leave together. They again asked that I leave and I strongly reiterated that I would not leave without him. Ibrahim seemed surprised that I was going to stay and suggested that I should just go, but I told him I was the reason he was in this situation and I wasn't going to abandon him. They talked amongst themselves and then let us both go. I was elated and so relieved as I thanked them and apologized again as we left. We hurriedly walked away, maybe afraid they would change their minds. As we walked I began apologizing profusely to Ibrahim for putting him in this situation and just really doing all I could to express to him my regret in this. He wouldn't accept my apology and said that there was nothing to be sorry for - in fact, he was glad we did it and was excited for the photos. He also expressed how angry he was with the authorities in Egypt and how much shame he feels in regards to how they treat people - foreigners and locals. He was defiant and he was proud of what we did, which impressed me.
So what about deleting those pictures? Well, the guy told me at least twice to delete them, but I could tell after the first order that he didn't necessarily mean I had to do it right there in front of him. The next time he said it, it was more like, 'don't forget to delete the pictures.'. I thought this very strange (not to mention a mistake) that he didn't insist on witnessing me do it. So I didn't. I did wait to post anything from that day until after I had left Egypt though, and I also didn't tag Ibrahim or even use his real name at the time, just to be safe. Since then some of the images have been used in publications around the world. With the first magazine spread featuring the images, the editor and I discussed using a fictitious name, which I discussed with Ibrahim. Defiant as before, he insisted we use his real name.
Update on Ibrahim: A week or so after our Giza shoot, I was in Alexandria, where I was set to fly back to Asia. Ibrahim took the train from Cairo to visit me and to have one last shoot with the crazy American. We did a few shots down by the water, but mostly we just made use of my charming (albeit dingy) hotel room with double doors that opened up to a balcony overlooking the famous Eastern Harbour. The afternoon light with the balcony and rustic hotel room made for some nice images - full nude, not just shirtless.
We remained in touch following the shoot and I'm happy to say that one of Ibrahim's biggest dreams came true - some years ago he immigrated to Germany and is still there and loving it.
If you'd like to see more of my work with Ibrahim, you can subscribe to my patreon: patreon.com/westphillips