The story behind Egyptian photographer’s award-winning image

Photographer Mohamed Abd al-Gawwad was taking photos around Fatimah al-Nabawiya’s moulid in the area of Al-Batiniya in Old Cairo, when he spotted a folk band.

He approached them and exchanged contacts for a future potential photo story, but when they started playing, something else caught his eye.

“This woman moved into the frame and started dancing,” he recalls, “I started taking pictures of her without asking and she saw the camera and continued dancing.

“She didn’t care,” he says, “she didn’t even ask to see the photos after, she just continued dancing.”

Abd al-Gawwad’s photo was selected for first place in UNESCO’s Unite for Heritage global competition late last month, out of over 10,000 entries from all over the world.

The photograph, taken in February 2015, was first published as part of a photo story on Mada Masr’s Panorama, titled, “Ancient moulids face modern pressures.”

Abd al-Gawwad selected this image from over 70 shots he took of the same woman.

“I kept taking photos of her until I felt like I had what I wanted,” he says.

As is palpable in the photo, the woman’s dancing was harmonious and serene, in direct contrast with the loud, bustling music that was playing around her, according to Abd al-Gawwad.

“You could place this photo against a background of slow music and it would still fit,” he says.

The photographer explains that what drew him to this woman was her natural performance, as opposed to others who “put on a show,” and exaggerate their moves for the camera.

Unite for Heritage is a global movement launched by UNESCO to counter what it deems “unprecedented recent attacks on heritage.” It aims to celebrate and safeguard cultural heritage and diversity around the world, calling on people to stand up against extremism and radicalization by celebrating places, objects and cultural traditions.

Abd al-Gawwad says he expected other photographers to submit photos of ancient sites that have been “left behind,” representing heritage in a more physical sense. His interest is more in “living heritage,” as embodied in people themselves.

“It is very easy for people who are not from here to see the Nile or the pyramids, but this is something they might not necessarily ever get to see. It is difficult to go to a place like this and see a woman dancing with a man in the background playing an instrument,” he says.

When announcing the award, UNESCO said the emotion on the face of the woman dancing, as others look on, “showcases the powerful role of heritage in the lives of local communities.”

While Abd al-Gawwad is grateful for the acknowledgment he received through winning this competition, he sees such awards as a double-edged sword. “Now I’m worried that my next photo project is not going to be on par,” he says, adding, “this is why I’m more careful now and am taking it slowly, because when I produce something it has to be good.”

The 27-year-old photographer previously received an award from the European Union for a photo of a child in the informal area of Duweiqa, as well as the Hani Darwish award for a photo story on a fire in Bulaq.

Abd al-Gawwad is an accountant and content creator. He has worked as a freelance photographer for several local publications and attended a number of photography training workshops.


You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism