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Tahrir Square, 9:10 PM on Feb. 11, 2011. (Peter Turnley/Corbis)

Getting pictures for history in Tahrir Square

SHOWCASE | February 16, 2011

Photographer Peter Turnley, a 2001 Nieman Fellow, has covered many of the great world events of the past 30 years. Here is how he came to be in Cairo on Feb. 11th, along with more than 40 pictures he took that will tell the story of that day for a long time.

By Peter Turnley

(See photos below)

After following daily from afar the uprising in Egypt that started on Jan. 25th, I decided on Wednesday, Feb. 9th, to board a plane for Cairo. I had witnessed and photographed many of the important revolutions and moments of geo-political change of the past thirty years: the fall of Berlin Wall; the Velvet Revolution in Prague; the overthrow of Ceausescu in Romania; the end of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union; the Tiananmen Square uprising and military crackdown in China, to name a few. I was well aware of the potential dangers for journalists covering this story. I was also so inspired by the wonderful and courageous photographs made by many of my colleagues and comrades that were already in Cairo risking their lives to help us perceive and feel the realities of this tumultuous uprising.

As Friday, Feb. 11th's day of prayer was approaching, my instincts told me that a determinant moment of this revolution was about to take place. I couldn’t know which way events and the course of history would turn-but I was quite sure that one way or the other, the hundreds of thousands of people in Tahrir Square in Cairo, and all over Egypt, had taken the regime of Hosni Mubarak, and the trajectory of history of the Middle East-to a place where things would never be the same as before. I needed to move very quickly.

My flight from New York transited through Paris, before departing for Cairo via Beirut. On Thursday evening, in the Paris airport, I came across a small group of French correspondents I knew from many previous stories around the world. As we waited to board our flight, we watched as a news bulletin reported that Hosni Mubarak, to everyone’s surprise, had made a nationally televised announcement refusing to step down. Suddenly all of us, many with years of experience covering war and conflict, had a sinking feeling that we were embarking on a trip to witness a moment that could involve a serious clash between the determined protestors and the Egyptian military. We knew that there might be an imposition by the military of martial law. We also assumed that the conditions we were flying into, judging from working experiences encountered in previous days by many of our comrades already in Egypt, were likely to be very dicey for us. This sudden turn of mood would be only of many during the next historic 48 hours in the fall of Hosni Mubarak and the revolution in Egypt.

I knew that many of my colleagues arriving in previous days at the Cairo airport had had their cameras bodies and lens confiscated by Egyptian authorities. During the several hour layover in Paris, I concealed camera equipment all over my luggage -- camera bodies were wrapped in bundles of underwear and lenses were stuffed in socks. If I was going to be checked for camera equipment on arrival, someone was going to have to make a determined effort to find my gear. My sense of purpose was now singularly focused: the only thing that could justify making this trip would be to succeed in making photographs of this moment in history for others to see. I purposely had put only one old body and lens in a very visible camera bag-hoping this would be what was taken. Just before getting off the plane in Cairo I put a small newly acquired point and shoot in one my socks under my pants leg. When I went through Egyptian customs, I was one of the few lucky ones on my flight. None of my bags were checked and I rushed through immigration and grabbed a taxi to go directly to my hotel off the side of Tahrir Square. Several of the other correspondents on my flight were less fortunate and had all of their radio satellite transmitting equipment confiscated by Egyptian authorities.

I arrived on the outskirts of Tahrir Square around 10 AM on Friday, February 11. I had found a taxi dispatcher at the Cairo airport that spoke a little English and I commissioned him to accompany me into town to help me get through military check points with my bags to get to my hotel that was within the perimeter around Tahrir Square controlled by the military.

Landing in the right hotel, the City View, a tip from another photographer colleague already in Cairo, was another of the luckiest links in the chain of events of my next two days. After dropping my bags, I quickly went out into the immense crowd of Egyptian protestors and began to make photographs. As I looked into the faces and heard the singing and chanting of the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians that had poured into Tahrir Square that day, I felt a sense of peace and my heart felt lit up in a way I hadn’t felt for awhile. I was in the presence of a huge group of people who had decided that at whatever risk, it was time to rise up collectively and demand opportunity for a better and more just life. Their spirit, whatever the consequences of their actions would be, felt strongly contagious.

At 6 PM, Tahrir Square became almost silent as a voice was heard over a loud speaker. The standing vice president of Egypt, Vice President Omar Suleiman, announced from the Presidential Palace that Hosni Mubarak was no longer in power and the army council would run the country. A huge, almost deafening roar exploded from the thousands of people on Tahrir Square. I photographed people hugging and crying, many appearing almost in disbelief. Many men hugged me, a stranger, and kissed my forehead. Someone put their arm around my shoulder in the dark, and with an Arabic accent in English, whispered into my ear, “Yes, we can”.

[Editor's note: Peter Turnley was in the midst of taking these photos when CBS correspondent Lara Logan was so brutally attacked. See this Nieman Watchdog item.]

Rather than write more, it is time to follow a wise, time proven adage, “Show me, don’t tell me”. But first, I want to share a few final words that will stay with me that I heard from a woman, Hoda Elsadda, an Egyptian professor of Arabic Studies at Manchester University in England. We met as I took a bus to board a plane to leave Egypt Feb. 13th. I asked her what she thought of the situation in Egypt. She replied, “Wonderful”. I asked her if she wasn’t worried about the military? She replied, “Of course I am worried, we all are, but this is a moment of hope, and I haven’t felt hope for so many years. We need to take this step by step. But, for now, I insist on feeling happy!”

What follows is my visual diary of 48 hours witnessing a turning point in the revolution of Egypt and the history of the Middle East.

Photographs by Peter Turnley/Corbis

Here are Turnley's photos, titled "Turning Point of Revolution in Egypt." Click on them to see them larger and with captions, or to see a slideshow, click here. 

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