Was That Really You – On Representations and Image Tagging

Was That Really You? is an image research project by Egyptian photographer and artist Nadia Mounier, which explores representation of women in photographic images produced or circulated in the Arab-Islamic sphere and their varying social status and use. Mounier’s research project and this essay are particularly interested in images that do not primarily form part of artistic image production, such as personal/amateur archives, family albums, magazines, newspaper, postcards, images of women on the packaging of products and stock photography.

The work Was That Really You? comes in various continuous but not entirely connected stages. The project is interested in questions such as … why are some images private and cannot be shared with the public? How can the image and its status transform by changing one or few aspects of it? What about the images of subjects that are circulated widely, yet are in no way connected to the actual person represented in the picture?

»Was That Really You? investigates the visual aesthetics of censorship and image manipulation in order to understand more about identity, representations, and gender control.«

The question of » Was That Really You?« is inspired by John Berger’s essay »Uses of Photography« (1978) in which he talks about the role of photography in industrial capitalism and personal life. Berger states two distinct uses of photography, the private and the public. The private photograph, the family photo, photographs of uncles, mothers, and fathers are read in the context in which they were taken. They are still a part of the stream of events from which they were photographically severed. In contrast, the public photograph, the images in the newspaper or on television, have been deeply affected by the violence of decontextualization. They present us with information free of a lived experience. [1]

Was That Really You? explores the status of photography as a subject as well as its status as a medium. It investigates the visual aesthetics of censorship and image manipulation in order to understand more about identity, representations, and gender control.

The Maze of Tagging

Stock photography is professional photographs of common places, landmarks, nature, events, or people that are bought and sold on a royalty-free basis and can be used and reused for commercial design purposes. [2] The industry started in the1920s in the United States as a way to save the costs of hiring photographers. Looking through any stock photo website, you first think that you are viewing the same images of happy families, loving couples, and businessmen. They look similar with varying degrees of quality. This is because photographers looked for models that looked like the pictures that have been sold in the past. But the more you dig deep into their search engines, you’d easily see the difference and the embedded ideas of racism and violence against women and gender issues in general. It’s a web of images and words. Each image leads you to the other through tagging and keywords.

Although stock photography plays mostly with clichés and not originality, the number of such images that are being used and consumed by us in everyday life is huge. It affects our subconscious brains and is considered a main motive behind our daily choices and decisions in everyday experiences. Being cliché and lame is part of the industry’s concept anyway.

iStockphoto is considered one of the largest platforms for stock photography in the world. It was founded in 2000 in Canada, and it has millions of images and different visuals categorized by keyword.

If you search with the keywords »woman drinking coffee,« you will find photos that mostly depict a woman holding a mug of coffee with both hands, eyes closed and smiling; or you would find photos of a woman lying on a couch staring at nothing with a cup of coffee in her hands. Yet if you change the words to »men drinking coffee,« the results change; you will find lots of images of men in offices with laptops and coffee, or photos of business meetings in which hot drinks are also pictured. The same goes for keywords like »stressed women«, »stressed men.« Men are always connected to work and production and women to more intimate surroundings like home and children.

Ridiculousness can go beyond this if you search only with the keyword »woman,« and in comparison »Arab woman.« With »woman«, the results are varied in situations and poses, although mostly are images of white blonde woman. »Arab woman« results in images of women in hijab or burqa, their eyes usually in close-up, perhaps because this image tickles fanciful ideas of the burqa and the hijab in the Western imagination.

With keywords like »Arab beauty,« the search results often show pictures of both women and horses! But the results of international websites differ from those of Arab websites (which are mostly Gulf websites partnering with global agencies such as Getty Images). The words »Arab sad woman« on websites outside the Middle East, for example, result in war-related images: crying women, a man helping a woman up, and of course men abusing women, and hashtags like #refugees, #conflict, and #freedom. Yet, if you remove the word »Arab« the results are entirely different. The word »woman« on its own, on websites outside the Middle East, shows results that relate to other keywords, such as »hot« and »sexy.« Meanwhile, on Gulf-based websites, the word »woman« yields results of pictures of women at home with their families. It is very difficult to find a picture of a woman alone. She is always embedded in a domestic setting.

Reading into these differences opens several doors to understanding the effects of widely circulated public images on the way we deal with our own personal photographs. For instance, the results of the search »happy couple,« say much about the preferences of wedding photographers. They recreate the same compositions and employ the same poses and the same lighting. The couples being photographed also ask for these same aesthetics, which leads to the reproduction of cookie-cutter images that represent a specific kind of life perceived to be desirable.

This word cloud was built from the keyword search of iStock photo website. It was created in English because search engines are only in English and it mostly started with the word Arab as a main keyword.

For better reading for the map:

  • Start with the largest words in size to go through all the related connections.
  • The word »Arab« was removed in some cases to compare results.
  • The size of the words depends on the amount it was repeated and the quantity of images connected to it.
  • The positions of words differ according to the connections.


Part of a collection of more than 60 images from primary school books of geography and history from Morocco, digital scan, 2015
Part of a collection of more than 60 images from primary school books of geography and history from Morocco, digital scan, 2015
Part of a collection of more than 60 images from primary school books of geography and history from Morocco, digital scan, 2015
Part of a collection of more than 60 images from primary school books of geography and history from Morocco, digital scan, 2015
Part of a collection of more than 60 images from primary school books of geography and history from Morocco, digital scan, 2015
Part of a collection of more than 60 images from primary school books of geography and history from Morocco, digital scan, 2015
Part of a collection of more than 60 images from primary school books of geography and history from Morocco, digital scan, 2015
Part of a collection of more than 60 images from primary school books of geography and history from Morocco, digital scan, 2015

Act Like a Mother – On the Politics of Family Albums

Images of mothers are a very good example to state the effect of public images on our behavior in front of the camera. In her book How to Mend: On Motherhood and its Ghosts, (2017), Iman Mersal asks: »What is chosen, documented and displayed of motherhood when it becomes a subject of photography? Is there a prior conception of the mother? What do we cut out and exclude from the frame of the ideal shot to emphasize perfect motherhood in our imagination? Do we exclude some images if this ideal image does not match the family album as well?« [3] What Iman is questioning and discussing is attached to the project in terms of images of women when becoming a mother in public, and family albums as private usage of images.

»You think you are thinking your thoughts, you are not; you are thinking the culture’s thoughts.« Jane Fonda

The perfect mother image is reproduced mainly in photo studios, advertisements, and on the internet. It’s simple, direct, and idealistic. It shows the biological relationship that has unconditional love, care, and sacrifice, the same hand positions and facial gestures as old as paintings of the Madonna; bright backgrounds, looks of gratitude, satisfaction, and inner happiness. Mersal calls it »The Invisible Mother.« In this type of image you don’t see the woman; you get the idea that this is a public mother, mother of the unknown. Mersal continues to point out that excluded mothers that don’t fit the ideal image. Can a tattooed mother be on the poster used to advertise a certain product? What about handicapped, single, or homosexual mothers? [4]

In the late 1980s, an Egyptian man dedicated a photo album to his wife for their grandsons, in which it has photographs of her since she was a teenager in the 1930s until the time he created the album. The way the album is arranged and captioned says a lot about his image of her as a lover, wife, mother, and grandmother. There are a few images of her in photo studios before their marriage; later her images are mostly with him, following him in his work travels or with the family. She always has a companion in every single image; she never appears alone. Later you see her as a mother, taking her sons for a walk, accompanying them in their youth, their graduation parties. It ends with her pilgrimage to Mecca when she was around 65. I don’t want to sound judgmental, or that if she had the choice she wouldn’t want her album to look like this. On the contrary the album looked perfect, very romantic, and nostalgic. She was probably happy with it, but I recall Jane Fonda in her article about her journey to feminism: »You think you are thinking your thoughts, you are not; you are thinking the culture’s thoughts.« [5] The perfect image he created for her is a reproduction of what the public cultural sphere is pushing us to live and experience, but what if this photo narrative had been interrupted by unexpected life changing experience?

There is no doubt that we all exclude defeats and failures from our family albums. The photo album is nothing more than a personal narrative. The arrangement of the album means to exercise selection, liquidation, and exclusion at the same time. There is an act of self-censorship and may be unaware of what should be said and kept and what should be seen and interpreted by those who will look at this album now or in the future. But what you previously considered victories might turn out to be future defeats.

What happens to beautiful wedding pictures after divorce? What can one do except exact revenge by tearing or burning the pictures, or at least removing them from album? »Any exclusion of an image from an album that already exists involves violence, anger, regret or, at the very least, a desire to blur the history as if it has not happened.« [6]

I Will Defend Myself – A Look at Egyptian Tabloids

Your ability to recognize someone depends on seeing as many features of their face as possible. To completely blur someone from a photo, it is necessary to cover the eyes, nose, temples, and ears. In Egypt as well as in other countries, black strips are associated with newspapers that are mostly dedicated to crimes of honor and passion and tantalizing celebrity rumors. Their presence is particularly tied to misconduct and notoriety. Something in their visuals and use of photography demands pause and analysis. Most of the images used have nothing to do with the news they accompany. Before the spread of the internet in Egypt, these newspapers relied on pictures of women from foreign magazines and newspaper archives. They are known from cover pages full with images of women in revealing clothes and lingerie, with eyes covered with black strips. Most of the images used lacked a background or context, and so they appeared as collages made by the publications’ production teams. The result was imbalanced and tilted photographs along with the text’s words wrapped around the silhouettes and movements of the body – multiple images with different hand gestures that created the feeling of shame, guilt ,and regret. Pictures of porn stars were frequently used with stories or events occurring in upper Egypt or in Cairo’s neighborhoods; they were framed as the accused.

But what, then, is the use of these images if their eroticism is dulled by hiding the eyes and covering the faces? Who has ownership over these images and how is the archive created and reused in this way? And the most pertinent question to the project is: to what degree are these images tied to the identities of those pictured? There are no definite answers; only through observation and connecting visuals can one assume that the eroticism of the images fulfils the readers’ inner sexual desire, and serves as a punishment for her indecent act by covering the eyes. It is a tickling of paradoxical and conflicting emotions.

The language used in the written news is evidence of the industry’s misogyny and its domination over women’s representation in images. We sometimes find news pieces where a woman is not the main drive or center of the news yet the piece is accompanied with a portrait of a woman whose eyes are covered with a black strip. Why has the editor decided that you must read the piece and see the picture of the victim while the perpetrator of the crime, a man, is hidden?

The language of the piece is erotic, which is of course the main point of the newspaper, still the use of certain terms drives the judgement and hatred of the female element in the piece: »Citizen catches wife in the arms of her lover,« as if the excitement in the piece comes from the supposed power in catching a woman, the element of surprise and strength of breaking in on her. Yet if we reverse the event’s perspective, the title changes to »Citizen accused of adultery/harassment/assault,« indicating more without giving much detail. This results in the production of language that indicates women’s weak position and her disempowerment.

»The language used in the written news is evidence of the industry’s misogyny and its domination over women’s representation in images.«

The archive and its reproduction and reappropriation is difficult to achieve in Egypt. There is a grave neglect in archiving; an absence of transparency and authoritarianism of the owner along with a complete infringement on copyright. Many pictures seem as though they were cropped from magazines, which have now been replaced by social media. This changed dramatically after the mass circulation of the internet and the availability of cameras and their ease of use. Most of these newspapers have gone digital, while the images and their quality and pairing with the written text have changed. The interaction with the archive and the issue of copyrights has gotten worse. With the spread of smartphones and easy to use cameras now carried by the police who document arrests themselves, it is no longer necessary to work with professional photographers. This is the irony that leads to the presence of different copies of a picture. With a little searching you can find the same news on a number of sites that use completely different images; some with a black strip, some without. Or even worse, by using the same image with a caption saying »archival photo.«

This time, the images do not appear as they have before; on the contrary, they severely lack the impression of the subject’s and story’s eroticism. There is something exciting in seeing low quality images; the poor quality gives the impression that they were taken in a hurry, maybe even in proximity to the event, adding credibility, again a tickling of conflicting sexual feelings. More frequently these images lack the basic elements of composition; an image of a group of women standing in the police office, where the edge of the desk and the furniture appear in low fluorescent lighting and few details. A few of the subjects are scared and crying. There is a constant disruption of the story’s sensuality, the picture therefore becomes just proof of the event. Again, it leaves you wondering about the use of this picture and the ethics of taking and publishing it.

You Cannot Censor the Icon

Speaking on the ubiquity of images; how would you delete an image that is digitally present? In April of this year, the news that Maspero (Egyptian National Television) censored a scene from the iconic Egyptian movie Amira is My Love, went viral on Egyptian newsfeeds and social media platforms. [7] The 43-year-old film is an Egyptian cinema classic and very famous for its ten-minute song dedicated to spring. Maspero’s reply gave no reason for the censorship and later complete denial of what was claimed. [8]

The censored scene is a 12-second scene of Amira, the main protagonist, being lifted up on the shoulders by a man, as part of a dancing show, while trying to catch a flying frisbee.
What’s ironic in this incident is that the film is present in multiple versions online on YouTube and other video platforms. Whether the rumor is true or not, which cannot be determined because of the vague status of the film’s copyright and Maspero’s lack of transparency, how would it affect the collective consciousness about the deleted image, Soad Hosny’s (Amira’s) iconic red dress, or about film production in the Egyptian art scene?

Was That Really You? neither denies the communicative possibilities of public photography in the world at the moment nor reaches the point at which all photographs are inherently deceptive. It is not obsessed with women’s bodies and covering them, but finds an explanation of the status of women in images and in real life in the process of re-looking into images, moving them between different contexts, and deconstructing their aesthetics. Part of the interest in women’s issues in the Arab world is the liberation of their photographic images from the burdens of outdated social traditions as well as the stereotypical representations coming from abroad.


Homage to Susan Sontag a painting by the American artist Mark Tansey from 1982. [9] The painting was dedicated to the American writer Susan Sontag after she wrote her book On Photography, one of the most important contemporary texts on photography and its philosophy in the modern era. The painting shows a woman in bed pointing a gun in the face of a man standing in front of her holding a camera pointed to her, both in ready positions holding their weapons. The painting leaves you wondering which one is violating the other, despite being in a bedroom.

  1. Jump Up Sagar Kolte: Uses of Photography, an essay by John Berger, https://koltesagar.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/uses-of-photography-an-essay-by-john-berger/
  2. Jump Up See Webopedia: Online Tech Dictionary
  3. Jump Up Iman Mersal: How to Mend: On Motherhood and its Ghosts, Kayfa ta, 2017, p. 50.
  4. Jump Up Ibid.
  5. Jump Up Jane Fonda: My Convoluted Journey to Feminism, March 2016, https://www.lennyletter.com/story/jane-fonda-my-convoluted-journey-to-feminism
  6. Jump Up Mersal: pp. 41–42.
  7. Jump Up See https://arabic.rt.com/culture/937915-حذف-مشهد-أغنية-الدنيا-ربيع-بعد-43-عاما/
  8. Jump Up See https://arabic.sputniknews.com/mosaic/201804121031550134-حقيقة-حذف-مشهد-سعاد-حسني-من-أشهر-أغنيات-شم-النسيم/
  9. Jump Up See http://www.artnet.com/artists/mark-tansey/on-photography-homage-to-susan-sontag-Xbq9evbJPOWe6oM0nGDCyg2