The majority of these portraits are thanks to Moustafa and Mohamad Hassan who raise some amazingly beautiful birds at Venus Loft. Their knowledge and collection have really helped me understand the current state of the hobby in Egypt.
I created the portrait series as an abnormal story that works without much text. My idea was to photograph something so unusual, yet so familiar that it makes us stop, think, and enjoy the beauty and humanity in these animals. There’s no overt controversy, or issue about them but, when I look at them, I start thinking about stereotypes. Each pigeon is a stereotype in western culture, but these birds are also a novel piece of culture from the middle east.
I used to give credence to the axiom that “pigeons are no more than rats with wings” until I researched the rooftop pigeon fanciers of Cairo. I talked my way up to one of the ubiquitous wood slat roosts that are visible across the city and have learned that their obsession reaches across the region, lasts for generations, and has created some amazing birds.
I see the narrative of the story following these eccentric hobbyists that pour hours each day into feeding, breeding, raising, and loving these amazing birds. Though I shot it in Egypt I keep hearing about the hobby across the Middle East. Historically each country or region would have it’s special pigeon breed and everyone would focus on improving their bird against their local neighbor’s bird. In the pre-internet age the elders of the community would pass their knowledge and finest specimens directly on to their younger neighbors, pigeon markets were the place to browse and socialize, but in the last 10 years a major shift has come with the internet. Pigeons are traded across borders, knowledge is shared on internet forums, images of their finest birds are posted on facebook. The birds are no longer geographically restricted as the finest specimens of Birmingham Rollers, Baghdadis, Turkish Tumblers, Iranian High Flyers, and Egyptian Swifts can be found in Australia, US, Europe, Saudi, and Kuwait.
There are a few interesting characters that the story can be built around. Two brothers that have been raising pigeons since the early 90′s. One focuses on racing pigeons, the other one focuses on the fancy pigeons. In the day they have normal office jobs, but they spend their evenings together on the roof and are some of the best in the Egypt. They went to one of the largest fancy pigeon competitions in Kuwait last year and won their division. There is also a very religious man who is the leader of the pigeon market and has some truly unique specimens. He trades between all the high quality breeders, scooting around Cairo on his Vespa. There are many others that might also be interesting.
I’ve gotten a bit carried away with the research and can write much more detail about what I’ve seen and read and the logistics but I’d like the feedback and ideas of editors and pigeon fanciers. One of my favorite tidbits is this 1883 New York Times Article about a Pigeon Village in Egypt. To see the scale of this hobby take a gander at Wikipedia’s list of pigeon breads. To see a bit of the history zoom out and look at the engravings in this google eBook. Just to make these bird portraits political I searched for similar fancy pigeons in Israel, this is what I found.