When Amanda Mustard was searching for a city to start her photojournalism career in, Cairo was one of many contenders. She had visited the Egyptian capital before the revolution and remembered it as an “electric” place. When she returned in 2012, she decided to stay. The combination of low rent and high excitement made her forget New York City quickly and enabled her to concentrate fully on her work. But after a year of constant news coverage (she moved shortly before the first anniversary of the Revolution) in a city that continues to move from crisis to crisis, the young photographer started searching for longer stories that would let her breathe and focus on storytelling. That’s when she started shooting pigeons.
Roads & Kingdoms: So what is it about pigeons that fascinates photographers?
Amanda Mustard: It seems to have become a cliché, but I believe it’s one of those things that’s really easy to get creative with. Pigeons are really, really compliant subjects. When I was in the US, pigeons really didn’t occupy much of my mind. But after moving to Cairo, I started noticing these comically tall sheds painted brightly on top of buildings. I wondered what they were for a long time, and became fascinated with the subculture. Now that I’ve dug into the community here, I’ve noticed that although it started in Egypt thousands of years ago, pigeon fanciers can be found all over the world.
R&K: What was your first experience with pigeons in Cairo?
AM: I spent a lot of time in Garbage City. I really liked it there. That’s where I first noticed the pigeon coops. After 10 or so trips, I finally asked someone if I could climb up one. My first trip up into a coop was quite nerve wrecking, I can’t say that it ever got easier after. Most of the coops are built by their owners, and would by no means meet any Western safety standards. They were quite shaky, and there would often be children scrambling up the ladders and jumping around. That’s really been the only challenge, getting myself up without my knees shaking.
R&K: Let’s back up a second—what’s Garbage City?
AM: Garbage City is an area in the outskirts of Cairo, nestled up against a cliff. The population is roughly 90% Coptic Christian, and it is the largest community of Zabaleen (garbage collectors) in Egypt. They collect rubbish from all over Cairo, transport it back either by donkey cart or truck, where it is hand-sorted into organic waste and recyclables. Although there are perpetual health concerns, the methods of the Zabaleen are one of the most effective in the world. Generally, they will recycle up to 80% of the waste that comes in, when most Western waste management services will recycle 20-30%. I, like the majority of photographers who come to Cairo, decided to check it out when I first moved here. I found a great NGO called APE (Association to Protect the Environment) there, which I was keen to get involved with. They provide a good school for the children in the community as well as health services, and train women to make fair-trade handicrafts from the recyclables.