Interview with Salon du Festival Artist Laura Jean Zito
Laura Jean Zito is a photographer living in Philadelphia. She spent her childhood living in various places. Born in Cincinnati, she lived in Idaho, Syracuse, the Hague in Holland, and Philadelphia, and later in Cambridge, Manhattan and Ireland.
Laura got a Brownie camera when she was a young girl and she’s been taking pictures ever since. She writes, “The need for connection to other people engages me directly in the dialogue and dance of photography, even with total strangers, forming memorable experiences for both of us.”
With her photographs of the Sinai Bedouin, she “hope(s) to bring to a wider consciousness the humanity of individuals whose lives are spent so far away that Western society is unaware and unconcerned with them, so that a feeling of empathy can manifest by revealing their individual personalities.”
How did you decide to focus on the Sinai Bedouin?
While I’ll go in to more detail during the Festival, suffice it to say here that the stark desert appears bare and sparse upon first glimpse, and the monotone robes of its native dwellers also present a seeming sameness that might appear tedious. Just as under the Red Sea’s blanket of turquoise swim the world’s largest quantity of species of brightly colored tropical fish, under those robes a myriad of personalities are to be revealed with a little unraveling. Learn to speak the language and a huge difference is made in accomplishing this.
There was nothing in the desert at the time I was there but a small apartment complex called Ofira, now called Sharm-el-Sheikh or Sharem, a kibbutz in Dizhahav, now called Dahab, and a moshav in Neviot , now called Nueba. I had the opportunity to dive up and down the coast in all these spots. I thought photographing the Bedouin the perfect choice of a mission that would enable me to stay there as long as I could.
What surprised you most about the Bedouin?
The Bedouin have a great sense of humour, usually of the ribald sort. I always thought of them as the “hippy” Arabs because they are very laid back, do not like commotion of any sort, are into just relaxing and enjoying the beauty of nature, and do not appear to enjoy any sort of conflict.
What initially drew you to First Person Arts?
Being Irish, I have always been interested in story-telling. I hail from a family of writers. My father wrote a book about public speaking, called “Unaccustomed As I Am,” and my brother wrote the movie “Breakin’” that put breakdancing, and a lot of actors like Ice T and Jean Claude Van Damme, in the mainstream. I am a little shy, but telling one’s story on a stage is easier than getting up in a small club because you can hardly see the audience in the dark.
What do you hope to accomplish by sharing the stories of these people?
I would like to continue my efforts toward building a Museum of Bedouin Culture in Sinai. I have already started working with one Bedouin toward this end. He is storing my framed photos over there until he can get the building built. It’s right in between two hotels so it should have a nice traffic flow of tourists. I hope to interest some people to travel to Sinai on safari with me. I have a brochure with the details available. As I know so many Bedouin there, one can have a very specialized tour that wouldn’t be available to a tourist without any connections. Preparing the stories is also a great help toward finishing the coffeetable photobook I am writing.
Tell me something surprising about yourself.
Because I could see the Bedouin culture was disappearing rapidly, and that I only had so much time left to photograph them before Egyptian influences I had seen in El Areesh would change them forever, I decided to devote my time to fulfilling that quest. Despite winning many prizes for my photos, I found it almost impossible to get any grant money, so I determined to just go and do it without money. I landed several times in the airport in Sharm-el-Sheikh with only enough money to pay for my visa, and walked out of the airport penniless. The Bedouin always gave me a lift to where I was going, fixed me up with some food and bought me some film. I was able to sell prints to tourists when I got to Dahab, and fund my photo trips that way. I had so many adventures along the way, I remember kissing the ground many times and saying, “Thank you, God!”