Numbers actually weren’t his thing. He also didn’t like sitting at a desk. That was during the days when Sherif Sonbol worked as an insurance underwriter for some years, after studying commerce at Cairo University and in London, and before changing careers.
Today Sonbol is a veteran photographer at Al Ahram and head of the photography section at the Cairo Opera House. He was also worked on various AUC Press publications, including Egyptian Palaces, The Churches of Egypt, Mulid!, and the forthcoming The Nile Cruise: An Illustrated Journey, which will be available end of May.
Looking back on the patience, coordination, and organization needed to complete the illustrations for The Churches of Egypt, Sonbol says: “All the benches inside the churches needed to be cleared out, we could only shoot with the doors open in order to benefit from the daylight, and we had to find ways to deal with the loads of tourists visiting the sites.”
He would call himself an impulsive photographer. “If I see a shot I like, I always take it, I don’t think twice,” he says. Only after he’s taken the initial shot does he then try to improve it.
Some shots, as for The Churches of Egypt, require much preparation. “It depends on what I am photographing,” he says. “Sometimes a shot could take all day to set up.”
Gaining access to the churches, even with the necessary permits and paperwork, was also not always straightforward. “The guards at the sites are simple people from Upper Egypt, good Christians looking for jobs, but they can’t read. And when I showed up, with my beard, they would not want to let me into the sites thinking, I was perhaps a fanatic Muslim,” explains Sonbol, smiling his way through a scenario he seems familiar with.
“A good shot is one that grabs your attention,” says Sonbol. On the cover of his forthcoming book, The Nile Cruise, dedicated to Giovanna Montalbetti, is the temple of Philae. The bright fuchsia of the blooming bougainvillaea reflect in the Nile, wrinkled slightly by small ripples in the waters. “Your eye usually gravitates toward the brightest part of the photograph,” he adds pointing at the luminosity of the floral vines on the book cover.
He insists that this book would not have been possible without the relentless assistance and coordination of Montalbetti, who not only frequently stopped the flow of tourists for the moment of a photograph but also scouted the best shooting locations at the various sites. "She is the main character in this book," he explains, stressing the big difference it made to have such a reliable and efficient assistant working with hm.
“Light is everything,” he continues, noting that there are different types of ‘good’ light that a photographer can work with: hard light, back light, side light, soft light, harsh light, and window light. “Flat light is what you don’t want because you don’t see shadows or depth,” he says.
“Architecture is very hard to shoot,” explains Sonbol. “Finding the right angle, getting the lines straight so that the building you are photographing does not look like it is falling…,” he adds, explaining that sometimes he carries around a level that he places on his camera.
The Nile Cruise, which was six years in the making, was his book idea. “You cannot do a Nile cruise without this book because it has secret places,” explains Sonbol. “It shows carvings and angles that are in no other books,” he adds, describing a photograph of a detail from the Ramesseum temple, on the West bank, showing the hand of God drawing images with a brush.
Sonbol then alludes to another example, referring to the Column Hall in Karnak: “My picture of it in this book is the only one that can show the actual size, the volume, the dimensions of the entire hall."
Most of the photographs for this book were shot in the middle of summer, in the heat of the day. “The stone carvings on the walls of the temples were shot when the sun fell from right above, when the light is only good for half an hour, but this is what makes them stand out in the photographs.”
It also meant photographing objects protected behind dirty glass reflections and bracing bus loads of tourists at some of the sites. “Some of the tombs have very narrow halls, lots of visitors, and no light,” explains Sonbol, who used very slow film, adding further complication to the arleady difficult conditions.
“This is an art book, not a history book. Books made by normal people might be more appreciated by tourists than books make by Egyptologists,” adds Sonbol, stressing that he also does not want to mislead the visitor with his photographs.
“I never deliver an image that doesn’t actually exist and I don’t enhance the color of my photographs very much, so that they look quite close to the real thing.”
After all his years of experience, Sonbol is careful in talking about his work. “I never ever felt that I am a good photographer,” he says. Yet his photographs have been exhibited on multiple occasions, including at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and in New York, at Lincoln Center, the New York Times praising his "brilliant" photography in a review.
He also does not believe much in studying other photographers’ work. “You end up imitating them and it interferes with you creating your own style,” he says.
When asked why he cares about photography, he answers with his characteristic wry humor: “It is easy. You push a button.” But on a more serious note, he then adds: “If I wasn’t doing this work, I would have died a long time ago.”