Amr Alfiky ‘18 has undertaken a bracing personal and professional odyssey in the past decade — from a Cairo-born, parent-pleasing medical student in Alexandria, Egypt to a rising photojournalist who has shot or edited now for the likes of the Associated Press, Time magazine, ABC, NPR, The New York Times, and now, National Geographic where he is a photography resident.
After co-founding a notable visual-arts studio, Janaklees for Visual Arts in Egypt, he moved to the United States in 2014 due to the ongoing crackdown on activists and journalists in his native country. He has documented the lives of his fellow Egyptian immigrants and the Muslim American experience.
In a recent conversation with Associate Dean Andrew Mendelson, who met him at a photography festival in Charlottesville, VA in 2016 and was struck by his potential, Alfiky, 31, also provided snapshots of his own life and its big changes.
Snapshot: A young Egyptian’s original plan
“In Egypt, your grades in high school actually decide what college you go to. I had really good grades. So, my parents [said], ‘You have to be a surgeon,’ and I was like, ‘OK, that’s going to make you happy. I’ll just get the degree and then I’ll just do whatever I want.’”
Snapshot: Swept up in protest, realizing the power of photojournalism
“During the Egyptian revolution in 2011, I was still a medical student. I’m studying medicine in Alexandria, Egypt, and yeah, in January, I found myself in the front line of the clashes between the protesters and the police while working as a field medic. And that was when I was exposed for the first time to photojournalists and photojournalism … It was the first time I witnessed a a women’s march in Egypt. It was an important event that came after one of the women was caught by the military police and they tore her clothes apart and off her. My photo (right) shows one of the main streets in Alexandria: This was a huge march that extended for kilometers, and it was led by women. It was one of the first times when there were women chanting and men repeating after them. And for me, I think that was a big change in the internal dynamics of the protests in the streets and in the revolution [Egypt’s part of the Arab Spring]. I just snapped the photo because I thought it was important. I wasn’t aware [then] of photography as an aesthetic medium to document history. And it’s not a good photo, but it’s an important photo to me.”
Snapshot: Struggling but committed
Alfiky struggled to make ends meet when he got to the United States, and he was even homeless at one point. He worked as a delivery boy, took event photos, and couch surfed. Still, “some people don’t believe me when I say it, but there was something inside me pushing me forward. I didn’t know what it was. I still don’t know what. But — and it might sound weird or crazy — it still exists. I still hear that voice inside me ‘You’ve got to keep going forward.’ ”
Snapshot: Fortune smiles, important contacts
Alfiky got a break, as friends helped him get his photos seen — on his Instagram account! — by prominent photo editors and photographers, including James Estrin, a staff photographer and reporter for The New York Times. He is a Newmark J-School adjunct and was a co-founder and co-editor of The Times’ photography blog, Lens. Alfiky had no clue who Estrin was.
“I was like, ‘What is Lens blog?’ and ‘Who is that guy [Estrin]?’ When we met, he said to me, ‘Everyone is telling me about your work.’ [When he asks to see my photos,] I take out my phone. And he says, in that distinctive Estrin voice, ‘You’re going to show me your photos on your phone?!’ I said ‘That’s all I have man, that’s all I have …’ He looks at the photos and asks me one question: ‘Were these photos published before?’ And I say, ‘Published? What do you mean?’ He says ‘Follow me. And we go up to The New York Times building. I was so overwhelmed. I’m in the middle of The New York Times newsroom. Wow, that’s wild. And then we look at the photos together and he decides to run the photos, and the story ran in October 2016.”
Snapshot: A wish fulfilled — the chance to improve with formal education at the Newmark J-School
“I got my first assignment from Time magazine in January 2017 covering the [Trump Administration’s] travel ban [on Muslims]. Two months later I got my acceptance letter into CUNY — which was a big deal for me, because I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. I also didn’t have money, didn’t have anything. And [the graduate school] just opened its doors for me and it became home, basically. They gave me a scholarship. And I remember when I got the acceptance letter via email. I was walking to work. I was working as a coffee vendor. And it was raining. I read the email. I didn’t know if my face was wet because of the rain or because of my tears. I was crying and smiling at the same time. And then I called my family and I told my parents that I just made history: I got accepted into a master’s program without a bachelor’s degree and money.”