Impressionistic photography: Laura El-Tantawy's WaterAid commission

The British-Egyptian documentary photographer discusses the creative techniques she uses to visualise sensitive stories such as Carrying Life.
A still from a video showing a woman in side profile, her face partially obscured by shadows, shot by Laura El-Tantawy for her series Carrying Life: Motherhood and Water in Malawi.

Laura El-Tantawy was commissioned by WaterAid to explore the emotional and physical burden on women giving birth in health centres with no access to clean water, decent toilets or good hygiene. The resulting series, Carrying Life: Motherhood and Water in Malawi, includes moving images, sound recordings and interviews with the women. © Laura El-Tantawy

How do you photograph a feeling? An obvious answer might be that you take a picture of someone who is gripped by that feeling, focusing on the details of their facial expressions and body language – the creases by their eyes when they smile, the tension in their clasped hands. But this isn't always the most ethical – or the most effective – approach. "When you're photographing sensitive issues, you don't want to take a picture of someone crying, because it's intrusive and maybe, in that moment, you'd rather be consoling them than picking up your camera," says documentary photographer and Canon Ambassador Laura El-Tantawy. "Then how do you bring that moment they shared with you into an image in another way?"

For Laura, "photography is about intimacy," and her 2023 series for WaterAid and the Wimbledon Foundation, Carrying Life: Motherhood and Water in Malawi, is not short on emotion. International NGO WaterAid commissioned her to make a series of images of women and babies in Malawi's Ntchisi district, an area affected by poor sanitation, lack of hygiene and inadequate access to clean water. WaterAid has a track record of working with photographers who have a strong visual approach, previously commissioning Ethiopian photographer and artist Aïda Muluneh to create a project about water scarcity and the impact it has on women in Africa.

Silhouetted trees stand against a blue sky, shot on a Canon EOS R5 by Laura El-Tantawy for her series Carrying Life: Motherhood and Water in Malawi.

Traditional photography rules don't dominate here. "You learn these rules, and then you either break them or you follow them. You decide how you want to engage with them," says Laura. "I think the rules don't really matter. I make my own rules." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 105mm, 1/2000 sec, f/4 and ISO 200. © Laura El-Tantawy

 A woman peaks through a blue hospital curtain, captured on a Canon EOS R5 by Laura El-Tantawy for her series Carrying Life: Motherhood and Water in Malawi.

Colour plays a big role in Laura's impressionistic photography. This photograph shows Nima Zimba, 20, inside the delivery ward at Ntchisi Health Facility after she delivered her baby. Laura photographed her through the blue hospital curtain. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 105mm, 1/60 sec, f/11 and ISO 500. © Laura El-Tantawy

Laura's still images and videos – first displayed in an outdoor exhibition on lightboxes and digital screens on the banks of the River Thames in London to celebrate International Women's Day 2023 – observe the situation in poetic ways. Her portraits of women, taken in low light with her Canon EOS R5, are delicately lit, some almost entirely hidden in darkness except for pockets of light subtly illuminating faces and bodies in profile. In other shots, she focuses on rows of brightly coloured buckets or turns her lens to the landscape. Using a variety of techniques including soft focus and intentional motion blur, she creates images so impressionistic that some are almost abstract – far from the traditional conventions of observational documentary.

For Laura, storytelling isn't simply about representing a situation in the most straightforward way, but about portraying an emotional experience. "That's where it begins and ends for me," she says. "I'm also photographing my own sense of vulnerability, in a way. It's quite complex."

A blurry shot of women in Tahrir Square waving Egyptian flags during the Egyptian revolution of 2011, taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III by Laura El-Tantawy for her project In the Shadow of the Pyramids.

Motion blur creates a mesmerising effect in this image of women in Tahrir Square waving flags during the Egyptian revolution of 2011, from Laura's project In the Shadow of the Pyramids. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 105mm, 0.3 sec, f/4 and ISO 1600. © Laura El-Tantawy

Honing an impressionistic photography style

Laura has spent almost two decades fine-tuning this approach. After graduating with a degree in journalism and political science from the University of Georgia, USA, she began her career as a regional news photographer. It was only when she moved to Egypt, her parents' homeland, that she began to develop a visual language that she felt was more authentic to the situations she was photographing than a conventional documentary approach. It took time to refine and gain confidence in her own style through long-term self-initiated projects including In the Shadow of the Pyramids (2005-14), The Veil (2008-2012) and An Immortal River (2013-present).

"I think being consistent and not really having to produce work for particular clients, but taking pictures for myself, allowed me the freedom to explore," she says. "And from there I began to feel that this is how I perceive the world and how I react to visuals."

To this end, her EOS R5 is invaluable. "The camera is a tool," she says, which enables her to do what she needs to do instinctively. "It's easy to use. It's a fast camera and deals with different light situations better than any camera I've had before." That, added to the crisp image quality of Canon RF lenses, was essential in representing the vivid colours that Laura features throughout her work.

"Malawi is nicknamed 'the warm heart of Africa' and I was responding to that warmth, that sort of earthy tone you're surrounded by from the minute you land, in the architecture, everywhere," says Laura. "But the warm palette was consistent with the way I see the world, as well as what was happening visually."

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 Silhouetted blurred trees stand against an orange sky at sunset, shot on a Canon EOS R5 by Laura El-Tantawy for her series Carrying Life: Motherhood and Water in Malawi.

Laura likes to shoot in the in-between hours of sunset, as in this image of blurred trees, shot on the road from the guardian shelter in Kangolwa Health Centre to Ntchisi centre, Malawi. Photographing out through a car window, as she often does, it's essential that her lenses and camera are fast to react. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 105mm, 1/20 sec, f/6.3 and ISO 400. © Laura El-Tantawy

A woman photographed in low light sits in the kitchen area at a guardian shelter in Malawi, taken on a Canon EOS R5 by Laura El-Tantawy for her series Carrying Life: Motherhood and Water in Malawi.

Portraits form the centrepiece of Laura's Carrying Life: Motherhood and Water in Malawi series. "For me, they were very important because that's where you make eye contact with the women," says Laura. Here Emilida Laison, 35, from the village of Masache, sits in the kitchen area at the guardian shelter in Kangolwa Health Centre. She is a guardian for her sister, who just had her baby. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 105mm, 1/2000 sec, f/4 and ISO 400. © Laura El-Tantawy

Carrying Life: Motherhood and Water in Malawi

In Malawi, WaterAid had pre-selected women for case studies, and Laura sat for a long time with these women while NGO staff interviewed them, accompanied by a psychologist who intervened to pause the interview or steer it in a different direction if necessary. This was something Laura believes was extremely beneficial, because some of the women had experienced profound trauma – seeing grandchildren die, for example.

"It is important that I hear them speak first," she explains. "I don't want to just arrive and say, 'Okay, let me take your picture.' That's too jarring, too intrusive. We don't want to harm anybody through this documentation."

Those interviews informed the images that Laura would then take. "To provide clean water for their households, these women have to walk at least three or four kilometres every single journey," she says. "And they might do that journey three times a day." Even so, talking to her subjects and making a connection with them, what she picked up on was not a sense of struggle but one of community and empowerment.

The reflection of trees is visible in a water bucket, shot on a Canon EOS R5 by Laura El-Tantawy for her series Carrying Life: Motherhood and Water in Malawi.

This reflection in a water bucket caught Laura's eye. "It just looked like an interesting image," she says, and it is an example of how she sought to visualise water in different ways. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 105mm, 1/1250 sec, f/4 and ISO 200. © Laura El-Tantawy

A close-up shot of droplets on a woman's face, taken on a Canon EOS R5 by Laura El-Tantawy for her series Carrying Life: Motherhood and Water in Malawi.

Laura was drawn to the droplets on women's faces because they could be read in multiple ways. "They could look like sweat; they could look like tears," she says. "That expresses the idea of how dependent people are on water and blurs the line of what is happening in the image." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/5 and ISO 250. © Laura El-Tantawy

In the past, photography and video for NGOs was accused of dehumanising subjects by portraying their suffering in extreme or insensitive ways that presented them as helpless victims. Laura is conscious that there is a risk, too, in creating beautiful images like hers. "When you have a strong visual aesthetic, there is always a concern that people see the colours, the movement, the light, but don't see anything beyond that, because these things are very seductive," she says. "It is a dangerous territory. And it's really important to understand that the aesthetics in my images can potentially take over."

It is a continual process of negotiation to make sure the story isn't lost. "Written narratives are also really important in the work that I do because they contextualise," she adds. "With the WaterAid commission, that was the words of the women themselves, talking about their experiences."

By showing less in each frame, Laura felt she could say more. "I would choose certain moments that really stood out for me," she explains. "So I would see these little drops of water that would splash on women's hands when they were pumping water into their buckets or trickle down their foreheads when they carried the buckets. And these little details for me became very interesting."

Alongside these close-ups of droplets of water on women's faces are others showing the surface of water, the texture providing a visual echo between the two. The shadows of foliage reflected in a water bucket don't spell out the whole story, but they combine with other images to build a mood. In these instances, Laura's Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens proved its worth, delivering pin-sharp clarity when required.

A creative approach in the documentary genre

The past decade has seen a widening of what is considered documentary photography, with more photographers doing "personal work," says Laura, although she believes all photography is personal. "You're seeing more of a photographer's own voice in their images," she says.

"I don't know where that necessarily comes from," she continues. "Maybe it's because we're saturated with imagery, but it's also because we are all unique. If you put three photographers in the same room, they won't make the same images, because they have different perspectives. That unique style has become a signature in the photography world in the last few years. And I think that's exciting."

What really matters to her, though, is the people in her photographs. "There's a responsibility that comes with representing people's stories to an audience," she stresses. It's not a simple question of creating striking images that will make viewers stop for a moment as they scroll through social media – but to take that one step further. "This is what really excites me about photography, making images about these critical issues that hopefully will prompt people to want to do something. To change."

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Helping NGOs tell their stories

Many photographers would like to find more work with non-profit organisations, and Laura has advice on how to work for an NGO for anyone trying to break into this world.

First, "know what you have to offer to that NGO. Are you the right person to be doing that commission? Does it fit within your wider explorations and journey within photography?"

Next, do your research and get to know the NGO you're approaching. "Understand the general practices of that NGO," says Laura. "How do they function on the ground? What kind of guidelines do they have? Their responsibility is to a wider audience, including their project clients and people who might fund the projects. That adds an extra layer for you."

Finally, it's vital to communicate well in all your dealings with the organisation. "Be honest in your conversations," Laura urges. "If you're uncomfortable about something or if you have a suggestion about something, speak up. And make sure everything is written down so you can go back to it."

Rachel Segal Hamilton

Laura El-Tantawy's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Laura El-Tantawy's kitbag containing Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.


Canon EOS R5

Capture sensational 45MP photos at up to 20fps, or flick a switch for cinematic 12-bit 8K RAW video using the entire width of the camera's sensor. "It allows me to alternate easily between stills and video," says Laura.


Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM

A versatile, all-purpose 24-105mm lens with optical IS that keeps your images and movies steady. "This lens is the one I use the most. It is always on my camera," says Laura.

Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM

A portable, lightweight and versatile high-quality 35mm lens that's ideal for street, travel and close-up photography. Laura says this prime lens is "fast, with really sharp quality, like all my Canon lenses".

Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM

This high-performance f/2.8 telephoto zoom offers exceptional image quality in a compact body, designed to work in all conditions. Laura says this lens "reacts fast in situations where things are moving quickly".

Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM

This lens offers subtle telephoto perspective for flattering portraits, plus macro close focusing and 5-stop IS, for excellent versatility. "I shoot detail, so this was really useful," says Laura.

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