It's Time to Move

Text and illustrations by Peter Wieben
Photographs by Dominic Nahr
Produced by Ying Ang, Renegade Media Lab, 2013

Reviewed by Leo Hsu

Issue 61

We never learn how it is that photojournalist Dominic Nahr ends up on American-expatriate-in-Cairo Peter Wieben’s doorstep, but in It’s Time To Move, a collaboration between the two, Wieben describes, through often fantastical descriptions, the events in the city in the days following Nahr’s arrival. The book sets Wieben’s personal experiences against the story that Nahr has come to tell; the two narratives meet around the idea of risk. Nahr is in Cairo to cover the protests that began on January 25, 2011, and Wieben and his wife host the photographer (and eventually, a household-full of his colleagues) in their apartment for several days as the photographers navigate the city, reporting on the protests in Tahrir Square that would lead to Mubarak’s resignation.

This little book, produced originally as an artist’s book and available now as a limited edition paperback, juxtaposes Wieben’s writing and illustrations with Nahr’s photographs, synthesized by Elana Schlenker’s design. The book crosses genres: Wieben’s writing is reminiscent of the stories of Argentine writer Julio Cortazar, in which fantastic personal perceptions speak to larger social and political realities, while Nahr’s photographs are drawn from the visual report that he produced on assignment for TIME magazine. For the most part, Wieben’s story is about himself, and about Nahr, and Nahr’s story is about Egypt. The success of It’s Time To Move, which deserves a larger audience than this 250 copy run will allow, is in the way that this unlikely pairing allows each author’s works to clarify the other’s even as their goals are different. The two engagements intersect while moving in different directions.

At the center of It’s Time To Move is Peter Wieben’s account of the growing protests and the atmosphere of hope and apprehension surrounding them. This mood touches everything, including his street and apartment building. Wieben describes the fear of surveillance and thugs, which led to the formation of neighborhood watch groups; he describes tiny people assembled around the ashtray on a wicker table, robots delivering the television news and giant beasts appearing in the streets. Wieben also describes, using terrific devices that I will not spoil here, Nahr’s attempt to produce an image that would be suitable for the cover of a news magazine and the physical transformations that Nahr’s work effects on his own body. Through this fantastical mode Wieben offers apt and productive metaphors for both the larger events and for his own anxieties and fears. His watercolors and drawings give visual form to some of his inventions.

Wieben’s writing is characterized by a matter-of-factness that sometimes comes across as self-conscious and forced, especially when he glosses over information in a way that can only beg questions (“I don’t know why I went to Egypt, but that is what I did. I went on the computer, and I chose a flight. Cairo was far away…”). This makes it difficult to get a feel for his own stakes in the unfolding events, though by the book’s end these become more clear. The use of his lowercase handwriting suggests a similar performance of understated simplicity; his handwritten text- is it paint? - on the back of the book, a blurb, reads: “something happened in egypt called a revolution this is a Book about that.[sic]”. I came to understand that Wieben was referencing his personal revolution, but the blurb nonetheless set the tone in a way that was distracting, and that felt strained, undermining the strengths of his writing. His story is, however, ultimately effective, owing to his imaginativeness and his willingness to lay himself bare emotionally.

A tension builds in Wieben’s telling that is eventually relieved by the presentation of Dominic Nahr’s photographs, which describe the crowds gathered in and around Tahrir Square. These pictures appear all in a group without captions; after reading about Nahr coming and going over several days, while Wieben mostly stays in, we finally we see what Nahr has been doing. It’s cathartic and suddenly the terms by which we have been reading shift completely. We have come to know Wieben as both a narrator and as a character in his first person account, but now we are presented with Nahr’s completely different voice. With Nahr’s photographs the protests suddenly take on a feeling of urgency apart from Wieben’s telling of them; it’s both unsettling and exciting, but most significantly, Cairo is suddenly made visible.

In Nahr’s pictures the days and nights seem endless, and the motion and noise are ceaseless. The images are usually made with a wide lens, showing substantial context. Throughout, individual faces emerge from often enormous crowds. Figures appear and disappear in the smoke and haze; protesters emerge, shouting, waving their arms. Nights are lit by the orange light of streetlamps and of fire. A man lays bloodied on the ground, crowds throw stones, and buildings burn. The mood is of uncertainty, precariousness and danger.

It’s Time To Move explores the relationship between what is observed and what is perceived, where Peter Wieben’s attempt to find a narrative for his experience of the revolution crosses paths with Dominic Nahr’s efforts to create a narrative about those events for an international media audience. We don’t learn very much about the history and context of the revolution, or the perspective of any Egyptians; the book, finding closure around personal, and not political changes, seems strangely incurious about what will happen to Egypt, and to Cairenes, after the events of these early days. But we do feel how an emotional response to an event, for any witness, is made meaningful in relation to that person’s own history and experiences.

For a book about fear, the book is fearless in establishing its own terms. The atmosphere of both political and personal change are imbued with risk and its accompanying senses of apprehension and possibility. These uncertainties continue to play out in Egypt, three years later. The value of this book is in its illustration of the notion that without risk there is no change, and that is no small thing.

You can purchase the book here.

Leo Hsu is a photographer, writer and photography instructor, based in Pittsburgh, PA. Contact Leo here.

Illustrations © Peter Wieben Photographs © Dominic Nahr