The Story Behind ... Cairo Diary

October 20, 2016 0 Comments

The Story Behind ... Cairo Diary

In December 2016 we will be releasing Taipei Diary by Peter Bialobrzeski, which, incidentally, is our fourth City Diary together. The journey to this point has been lots of fun, and we are both excited for more additions to this series.

Publishing photobooks is, without doubt, an honour. I love to work with photography and it’s always humbling to be trusted to represent someone else’s project. This has never been more true than in the case of Cairo Diary.

Back in 2009 and 2010, when I lived in London and the idea of publishing photography books was a tiny seed in my imagination, Bialobrzeski’s work was very inspiring to me. As someone living in East London was bound to do, I often found myself in nice bookshops with a wide range of photography books. However, I felt disconnected to the majority of the work and the entire field of photography may have passed me by entirely except that I kept coming across books by Peter. Books like Lost in Transition and, later, The Raw and the Cooked.

The work spoke to me hugely. I loved his emphasis on the world that we live in. His photographs gave us a chance to step back and see our cities for what they are: human-created habitats. The people in his photos were not the subjects, they were the objects of the space in which they lived and travelled through. Having studied sociology and theorists such as Doreen Massey and Henri Lefevbre, Bialobrzeski’s work, to me, seemed to the visual version of such work.

In late 2013, now in Taipei and feeling more confident about publishing as a whole, I decided to send Peter an email to let him know how much his work has shaped my own photography and the publications of The Velvet Cell. I suggest, humbly, the idea of working together at some point in the future. This might sound easy but it wasn’t an easy email to write - you only get one chance to make a first impression and it took a lot of persuading myself to click send.

But I needn’t have worried - Peter wrote back almost immediately. He had recently gone to Cairo to document the effects of the Egyptian revolution on the urban environment. He was in love with the results and was thinking of a way to publish it. He promised he would send me a mock-up PDF soon. I was nervous. This was amazing, but what if the work didn’t suit The Velvet Cell’s mission?

I was so excited to see the PDF. For me it felt like the kind of project that reminds me exactly why I set up The Velvet Cell. It is thought provoking, beautifully shot and very cohesive as a project. It explores Cairo from a neutral perspective - letting the city do the talking. I said “YES - I want to publish this!” and we had an agreement. Peter would come to Taipei in August 2014 to oversee printing.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t filled with a mixture of excitement and fear. At this point I had published four books using the offset process, and, as many of you will know, offset printing is a very difficult skill. I was terrified that somehow I would mess it up - that the paper wouldn’t be right or that something else would go wrong. But I’m a big believer in the idea that if you are scared of doing something then that means it’s probably the most important thing for you to do. I tried to let that fear motivate me to work harder and make sure that, if the book didn’t do well, I had at least tried my best on everything. That’s all you can do really.

I waited about four months before announcing the book for pre-order on the website. I still couldn’t quite believe it was going to happen. Thankfully the pre-orders were really well received and I managed to get enough orders to cover the production costs in just two days.

Peter arrived in Taipei on a sweltering, humid August day. The printing took the best part of two days and I learnt a lot about being on press from him. Offset is something I feel I am getting better and better with each time, but on that occasion I struggled hugely to see what seemed so obvious to his eyes.

The first handbound copy, uncut, was ready within five days. It was a beautiful book to hold, and in the process of printing this book I had stumbled a beautiful new paper that I now use in many of my books.

Peter stayed in Taipei for just under two weeks. Every morning and evening I accompanied him as he photographed the city. Those photos became our fourth City Diary: Taipei Diary.