Cairo is one of the most beautiful cities Spencer Platt has ever seen.
The stunning architecture and lovely light — combined with layers of ancient history — make it “sublime,” the 1989 Staples graduate says.
A staff photographer for Getty Images, he loved capturing images of ordinary Egyptians going about their daily lives.
But he was there, a couple of weeks ago, to cover the political upheaval. Between the demands of providing dramatic shots of riots and strife, and the suspicions and tensions of the people he met, Cairo was an extremely difficult assignment.
Then again, Spencer is used to that. It’s his job.
He photographed the Israel-Lebanon conflict of 2006 (and won the World Press Photo of the Year award for his shot of grinning Lebanese girls in front of a devastated building). He also worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia, Congo and Indonesia.
On September 11, 2001, Spencer was an eyewitness to the World Trade Center attacks. His harrowing photo of smoke and flames billowing from south tower seconds after the 2nd plane hit is one of the iconic images of that day.
“9/11 changed everything,” Spencer says. “It was such an awful event, but it led to a huge resurgence in my profession. We went from news organizations pulling back on coverage, to being dispatched all over the world.”
Three weeks ago, he arrived in Beirut to cover the flood of Syrian refugees. He had barely settled in when his editor called. The Egyptian government had announced a 48-hour deadline to the Muslim Brotherhood. Spencer took the 1st plane to Cairo.
Despite the city’s beauty, he says, the assignment was “not rewarding.” As he walked around the city he felt mistrust, tension and hostility.
“I try to show not just fighting, but daily life,” he says. “But it was incredibly difficult to shoot that. I got threats. I got in arguments. People kept asking me for my camera.”
Pro-Morsi people thought he — one of the few Westerners there — was a spy.
The temperature was 110 in the shade. Cairo, he says, was “really combustible.”
Spencer did not feel that his life was in danger. But he was involved in physical altercations. And at the end of each day, he says, “it was tough to feel upbeat.”
Democracy is “not alive and well” in Egypt, Spencer says. “I don’t see good things there.”
That saddens him. “The people are very, very good. They’re beautiful, with a lot to offer.”
He is proud of photos like those he took of an African family. He showed their hesitation and fear, as they watched protests from afar.
Working in a tense situation like Egypt is always a challenge, and not just because of danger. Spencer files a couple of times a day — 30 or 40 images — and editors want “headline” shots of protests. At the same time, Spencer tries to “go beyond that. I want to show the lives behind the demonstrations.”
And, he admits, “I’m just parachuting in. I have a rudimentary knowledge of Egyptian history and politics.”
Riding to the airport at dawn, for a 7 a.m. flight home, he watched with fascination as Cairo awoke.
“It was very poetic,” Spencer says. “The families, the light, the architecture — it’s the most beautiful city I’ve seen in the Middle East and North Africa. Despite the garbage and decay, it’s very picturesque.”
So what’s after Egypt?
“I just covered Anthony Weiner and the mayoral race,” Spencer laughs. “No comment.”
But whatever he shoots, his passport and satellite phone are always near.
“That’s the way I like it,” he says. “My specialty is breaking news. I’m sure something else will emerge — unfortunately — in the near future.”