How Photopia Kept Their Visual Storytelling Spirit Alive for a Decade
This year, Egypt’s leading photography school Photopia turns ten as it is set to launch its biggest event to date with El Gouna Photo Week.
Marwa Abou Leila stood, one amongst millions, in Tahrir Square in January of 2011. Having graduated from Ain Shams University with a Bachelor’s in English Commerce in 1999, Abou Leila headed to corporate banking upon her graduation, where she cemented herself in her chosen field, until 2011 came. Having always been equally passionate about and fascinated by photography, Abou Leila became consumed by the power of documentation through visual storytelling. From Tahrir Square, Abou Leila quit her corporate banking job after 11 years of commitment to it, and talked to fellow banker and friend Karim Al-Khadim about starting a business related to their passion.
In May of 2012, Abou Leila and Al-Khadim stood in a small backyard-garage in Korba. It would become the official space for their educational business, a photography school they decided to name Photopia. While speaking to Abou Leila about the foundation of Photopia, I said, “It must have been such a difficult year to launch.”
A smile stretched across Abou Leila’s face, a small wistful thing that spoke of an ache towards some far away place I could not reach. “No, it was the perfect year,” she replied. “There was so much hope, then.”
This hope, this burst of pride and freedom, laid the foundation for Marwa Abou Leila and Karim Al-Khadim to establish Photopia. It has been a decade since Photopia was launched, and it stands alone as Egypt’s leading school for image-based education and visual storytelling; from photography to design, styling, filmmaking, and so much more.
When asked about why she chose to establish a photography school, of all things, Abou Leila said, “I’ve always appreciated both documenting things and education. We thought of educational gaps that needed to be bridged, and what was available was neither diverse nor accessible.”
Thus, from a tiny studio in a hidden backyard of a Korba building, a school dedicated to education, talent exploration, and storytelling was born. Photopia operated six days a week and nine hours a day off the bat, with only Abou Leila managing it all at the beginning. Photopia raised a generation of storytellers the likes of which Egypt would not have seen had they not existed. Five years ago, young local brand owners and creatives could not afford equipment nor location rent prices across Cairo, which is when most of them discovered Photopia; not only a place where they can attend workshops, masterclasses, talks, and panels, but also a fully equipped studio they could afford to rent as they experimented and learned.
Many of today’s celebrated local scene artists, commercial and underground, have emerged from beneath Photopia tutelage and through their resources. Abou Leila did her vision justice by managing to keep Photopia accessible to people from all walks of life, whether their interest in visual production and storytelling was passing or permanent.
In 2018, Photopia launched the first photo festival in Egypt, a 10-day celebration of creative talents, also known as Cairo Photo Week. The first edition of Cairo Photo Week was a massive success, in fact, that would be an understatement. “It was a natural development of our vast experience and network,” Abou Leila said. “It had been requested by so many people, we finally considered organizing a festival.” It was interesting to listen to Abou Leila speak with conviction and fascination both about how the event broke the ice between the intellectual and commercial photographers, who have had grudges against each other for years due to their preconceived notions about each other.
By creating an inclusive festival, Photopia succeeded in bringing together food stylists, fashion models, filmmakers, product photographers, designers, and other visual production individuals from a wide spectrum, a feat no one had managed before. Cairo Photo Week was an incredible success not only because it celebrated image-making and visual storytelling, but because it dissolved judgements and preconceptions about various spaces across the field, and offered a brilliant learning environment for everyone. It was also an amazing effort to bring amateurs to meet professionals, to network, learn, and grow through the event.
With the end of 2019 came the opening of Photopia’s new space; a place that is bigger, has more resources, and is even more accessible than the tiny spot that nurtured so many talents for almost eight years. Unfortunately, that was also when the global pandemic hit and everything had to be shut down due to COVID-19, and the beginning of the quarantine. It was not until 2021 that Cairo Photo Week finally came back for its second edition, creating as much a ruckus as the first. Slowly, the world has been coming back to life, and Photopia is making its biggest move yet this July.
Abou Leila had not made any plans to go elsewhere this year, and it was not until Ghada Amin, visual director at Orascom Hotels, El Gouna called to organize a photo festival there that Abou Leila considered organizing there. Obviously, El Gouna is a very exclusive (and elitist) place; one that is often associated with celebrities and the out-of-touch upper class, and organizing a festival in El Gouna would go against Photopia’s vision and mission both, to be an accessible and diverse space that celebrates all talent.
To balance the location and its implication, Marwa Abou Leila, gorgeous in her dedication to her convictions, made the highlight of the festival an exhibition by and for Upper Egyptian photographers, who will be given free accommodation in El Gouna for the weekend where their exhibition will be opened. She took it one step further by making this festival about creative and visual talents from along the Red Sea as well, negotiating discount rates with Orascom hotels, who were accommodating.
Sard, Arabic for ‘narrative’, is the name of the exhibition showcasing the work of six photographers from Upper Egypt. This exhibit was created to allow Upper Egyptians to represent themselves, to tell their stories, to spotlight their villages and homes, and to raise awareness about their social issues. Abou Leila spoke about the romanticization city photographers tend to project towards Upper Egypt, and the exoticization of their problems and spaces are plenty. Abou Leila is giving unheard young talents the chance to show us their people, spaces, and culture through their experience and perception, giving them their narrative back. And they get to do it in a place that is overflowing with elitism and luxury, and among people who are much the same.
El Gouna Photo Week will set a new precedent for what photo festivals look like in Egypt, if not the Middle East.
There isn’t much more to be said about Photopia or its founders, all one has to do to recognize the enormity of this business’ success is to take a look around them. It is incredibly rare for any organization, institution, or business to carry its original mission, vision, and values over the course of a decade, especially not through a revolution and a global pandemic. Somehow, by some miracle, or rather through an admirable sense of dedication and moral conviction, Photopia and its people did. Marwa Abou Leila and Karim Al Khadim’s story was born in Tahrir, and they’ve both managed to carry the spirit of the Square into their business a decade later.